In Sally Clarkson's book, Dancing With My Father: How God Leads Us into a Life of Grace and Joy (WaterBrook), she asks a tough question: "With so much sadness and so many daily burdens to shoulder, how do Christian women maneuver steadily through this journey of life with joy and peace of heart intact?"
Her answer is gratitude, and from gratitude comes joy. We wanted to know more. So we asked Sally how to live a life of gratitude.
Kyria: How are joy and gratitude intertwined in our lives?
Sally: You can't have joy unless you're grateful. Americans tend to live for pleasure and materialism, instead of being content with what God has given us and where he has placed us. Gratitude is about acknowledging that God is in control, not us. We can't be joyful and grateful without acknowledging that his attributes—mercy, goodness, lovingkindness—are being played out in our lives right now.
What are some things that chip away at our gratitude?
Pride, a critical attitude, stress, and a complaining spirit. But also, our busyness. When we're frantically pushing through every moment, we forget God is there in every moment. When we try to get through life as quickly as we can, we choke out God.
Another is when we believe that God is unjust. We ask, "How can you do this to me, God?" Have you ever watched a toddler throw a tantrum when his mom takes something away? That's us with God. We're like toddlers throwing a tantrum when we go to him demanding justice for me.
Friends can also chip away at our gratitude when they give us advice or tell us things that aren't biblical. God's way to growth and gratitude is through him, not through others telling us it isn't our fault or we have a right to be angry or that God owes us.
But what about when life gets dark?
When I was very young I told the Lord that I'd go anywhere or do anything he asked. Immediately my life began to fall apart. As I look back on those trials, I see God gently using difficulties to cause me to let go of things I thought I needed to be happy. God used pain to sculpt my character.
Pain helps us understand others who've faced pain, and to understand that Jesus himself was a "man of sorrows." Yet he doesn't ask us to go through anything he hasn't gone through himself. The more I learn to take the pain and trust him with and through it, the more I realize I don't carry the burden myself.
Practicing gratitude leads us into an inner circle that allows us to experience his peace, comfort, and love. Not to fight against the pain, but to lean into it and onto him.
How do we keep perspective during the pain?
Through trials, God changed my perspective from temporal to eternal. We naturally don't look toward eternity and appreciate what we'll have in heaven until we have struggles here. Yet struggles refocus our lives on things of eternal value.
If we choose to believe God is good and loving, then when we go through trials, we're forced to say that he is good and loving even in the trials. We can ask him to help us learn from them. It's a God-focused and eternity-focused attitude. It takes humility.
How do you make gratitude a way of life?
The spiritual discipline of gratitude is really about a change of heart.
I started by asking myself what I really wanted to become. I didn't want to be a whiner. I wanted to be a contented, life-giving person. So I began to take bad attitudes captive and instead say, "Thank you, God." I made the decision to acknowledge his presence and worship him.
I also have two anchors to my day: I wait to get out of bed until I've told God what I'm grateful for, and I don't close my eyes until I thank God for what he's done that day. Gratitude doesn't happen without a plan.
That takes constant vigilance.
That's why it's called the discipline of gratitude.
How do you persist in the discipline it takes?
I picture my heart and soul like a garden. Whatever I sow, water, fertilize, and care for, that's what will grow. Gratitude and joy are what I want to grow, so those are the things I care for. I'm clear about planting the seeds, plucking the weeds, and intentionally guarding my heart against those things that kill my joy and gratefulness. It's hard work, but it bears the fruit of joy.
Yet no matter how hard I try I still fail a lot, so I'm grateful for God's unconditional love.
What Scriptures can help us practice gratitude?
The Psalms are filled with David's words as he celebrated God every moment, which is why he was a "man after God's own heart." Focus on Scriptures like, "This is the day the LORD has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24).
Gratitude can be contagious too.
Definitely. Ask yourself how you can bring life to those around you. Be intentional about appreciating them and telling them how much they mean to you. Gratitude toward others builds a strong foundation and gives grace and purpose to relationships. If we're intentional about loving and serving others, we end up with strong relationships with people who appreciate and love us. Verbalize your gratefulness. Invest in others and reap the reward.
So gratitude makes us more relationship-oriented?
Yes. Gratitude causes us to focus more on relationships than on the tasks of life. It's the same thing with the Lord: If we really want to honor him, we focus on how we would want to be treated and loved.
How does gratitude change the way we look at life?
We all have a grid from which we view life. When I train myself to use the eyes of my heart to see God's fingerprints on each moment, it changes those moments.
If in each moment I look for God's fingerprint, it will directly influence how I think about God. Seeing that God is present every day in every thing leads us to worship him, which is an outpouring of our gratitude—and leads to joy.