This past year has taught me that “Thanksgiving” is more than an annual autumn meal stuffed with classic comfort foods and “What are you thankful for?” sentiments. Giving thanks or expressing gratitude is a precious art form, best practiced with inner reflection and intentionality. To speak gratitude is to breathe life. It’s an expression and outflow of the heart. “Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.” – Henri Nouwen
The discipline of gratitude is dear to me, as expressing thanks and praise has enhanced my life a great deal. I spent a lot of time in high school and college comparing myself to others. I harbored a concealed bitterness towards women smarter, prettier, and more spiritual than myself. This resentment often spiraled into seasons of “self-improvement” chockfull with ridiculous rules (record every word the teacher says, never eat carbs, always wear makeup, and attend every prayer meeting), which inevitably led to even more shortcomings and shame. It was gratitude that set me free.
While earning my teaching credential at Westmont College, I was honored to partner with a beloved professor (Dr. Jane Wilson) to study gratitude literature and conduct qualitative research on its impact specifically on teachers and students. While the study focused on our professional life and development, the inner workings of my spirit began to rearrange. Our chosen gratitude practices of inner prayer, gratitude journaling, and gratitude notes started to impact me (see below). The literature and scriptures we carefully read came to life.
In the Bible, “thankfulness” is mentioned 150 times and expressed 33 times as an imperative command. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thess. 5:16-18) Thanksgiving is God’s will for his children. When we cultivate a grateful heart, acknowledging the love of the Father and work of the cross, our perspective changes.
As I began to study and practice gratitude, I no longer viewed the other women around me as a threat, but as sisters to be celebrated and cherished. This journey led me to embrace my flaws, as a unique image-bearer of Christ. I really do feel like a new creation.
Through the study I learned that gratitude, although a natural disposition for some, is a character trait that must be developed through discipline. When practiced, gratitude uplifts the individual expressing thanks and the person who receives the gift of thanks. I deeply believe this flow-on effect has power to create bonds, strengthen relationships, and promote peace and joy. I am forever changed by the power of thanks.
If you are interested in practical ways to grow in your expression of gratitude, I highly recommend these simple practices:
As an overcommitted elementary school teacher, I understand crazy. Before the bell rings, I like to take a few moments of pause. I usually sit in my car or cozy up in my desk chair to center my heart. This practice embraces a posture of prayer to recognize blessings and meditate on God’s goodness. Take as little or as much time you desire each day.
Near the foot of my bed I have a tattered black composition book where I write down three things I am thankful for each day. It has been a neat experience to flip back to different seasons of life. Today I wrote: steamy cups of coffee, my mother’s reassuring voice, and laughing on the carpet with my roommate.
This is one of my favorite gratitude practices. Once a week, I pick a pair of students to specifically praise and show appreciation. It blesses me to see them spark with joy, as they tear open the envelope and read the words over and over to themselves.
May the Lord bless you and keep you. Many thanks!
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Image Credit: Andrew Menage, Creative Commons
Editor’s Note: Check out a full publication of Paige’s research findings on gratitude here.