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The Secret of a Grateful Heart

The practice that released my bitterness and restored my joy.

I jumped out of bed one morning, committed to jogging before my day began—and before anyone I knew saw me in shorts. Halfway down the block, a teenage boy zipped by on his bike, looked me over, gave a "thumbs up," and shouted, "Go, Grandma, go!"

At first I was insulted. The way he said the word "grandma" made me feel so old, even though I was only in my 40s at the time (OK, late 40s).

Before I could shout back, he was out of sight. I finished my run, then sat on a bench overlooking the ocean and burst out laughing. At least he noticed me, I thought. That's something for which I could be thankful.

Later, as I stepped off a curb to cross the street near my home, a car whizzed by and nearly clipped my toes. I jumped back in shock and anger, then realized I had more reasons for gratitude than anger. I was alive—and unhurt.

And so it continues, day after day. I'm paying attention. I'm watching my attitude. I'm saying "thank you" more often. And the more I do, the more grateful and joyful I become.

No Thanks

I haven't always been a grateful person. For years I focused on what I didn't have—in my marriage, in friendships, within myself—instead of looking at what I did have and being thankful for it.

I'd married a man I was crazy about, but we were never as close as I wanted. I worked hard at becoming what I thought he wanted instead of becoming the woman I was created to be. He was committed to his law practice and I busied myself with our children. We began drifting apart. We forgot how to laugh with one another. We made small talk instead of truly communicated. We stopped making love.

The more I thank God, the more I learn to trust him.

Then one day, after nearly 20 years of marriage, I noticed him smiling and talking with a single woman who belonged to our tennis club. I confronted him, but he denied his contact with her.

I started doubting myself, and tried again to be the woman I thought he wanted—but nothing changed. He'd given his heart to her, and eventually he moved out. A friend encouraged me to see a counselor. I took her advice—reluctantly. I remember walking into Dr. Brady's office and telling him my problem: "My husband's going to leave," I sobbed. "How can I make him stay?"

"You may not be able to," he said. "But you can discover what's right for you and your children. Focus on that." Dr. Brady asked about my spiritual life. I didn't see what that had to do with my troubled marriage. "I believe in God," I said. "I even go to church sometimes." But during this crisis in my life, I was convinced I had to do something concrete or my children and I would lose the only security we had.

Over time, however, Dr. Brady showed me the emptiness in my heart had been there all along—even before I married my husband. I was still looking for recognition from a human being, and my discontent stemmed from my longing for acceptance.

When my husband left, I finally realized I couldn't keep going on my own power. Maybe Dr. Brady is right, I thought. I needed to learn about God and his place in my life. For two years I visited churches, read inspirational books, listened to tapes, and attended seminars in my search for God. During that time I met a man named Charles, who later became my husband. He was on the same spiritual quest. We became friends and started attending church together. I met a woman there who invited me to join a Bible study. Through a study of John's gospel, I developed a true relationship with Jesus Christ. Weeks later, I finally surrendered to God and received Christ as my Savior.

My new life began that day in December. As my relationship with Jesus grew, I finally found the fulfillment I'd longed for all my life. I noticed I didn't worry as much and I complained less as I focused on God instead of me. I made decisions without fretting. I felt more peaceful. In early January, Charles committed his life to Christ, and we decided to get married the following April.

Lessons in Gratitude

During the next year, the Lord continued to teach Charles and me the importance of giving thanks—and how to focus on the good things in life rather than on the hardships. Still, I found myself falling into old patterns when money was scarce or when I had a disagreement with one of my children or my parents.

One year, just before Christmas, Charles and I were flat broke. The company he worked for had collapsed. My freelance projects dried up. The small savings we had were soon gone.

We prayed for wisdom, grace, and a job for at least one of us. The next week Charles received a money order for $500 from an anonymous donor. "I know you're having a rough time," read the note affixed to the check. "I want to share my blessings with you."

Months later, a woman from my church approached me. She'd heard me share some of my life story at a ladies' prayer event. "My first husband left me many years ago," she said, "so I understand some of the pain and anger you feel over the loss of your first marriage."

Then she offered some needed advice: "If you want to find real contentment, stop looking at the past. Focus on today and start giving thanks for its unique blessings. Write your blessings on slips of paper and put them in a bag. From time to time, look at what you wrote. You'll be amazed at how God has been with you every step of the way."

I was so inspired by her advice, I went home and immediately found a gift bag and labeled it "Our Blessings." Charles and I set it on our dresser and placed a pen and pad of paper beside it.

Counting Our Blessings

We began recording our blessings that day. I jotted down my thanks for the little bird in the tree outside our bedroom window, the fragrance of fresh-baked bread, spring rain, laughter, sunshine. My husband recorded his appreciation for a quick resolution to a family dilemma. And he was truly grateful when he was offered a new job with benefits. I even wrote my thanks that through an illness God taught me to take better care of myself. And I thanked him for restoring my children after the pain of my divorce from their father.

One morning, several months after we started this daily practice, we emptied the bag. It was time to reread all the scraps of paper we'd accumulated. What a joy it was to be reminded of these gifts all over again: a special walk and talk we'd shared on the beach one morning, topped off with hot tea and our favorite muffins. The safe arrival of our first grandchild. A wonderful backpack trip in the Sierra Mountains. An old hurt healed. On and on I read.

Then my husband grabbed a handful and continued. By the time we got to the last bit of paper, tears trickled down our faces. How could we ever again doubt that God provides for our needs and that he protects us no matter what?

Giving thanks in this tangible way changed my life. I began paying more attention to the people I loved. I appreciated my husband in a new way. I realized how blessed I was that my elderly parents were still alive and well. I gave thanks for the joy my three children and two stepchildren bring me. Through each one, I saw how the Lord is present to me every day, down to the smallest detail.

Since the day I dropped my first slip of paper into our blessing bag, God's taught me to give thanks for everything—regardless of the circumstances—which I've discovered is the true secret of a grateful heart.

The more I thank him, the more I learn to trust him—with my health, my husband, my children and grandchildren, my neighbors and friends, my money and possessions, my decisions.

Theologian Henri Nouwen says in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son that gratitude is more than a mere "thank you." It is a discipline to be practiced each day in a conscious way. The apostle Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Thessalonians, "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (5:16-18).

The benefits of giving thanks are many. The Lord has freed me from bitterness and discontentment. I've put the divorce and financial worry behind me. He's renewed a sense of humility. I know I'm where I am today by God's grace. He's rekindled a heart of joy in me. I now view all of life as a gift to be cherished and shared with others. Most important, I know the God of my salvation lives within me. And for that, above all else, I'm most thankful.

Karen O'Connor is an author, retreat speaker, and writing instructor who lives in California. Visit her at: www.karen oconnor.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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