2020 has been quite a year. January 1, 2021, may be the most anticipated New Year’s Day since Y2K. Many of us are just so ready for this long year to end. We want to put the stress and the struggle behind us and start over on January 1. As relatable as this feeling may be, though, it doesn’t support the gratitude we should be giving to God for the opportunities and growth we have had this year. But how can you even begin to feel grateful for a year that seems like nothing but hard times?
During the holiday season, we often try to be more thankful. With Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December, it’s easy to spend two months out of the year being grateful for God’s grace and His gifts to us. But what about the rest of the year? It’s not that we aren’t thankful during the other ten months. But when you’re not actively thinking about and pursuing a certain mindset, it can go by the wayside. Sure, you’ve taught your children to say “thank you,” and you demonstrate that same thankfulness in your own life. But there’s a difference between reflexively saying “thank you” and being grateful enough to recognize the daily gifts God gives us and to thank Him for them as they come.
For example, not long ago I told a friend that my life had become a series of unfortunate events. My air conditioner had died with two months of summer left. Repairs would cost a pretty penny I couldn’t afford to spend. This was just one of the “unfortunate” events, and not even the most expensive one. I had a whole list of problems. But then I stopped and listed out all the blessings I could think of from the year and found that they greatly outnumbered the unfortunate things. It’s easy to devalue God’s daily blessings to us when all we’re looking at is the negatives. So I have a couple of challenges for you.
• Be Mindful about Being Thankful
I don’t have to tell you why you should be thankful. For many of us, however, gratitude is a reflex. We’re grateful when someone gives us something or does something for us. We don’t even have to think about it. But 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us, “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” In everything give thanks. I should have been grateful when my AC died. It’s definitely not an automatic response to be grateful when you have no AC during a South Carolina summer.
But if you take the time to think about the things you don’t want to be grateful for, you can see how they can be blessings in disguise. Even if the only thing your trial teaches you is that His grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9), you can be grateful for that. It may take some work, and you may need to reset some of the default settings in your heart, but it is possible to see how God is blessing you when you go through an “unfortunate” event.
• Start a Year-Long Thankfulness Project
If you really want to focus on thankfulness for the entire year, you’re going to need to turn it into a habit. Find some way to record the daily blessings you experience, whether the blessing is a safe field trip or a friend’s support during a hard time. You can fill a jar with slips of paper covered in blessings, or you can dedicate a journal to your family’s blessings. You could even start a OneNote notebook of blessings. When the jar is full, or you run out of pages in the journal, or you just need to remember God’s blessings, reread what you’ve put down. Then empty out the jar, get a new journal, open a new OneNote file, and start over.
Worry can’t tear you down if you’re buried in blessings!
Have you ever had to change your phone back to its default settings? Usually this happens when you’ve used and filled your phone to the point that it begins to malfunction; a reset to default settings often fixes whatever hiccups or problems it may have picked up. Remove all the extra noise and clutter of your customizations, and you restore the phone to a state of greater digital purity.
What if we took time to reset the focus of our hearts—a way to return to a default setting of renewed thinking and greater gratitude?
The Slide into Self-Pity
Left to itself, even a redeemed heart tends to drift towards self-pity and complaining. When it comes to giving thanks, it is easy to rehearse the good things—health, family, provisions. Yet too often we fail to express gratitude because our minds are taken up with the people and situations that trouble us.
To change our default setting to gratitude, we need to begin by thanking God for the things that bother us, not just the ones that we enjoy. Tough situations are often God’s gifts to reveal and change some unsanctified part of our hearts.
Sinking or Swimming?
One summer I was particularly unhappy with God because He prevented me from participating in the Christian camp where I longed to work. Instead, He gave me the opportunity to teach preschoolers how to swim. Day after day, under the scorching Phoenix sun, I was trying to get screaming toddlers to enjoy blowing bubbles and putting their faces in cold water.
Torn between their fear of the water and their desire for independence and control, they would push away, thrash around, or clamp onto me—even pinching me with their little toes. After a lesson or two, they had relaxed a bit and were delighted to let me bounce them around while I made motorboat noises or pretended to be a human washing machine. Eventually they learned that swimming lessons were great fun, that the water would hold them up, and that I would not let them drown.
Week after week, God gave me new students who screamed and cried and pinched. Finally I realized that God was trying to show me what I looked like to Him. I had my heart set on a specific ministry that was not open to me. I could continue my adult version of the toddler tantrum, or I could relax and trust Him to teach me how to stay afloat and actually enjoy the ministry He had given me.
The Bigger Plan
Once I understood that, I was able to identify with the children and thank God for them. They were showing me what I looked like as well as giving me insight into God Himself. I, a relative stranger, wanted to teach these kids the skills they needed to survive, and I wanted them to enjoy themselves too. Would God my Father want any less for me? So I surrendered my anger and went back to a default setting of thankfulness.
During the time I was working in aquatics, I renewed all my certifications as a Red Cross instructor for swimming, lifeguarding, CPR, and first aid. Later, those credentials gained me a place of ministry for the entire next decade at the very camp where I had wanted to work that summer.
God’s ways are above ours. We may never understand His methods, but we can always trust His motives. To reset and refresh our hearts, we have to clear out the clutter of busyness, worry, and self-pity. It’s time to go back and fix our minds on God’s truth and rest in a state of gratitude.
After every special occasion involving gifts, there’s the inevitable round of thank-you cards. And while you do want to show gratefulness, they probably aren’t something you look forward to writing. After all, who has the time?
But, for your children, writing thank-you notes has a lot of value. They give your children a chance to. . .
1. Practice Composition Skills
Thank-you cards give your children an opportunity to apply composition skills outside of their studies. If they follow the traditional “thank-you-for-your-gift-I-will-use-it-for . . .” format of thank-you notes, they’ll need to consider what the item is, how it’s typically used and for what, and who they’re writing to. All these considerations involve important writing skills. For instance, they might change their tone if they’re addressing a jovial uncle as opposed to an affectionate grandma.
2. Practice Writing and Grammar Skills
Thank-you notes also give your children an opportunity to practice handwriting and grammar skills. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a thank-you card on college-ruled card stock. Writing cards encourages them to practice writing in a straight line, rather than letting their writing curve up or down. And since they won’t want to ruin the card by making too many mistakes, they’ll need to recall what they’ve learned about grammar and spelling to get it right the first time.
3. Practice Gratitude
But most importantly, thank-you notes are an opportunity to teach your children how to have a spirit of gratitude for the things they’ve been given. It’s a time to pause and appreciate the value of not only the gift but also the relationship with the giver. Even if they may not fully appreciate the gift itself, they can appreciate how much the giver means to them. After all, we as believers may never be able to fully comprehend the sacrifice Christ made for us, but we can love Christ because of the love He has shown us.
So encourage your children to take the time and write handwritten thank-you notes this year! At the very least, you can count them as extra credit later.