Gratitude is a powerful tool that each of us has within reach, but few realize how valuable it is. Cultivating a heart of gratitude matters because it changes us in many important ways. We’ll unpack three of those ways in those post.
It takes a lot of pluck to keep asking for the same thing for 17 years, especially if the people you are petitioning are consecutive presidents of the United States of America. Five presidents in a row, to be exact. Thankfully, spirited determination is precisely what author and activist Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) had in ample supply. Finally, president #5 was sympathetic to her cause, and her persistence paid off.
The President was Abraham Lincoln, the year was 1863, and the request was for a presidential proclamation of a nationwide day of thanksgiving. “A Great American Festival of Thanksgiving” was Sarah’s exact words. To many people, the year 1863 might seem the most unlikely of times to call the nation to a set-apart day of gratitude. America was smack dab in the middle of a bloody Civil War; the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. The horrific ravages of war had already torn the country nearly to ruin, with no end to the fighting, death, and destruction anywhere in sight.
What could there possibly be to give thanks for?
According to good ole’ Abe, there was plenty. He began his proclamation with these words: “The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
And so, with those remarkable words, the United States collectively began to celebrate a National Day of Thanksgiving, and generations later, we carry on the great tradition. It is good and right and beautiful that we do, and yet, purposeful giving of thanks can and must be far more than one lone day marked on our calendars each November.
Sarah Hale and President Lincoln understood something that so few of us seem to grasp: intentional gratitude is a powerful force for good, and even in times of difficulty – perhaps especially in those times – choosing to cultivate a heart of gratitude can make all the difference in the world.
Historians believe that a significant reason why President Lincoln finally granted Mrs. Hale’s request was that he was hopeful that a national day of thanksgiving would be a tool to help reunify a nation that seemed severed beyond repair. In the middle of perhaps the darkest time in American history, he believed that gratitude mattered and that it could change the direction of an entire country.
As surely as gratitude mattered in 1863, it matters today, not in some abstract or merely sentimental way, but in a real-life, moment-by-moment, rubber-meets-the-road sort of way. There are many reasons why this is true; we will explore three of them here. But before we unpack those reasons, let’s take a minute to talk about what it means to have a grateful heart.
What Does It Mean to Cultivate a Grateful Heart?
Having a grateful heart goes much deeper than having the warm, happy feeling we get when nice things happen, filling our homes with cute décor that reminds us to “count our blessings,” or minding our manners and saying “Thank you” when someone does something thoughtful for us.
I love getting the warm fuzzies, hanging cute signs from Hobby Lobby in my home, and keeping a handy stash of pretty thank-you notes at the ready as much as anyone. Yet true thankfulness must be more than those things because, as we all can attest, life is not always “pumpkin spice and everything nice.” The actual test of whether or not we have been faithfully tending the seeds of thankful living is whether or not gratitude is still flourishing in our hearts even when life is hard and things are not as we wish them to be.
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines gratitude like this: “An emotion of the heart, excited by a favor or benefit received; a sentiment of kindness or goodwill towards a benefactor; thankfulness. Gratitude is an agreeable emotion, consisting in or accompanied with goodwill to a benefactor, and a disposition to make a suitable return of benefits or services…Gratitude is a virtue of the highest excellence, as it implies a feeling and generous heart, and a proper sense of duty. The love of God is the sublimest gratitude.” (Emphasis mine).
Gratitude is seeing and acknowledging the blessings someone else has bestowed on us. Genuine appreciation must be directed towards someone; ultimately, our gratitude is directed to God. Thankfulness flows from “a feeling and generous heart” and results in “a proper sense of duty” and a flourishing “love of God.” In other words, nurturing a grateful heart begins a beautiful change in us – a work that starts in our hearts but cannot be contained there.
Listen to these words written by the early church leader, Paul the Apostle. Paul was no stranger to severe persecution, profound suffering, and ongoing loss. Yet, he wrote to the young church at Thessalonica – a church also acquainted with great hardship – and told them to “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
You don’t have to look far in the Bible to realize that for Christians, cultivating grateful hearts is not just a suggestion: it’s a command, and like all of God’s commands, it is for our benefit. Here are just a couple of the many passages that address the topic of thankfulness:
- “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. (Hebrews 13:15)
- “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; (Ephesians 5:19-20)
I’m sad to admit that I am not a naturally thankful person. I often fall short when it comes to being grateful for God’s wonderful, bountiful blessings in my life – the stuff that should be easy to remember to give thanks for! I grumble and complain far too often and easily, even when life is really good. But add the part about being thankful in the hard, unpleasant, and even painful things of life, and words of grateful praise have often been far from my lips and absent from my heart!
Just as a farmer must cultivate his fields if he hopes for a good harvest, I must work the soil of my heart, replacing the complaining that grows like a noxious weed with purposeful, daily gratitude. I’m not going to lie – this is hard work. Yet as I’ve grown to understand more of why God commands us to be thankful people and remind myself of those reasons often, it becomes easier to practice gratitude and “offer the sacrifice of praise continually.” Come along with me as we explore three powerful reasons why cultivating a grateful heart matters.
1. Cultivating a Heart of Gratitude Matters Because It Changes our Perspective and Brings Peace
Think for a minute about what is the opposite of gratitude. Words like complaining, grumbling, bitter, sad, cynical, and discouraged come quickly to mind. Now think about the times that you have felt any of those emotions. Where was your focus at that time? Were you focused on God, or were you focused on yourself, other people, and your problems?
When we purposely choose thankfulness, whether or not we like our current situation, we are choosing to lift our gaze from the tumultuous waves of life’s stormy seas and rest them confidently on the face of the One who will either calm the storm or carry us safely through.
Sometimes we get this idea that the opposite of complaining is just pretending that a problem doesn’t exist or having a Pollyanna-style blind optimism that ignores the very real pain of living in a sin-cursed world. But gratitude is not blind at all – it simply changes where we choose to fix our gaze.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul had to say to the church at Philippi – another church that was on a first-name basis with hardship: “Be careful [full of anxiety] for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, emphasis mine).
We can (and should!) bring our needs to God in prayer – but we need to do it with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for Who God is, for what He will do on our behalf, and for how He works all things together for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). The wonderful result of this kind of grateful prayer is a heart at peace. Paul makes the thankfulness-peace connection again in his letter to the Colossians when he says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts…and be ye thankful.” (Colossians 3:15, emphasis mine).
God calls us to thankful living because that is the way to a heart at peace as we “turn [our] eyes upon Jesus and look full in His wonderful face.”
Oh soul— Helen H. Lemmel, 1922
Are you weary and troubled
No light in the darkness you see
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
2. Developing a Heart of Gratitude Matters Because it is a Powerful Weapon Against Sin
Ask the average person to name one of the top 5 worst sins, and chances are unthankfulness isn’t going to make it onto that list. But if we dig down just a little to find the root of so many of the sins we are tempted with, we find the tenacious, sprawling root of unthankfulness.
Need some proof? Consider these three passages:
- Romans 1 is the classic chapter outlining the downward spiral of sin. And right at the top of that spiral is a life devoid of gratitude. “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” (Romans 1:21, emphasis mine)
- 2 Timothy 3 vividly describes the “perilous times” of the “last days” with a listing of immoral behavior that will characterize those days. Included on that grim list is unthankfulness (2 Timothy 3:2).
- Luke 6:35 is a familiar verse where Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemies. He sets an example by being kind to “the unthankful and the evil.” When a person lives in perpetual thanklessness, they are aligning themselves with those Jesus refers to as “evil.” Both these groups of people benefit from God’s daily mercy and kindness, yet they fail to acknowledge Him other than perhaps to curse or murmur against Him.
Think for a minute about how many wrong choices can be traced directly back to a lack of thankfulness:
- Unfaithfulness in marriage, to name a few.
Thanklessness is, in fact, a big, ugly root sin. That’s the bad news. The good news is that gratitude is a powerful weapon against evil! The next time you face temptation, cut that temptation off at the source by uprooting ingratitude and replacing it with thankfulness.
At that moment of temptation, ask yourself, “What can I praise God for right now?” Choosing to praise the Lord in a moment of weakness slays the giants of lust, fear, covetousness, and the rest of their dastardly companions that entrap us. The enemy of our souls is no match for a child of God who is lifting up holy hands in faith-filled thanksgiving to their Father (1 Timothy 2:8; James 4:1-7).
I encourage you to think of any particular sin that you may struggle with regularly and plan ahead of time for what you can thank God for in the moment of temptation. Make a battle plan! Here are a few examples:
- A friend has wounded me, and I’m tempted to indulge in a bitter, gossipy rant against her with my other friends. Instead, I can thank God for the amazing mercy he has shown me and for the sufficient grace he promises always to give me so I can respond to others with forgiveness.
- It’s been a rough day, and I’ve had it. I’m tempted to lash out at my family with angry words or go around sulking so everyone knows what a hard day I’ve had and that I’m upset. Instead, I can pause and thank God that he is so longsuffering towards me and that I can be longsuffering towards my family’s shortcomings through the power of his Spirit.
- I’m tempted to steal time from my employer by scrolling my social media feed when I’m on the clock and there’s work I should be doing. After all, I tell myself, they really don’t pay me what I’m worth, so I deserve this break. Instead, I can thank God that he promises to meet all my needs. I can thank him that I have a job and the ability to earn a living.
Those examples may not be things you struggle with, but one thing is sure: each one of us face temptations daily. Take some quiet time now and ask God to search your heart and show you what temptations you need help to overcome and what it is that you can specifically thank him. As you do this, you will find that the grip that those sins hold on you is loosened, and you can defeat sin instead of it defeating you.
3. Cultivating a Heart of Gratitude Matters Because It Leads Us to Greater Blessings
There’s a striking account of a healing Jesus performed recorded in the book of Luke. One day, as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, he passed through a village where ten lepers came to meet him. These men all cried out together for healing, and in response to their cry, Jesus said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”
Those men truly believed that Jesus had the power to heal them, so in faith, they started doing as he had told them. Suddenly, as they made their way to where the priest was, they each realized that they had been cleansed of the terrible flesh-eating disease of leprosy! Can you imagine their excitement? The Bible doesn’t tell us what they did next – but it does tell us what they didn’t do. Sadly, out of the ten men healed that day, only one returned to give Jesus thanks. “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the other nine?” Jesus asked.
Then, to the one lone man who had returned to thank him, Jesus said, “Arise, go thy way: thy faith has made thee whole.”
I’ve often wondered if there was a difference in the level of healing the other nine lepers received. They were all cleansed – the leprosy was gone – but did their bodies still show evidence, scars, from their former disease? What exactly did Jesus mean, or do, when he told the one who returned, “Your faith has made you whole”? Perhaps there was complete physical restoration for all of them, and the difference in the man who was “made whole” was on a spiritual level. In any case, the man who returned to give thanks “glorified God,” which was a token of his faith in Jesus Christ, and he was made whole – body and soul – from that moment on. (See Luke 17:11-19).
Several centuries earlier, the grumbling people of Israel forfeited entry into the Promised Land because of their chronic murmuring and stubborn unbelief. A theme runs through Scripture: complaining and doubt are two sides of the same counterfeit coin. We don’t trust in the goodness of our Heavenly Father to give us “every good and perfect gift” and to “supply all our needs.” Hence, we whine and connive for what we think we need, and in so doing, we foolishly exchange the true riches of joy, peace, and contentment for a handful of worthless fool’s gold that leaves us destitute of the priceless treasures that could have been ours.
When we refuse to be grateful for God’s graciously-given blessings – the greatest of which is Himself – we’ve already begun down the treacherous road of a gradually hardening heart. And a hardened heart that does not see God’s goodness in the here and now is a heart that, deep down, doubts that God is kind, gracious, and enough. When we don’t even believe that he can provide our needs for this very day, how will we trust him to do the impossible and bring us safely into the “promised land”? Soon, like the Israelites, we find ourselves wandering in a desolate place, a wilderness of our own making. (See Numbers 14:26-32 and Hebrews 4).
One of my absolute favorite Bible stories is the account of Paul and Silas told to us in Acts 16. Arrested on false charges, beaten, and chained in a dank first-century dungeon, they had good reason to murmur if anyone ever did. But instead, at midnight, they “prayed and sang praises unto God.” You know the rest of the story: God sent an earthquake, the chains of all the prisoners were loosed, the jailer became a believer and was baptized that very night, and the following day, Paul and Silas were free and on their way to preach the gospel once again.
Now, I am in no way implying that raising our voices in grateful praise is like saying the magic words for some fairy-tale genie to do our bidding. Not at all, for there were many other times throughout his ministry when Paul was not set free from prison miraculously. And yet, though his body may have remained in chains, his soul was free, for he had learned the secret of contentment. (Philippians 4:11)
I am saying that choosing to live in thankfulness, regardless of our current circumstances, will change us – whether or not our circumstances change. And as we lift our eyes heavenward in grateful praise, our faith will be renewed, and we will find ourselves in a place where we can fully enjoy the blessings God has in store for all his children.
“As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.”Colossians 2:6-7
Getting Serious About Cultivating a Heart of Gratitude
And so, wherever life finds you today, whether you are in a season of calm and happiness or walking through a dark valley, may I encourage you that today is the day to get serious about cultivating a heart of gratitude. Ask God to open your eyes to the goodness all around you and express your thanks to God and others in words or writing. Start by going out of your way to being thankful for the things that are easy to identify as blessings and grow from there. And when you start to grumble, pause and turn your complaint into a prayer steeped in thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale knew much about suffering. Her young husband, whom she loved dearly, died one month before their fifth child was born. She was just 33 years old. To support herself as a widow, she eventually had to be separated from all but one of her children for a time. Yet, years later, in 1863, she could write: “In a time of national darkness and sore troubles, shall we not recognize that the goodness of God never faileth, and to our Father in heaven we should always bring the Thanksgiving offering at the ingathering of the harvest?” (Lady Editor, Melanie Kirkpatrick, p. 253, emphasis mine).
As necessary and wonderful as it is for a nation to celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving every year, how much more important is it that you and I live lives overflowing with grateful praise? For when we “recognize that the goodness of God never faileth” and choose day by day to cultivate a heart of gratitude, we will find ourselves experiencing the joy and peace that springs from a heavenward perspective, daily power over sin, and the capacity to fully enjoy the blessing of our good and kind Heavenly Father.
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”Abraham Lincoln, 1863
Thank you for reading this post. I hope you found it helpful and encouraging, and if you did, please share it with a friend!
For further information about Sarah Josepha Hale and President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, please check out these helpful articles:
- Sarah Josepha Hale – Wikipedia
- Biography: Sarah Josepha Hale (womenshistory.org)
- Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org)
- Letter to President Abraham Lincoln, 1863 (whatsoproudlywehail.org)
- Modern household cookery, by a lady [S.J. Hale]. Sarah Josepha Hale