When I was a kid, I thought that being grateful meant that I was supposed to shut up until I got what I actually wanted. That makes sense, right? Being told to be grateful usually came from a disgruntled parent after hearing my complaining about some dissatisfaction I had over some, surely trivial, thing. It was often accompanied by talk of money trees and African children.
I don’t think it has ever been in my nature to be grateful- to recognize and verbally acknowledge the manifestations of work and love dedicated to me by God and by others. But I have tried to improve, and am beginning to know the peace and happiness that results from gratitude.
Last April, President Uchtdorf gave a powerful talk titled “Grateful in Any Circumstances“, an address which I was lucky enough to view in person at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. As you might guess, his talk was on being grateful regardless of our situation. I sensed that the crux of his talk could be well represented with this quote from his talk:
But some might say, “What do I have to be grateful for when my world is falling apart?”
Perhaps focusing on what we are grateful for is the wrong approach. It is difficult to develop a spirit of gratitude if our thankfulness is only proportional to the number of blessings we can count. True, it is important to frequently “count our blessings”—and anyone who has tried this knows there are many—but I don’t believe the Lord expects us to be less thankful in times of trial than in times of abundance and ease. In fact, most of the scriptural references do not speak of gratitude for things but rather suggest an overall spirit or attitude of gratitude.
Awesome, right? We should always be grateful, not just when things are going well.
This talk resonated with others, as it had with me, and was frequently discussed in the days following the conference. It continues to be referenced on occasion.
But nearly every time the talk was mentioned, I felt frustrated- I felt that the people who were commenting on it, while saying true and good things, were missing something crucial, were missing his very point. What frustrated me was that I could not articulate what it was I felt like they were missing. (And if I can’t articulate a thought, what can I do?) People usually said something to the tune of of one of these phrases:
“I was having a rough day, but then my mom called, and I realized that I should be grateful for the wonderful people I have in my life.”
“If we look around, we will see that there are all kinds of things to be grateful for, the trees, the flowers, a baby’s laugh.”
“I always feel better after I have made a list of my blessings.”
None of these statements are bad, but the idea they express is not the idea President Uchtdorf was expressing to us. And I recently figured out what the difference was.
The above statements imply that, while we can be grateful in any circumstance, our gratitude is supposed to come from our circumstance.
In other words, we are grateful because we recognize our blessings.
But what I believe President Uchtdorf was trying to teach us is that gratitude should work in the very opposite direction.
In other words, we recognize our blessings because we are grateful.
We are grateful first, not grateful as a result of our situation. We are grateful because gratitude is in our nature.
I would like to suggest that there are in fact situations where one has very very little if not nothing to be grateful for in their present circumstances (the holocaust, other extreme and heinous situations). I don’t really expect that God would expect a person in such a circumstance to offer him thanks for some contrived “blessing” in order to fulfill the commandment of being grateful. But still, a person could be in such a situation and be grateful.
But what is gratitude if it is not necessarily attached to a recognized blessing? Let’s let President Uchtdorf educate us:
Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges.
This is not a gratitude of the lips but of the soul. It is a gratitude that heals the heart and expands the mind.
Being grateful in our circumstances is an act of faith in God. It requires that we trust God and hope for things we may not see but which are true. By being grateful, we follow the example of our beloved Savior, who said, “Not my will, but thine, be done.”
True gratitude is an expression of hope and testimony. It comes from acknowledging that we do not always understand the trials of life but trusting that one day we will.
Gratitude, as I understand it, is not so much about what we have, but what we know. To be grateful is to understand and find joy in the implications of having a real and loving God. Knowing that God loves you is so powerful that it shines it’s light on all circumstances, transforming otherwise dark situations into good or at least bearable ones.
It was once brought to my attention via a sacrament meeting talk that when the one healed leper returned to the Savior to thank him, Jesus says, “thy faith hath made the whole”, not, “thy gratitude hath made thee whole.” He was clearly expressing gratitude, but what Christ found important enough to recognize was his expression of faith. I imagine that the other 9 lepers were just as pleased with their healing as the one who returned, but what made him both grateful and faithful was the fact that he knew that the healing meant something.
He knew that Jesus was divine, that Jesus was powerful, and that he had been given freedom and healing under his hand. May you, and I, and everyone, know these things also.