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The Secret of Gratitude

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illustration of grateful woman planting flower
Illustration by Alyssa De Asis
The work of Christ in our lives is just plain bigger than our circumstances

I recently found myself standing at an airport gate, anticipating the arrival of my 11-year-old daughter. The excitement in me was building. It had been a big trip — for both of us. She had gone to visit her grandparents in Texas, while her dad, older brother and I traveled to Haiti to teach at a conference.

It’d only been 12 days, but the young woman in the cowboy hat, boots and trendy glasses exiting the jet bridge scarcely resembled the “unaccompanied minor” that I’d dropped off just two weeks before. I hadn’t anticipated her returning with loot that bulged her suitcase.

As she described her trip, she talked about the good time she had. And I realized my parents had spoiled her rotten! I was happy for her, but as we walked to the curb to meet her older brother, I wondered if my children’s perspectives on abundance and gratitude had grown in different ways. My son had just spent time in Haiti where he learned gratitude for even the most basic blessings of life. Had my girl expressed gratitude for the different experiences and opportunities afforded to her? I wondered.

Later, my mom assured me that she had and that she was a joy to be around. It was a relief to my mama-heart and another reminder of the roots of true gratitude that the apostle Paul hints at in Philippians: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12, NIV).

To be grateful and content, whether well fed or hungry. In poverty and in plenty. In any and every situation. As I journey with my children through life’s different experiences, I want them to carry that secret of gratitude with them. Here are the three truths I want my kids to understand.

Gratitude is obedience

When the Lord tells us to “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” in Psalm 100:4, it isn’t merely a suggestion. We are instructed to give thanks because this is God’s will for us (1 Thessalonians 5:18). In other words, to be thankless is sinful. That’s why it’s important for us to give an offering of gratitude in both the joyful and the broken, disappointing times.

God’s directive to be thankful is not a superfluous command or a prompt to say meaningless words. Indeed, showing gratitude to God is not for His benefit; it is for ours — and it really must be a better way to live or He would not have set that expectation.

As parents, we intuitively know that our children should express gratitude, that saying the “magic words” is a necessary discipline. There is nothing magical about words of gratitude, but the act of thanksgiving is transformative. Gratitude is an acknowledgment that we have received a gift. As Christians, we recognize that all gifts ultimately come from God.

Gratitude looks forward

At the beginning of our ministry in Haiti, I struggled with how to convey hope to the women we were working with. I certainly couldn’t promise that God would change their circumstances, and that left me feeling restless. How can we pray with thanksgiving in the middle of such desperation? Finally, in the quiet and my wrestling, God reminded me of the promise of His presence and power, whatever our circumstances.

We model thankfulness to our children when we consistently recognize that God is at work in every situation our children will face. “He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ ” (Hebrews 13:5). This promise allows us to pray with gratitude that God will be with our children in the victories and trials that lay ahead — during the times of plenty and the times of want — and that He is working in all circumstances “for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28, NIV).

In light of this truth, I’ve had to refocus the way I pray for my children before I send them out the door each day. Yes, I still pray for my kids’ needs — Father, please help Gabriella remember what she’s learned for her math test today — but I also pray boldly and with more gratitude, thanking God for His promised presence and wisdom as my kids learn to trust Him.

Gratitude looks upward

Our gratitude should be rooted in God’s character, not our physical abundance or material blessing. It’s a lesson that my son, Brendan, grasped in a profound way during our trip to Haiti.

When I travel, what often overwhelms me is not the new adventure that lies ahead, but the dinginess of the colors, the brokenness and the trash on the streets. Sometimes it can take minutes, and other times days, before I find the wonder and richness of the location God has brought me into.

But I learned that Brendan could see things for what they really were. During a ride around Port-au-Prince, I watched my son take in the new environment. We drove up the dusty and broken streets, passing buildings with bullet holes from recent demonstrations, and I didn’t have to wonder what Brendan observed in the depth of poverty. Where I saw the desperation of vendors selling their wares, he saw a local economy. As we drove past an empty lot with a power washer, parked cars and an older man with mud caked to his ankles, Brendan saw a thriving car wash — clean cars were important here, too. The new sights, smells and experiences filled him with awe. His mind didn’t focus on the brokenness, but the beauty, ingenuity and abundance.

It would be easy to just write this off as childlike simplicity, but there was little naivete in his 15-year-old text to his youth group back home. “To those going to Haiti this summer,” he wrote. “Be prepared to have your hearts broken. You see poverty on a deep level. But you also see the extreme joy of the Holy Spirit in those who believe. The pastors and those who share Christ on a daily basis are joyful in the midst of hardships. So take heart! Be as joyful about your faith as they are!”

The real secret

I still smile at the theology that rolled so easily off the fingers of my son, how it instructed my heart. The gift of salvation alone gives enough reason to be filled with gratitude.

I guess that’s the real secret: The work of Christ in our lives is just plain bigger than our circumstances, as rich or poor as they may be. I may be tempted to place greater value on my son’s gratitude amid poverty than on my daughter’s gratefulness for being showered with material blessings, but I’m starting to realize that character is forged in our ability to remain humble and thankful in those times of abundance, as well. Gratitude is an appropriate response to every circumstance because God’s presence remains the same, no matter the continent or the island, the plenty or the want.

Speaker and writer Lee Nienhuis is the author of Brave Moms, Brave Kids: A battle plan for raising heroes.

Would you describe your child as brave and kind? Lee Nienhuis shares her ideas about raising kids of bold, noble character. Listen now!

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