Practicing Gratitude even when it's Difficult

December 3, 2019

As the seasons change, the weather turns colder and leaves fall softly to the ground, there is a sense of turning in for the season. Animals hibernate, city parks slowly go to sleep for the winter, and the pace of life slows down. Winter is a season of settling in and resting, right? 

If you work at a church, this isn’t quite your rhythm. 

With the rush to kick off the fall season in your rear-view mirror, you’ve come to realize how quickly Christmas and the new year are approaching. We’ve all noticed how the holidays have expanded to consume a larger and larger portion of the calendar. And for pastors, ministry leaders and church communicators, you feel the pressure of the season. Plan the Advent series, schedule extra rehearsals for the band or choir, attend to the “fun new ideas” that come up at the last minute, be ready for emergencies during double the normal number of services and get ready for the New Year series about starting fresh! (I'm kind of tired just typing all of that!) 

Before you go any deeper into the frenzy, I hope we can pause for a few minutes to practice something vitally important. 

I recently saw a church that was hosting an interactive event called, “Practicing Gratitude Without Pretending.” I don’t know what it entailed, but I love the title and the concept. They seem to be saying, “You can be grateful for what is while also acknowledging what isn’t.” 

The reality, for most of us anyway, is that there is hardship, pain, frustration and seasons of feeling stuck. “Rejoice always!” is the accusing little voice in the back of my head, usually when I'm feeling at my worst. (Note to self and maybe you, too: if it’s an accusing voice, it’s not God’s voice). So the idea of having to pretend I’m grateful hits closer to home than I’d like to admit. 

I can recall a specific season in recent years where I was feeling discouraged and a little hopeless. Trying to process what I was thinking and feeling, I wrote down, “It doesn’t seem honest to just be positive, to not acknowledge the pain and the missing things.”

This is the tension I feel when things are hard or overwhelming–I want to be grateful, to be present at this moment and to see the possibility, but I also have valid feelings of disappointment, confusion and even hurt at times. How do we bridge the gap between the desire and our experience? 

Sometimes hard seasons seem to come out of nowhere. Other times we can see them coming a mile away. What I’m learning right now is that, no matter the season, practicing gratitude and feeling grateful aren’t necessarily the same thing. I can practice gratitude–a posture or mindset of appreciation or thankfulness–without expecting to feel grateful or particularly happy. And this may be the way to bridging the gap between our desire to be grateful while also feeling some hard emotions. 

In rare moments (but hopefully less rare going forward) I can even find a place of gratitude for hard things, because I know from experience that tough conversations, difficult circumstances and even broken relationships or loss help to shape and grow me in the ways of humility, empathy and patience. That doesn’t mean it feels good or that I feel grateful for it, especially in real-time. But I can still thank God for His active presence in my life (even when I don’t have a clue what that is), fully feel whatever it is I’m feeling without dismissing it and also choose to have faith in the hard moments. I can have faith that "how things are here and now" isn't how they always will be. I can still practice gratitude. I can still choose to orient myself toward God’s faithfulness. And for that, I am grateful. 

As Father Richard Rohr says, “Everything belongs. Nothing is missing.” I don’t have to deny any part of my experience or my story. And God is still in my midst, giving me everything I need in this moment.

As you head into the final weeks of 2019, my prayer is that you will take time to practice gratitude without pretending. 

  • Where things feel broken or lost, share those with someone you trust.
  • When you feel overwhelmed or your schedule is dragging you from one place to another, find a way–even for 15 minutes–to sit in silence or go for a walk outside.
  • As you gather with family or friends in the coming weeks, with all their imperfections and quirks, take a posture of gratitude toward them and perhaps even express appreciation for their presence in your life. They’re probably going through some hard things, too. There’s no need to fix their problems and no need to share all of yours, at least not right now. 

Simply be grateful you have this space and this time to be grateful. Choose the posture and trust the feelings will follow. 

I’ll leave you with a prayer Thomas Merton wrote many years ago. It’s a prayer I come back to when things are unknown, when I feel overwhelmed or when I need a reminder to be grateful without pretending, knowing that God is ever with me and will never leave me. 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” - Thomas Merton

Have a specific prayer request this holiday season? We'd love to pray with/for you. 

Adam Bouse

Communications Strategist