What if giving thanks for obvious blessings were a preparatory law of gratitude, like tithing is the preparatory law for the law of consecration? If so, then perhaps “giving thanks for all things” could be labeled the higher law of gratitude. Let’s explore what I like to call “the higher law of gratitude” and why it is such a challenge. It is found in D&C 59:7, “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things” (emphasis mine).

How Could the Lord Expect Thanks in ALL Things?

In ALL things? Even in tragedy and loss? Even in persecution and extreme trial? As I mentioned in an earlier article (The Higher Law of Gratitude), things were not going well when the Lord gave this “thanksgiving” commandment to the early Saints; in fact, all hell was breaking loose. The Kirtland Safety Society had failed; most of the Saints, as well as the Prophet Joseph and his family, were in dire poverty. The attempt of Zion’s Camp to rescue the beleaguered Missouri Saints and restore them to their lands and homes had seemingly been for naught. Many key leaders had left the Church and were adding fuel to the fires of persecution.

The Kirtland Saints experienced such severe persecution they had to leave comfortable homes and travel to Missouri in miserably cold and difficult conditions—and in Missouri they were anything but welcome. Agitated locals, chafing at the rumors of their land being chosen as the Mormon’s “Zion” were like a volcano about to explode. Nothing seemed to be going right for the Saints; yet it was at this time the Lord commanded them to “thank the Lord thy God in all things” (emphasis mine).

This situation was not without precedence. Elder Dallin Oaks, in the April, 2003 General Conference reminded us that the Book of Mormon peoples were “suffering all manner of afflictions” when the Lord commanded them to “give thanks in all things” (Mosiah 26: 38-39). Elder Oak’s talk entitled “Giving Thanks in All Things” is full of wisdom on this vital subject.

The Higher Law of Gratitude Is a Conduit of Blessings

Why would the Lord ask, even command, something SO HARD? It is truly an invitation to stretch our souls, similar to the commandment to love our enemies (which could be called “the higher law of love”). The Lord doesn’t ask for thanks in all things because He needs it. Instead, He gives us this counsel because WE need it, because He knows that gratitude is the only path to light, peace, and happiness.

Let me illustrate. For years I’ve been a solitary visiting teacher to an elderly woman who lives with her daughter. We have developed a real bond of love, and I have a deep concern for her. She’s in her nineties, and as her physical condition and memory have deteriorated she has found it increasingly difficult to accept her situation. She tells me that her main thought process goes something like this: “Why do I have to be such a useless lump? Here I sit day after day not able to help at all, doing nothing but looking out the window, and now to top it all off, I’m losing my mind. I can’t remember anything from one minute to the next. I really am worthless.”

She is such a dear person and it grieves me to see her feeling like that. We’ve been having conversations about how she could change that kind of thinking to a focus on gratitude. In her case she suggested that she might think instead, “I could be grateful that I have eyes to see and a window to look out of! Even though I can’t remember much, I have loving family members who care for me, and others who visit me. They are all kind and they accept me as I am and love me and I do not want for anything.” I suggested that she could add thanks to God minute by minute that her infirmity has given her the chance to see what good people they are and how much they love her—and to thank God for the chance to learn that her worth doesn’t depend on her ability.

At the end of our latest visit I knelt at her feet and took her hands in mine and in tears offered a heart-felt prayer for her that the Lord would help her keep her mind on gratitude. She tells me that the difference is amazing when she does. It is truly a choice between light and darkness. And the mind can only go one direction at once. Whenever we focus on giving thanks, there is no room left in our minds for all the negative ruminating and fighting “what is.”

So the lesson is clear: Gratitude is a conduit for the best spiritual blessings and as such, is really a gift we give ourselves. When we focus our minds on giving thanks, we receive peace, light, and happiness, regardless of our circumstance. It reminds me of Deanna Edward’s words, “Joy is not the absence of pain, but the presence of God.” When we are giving thanks we open the way to feel the presence of God, and in doing so make it possible to feel joy in the midst of whatever kind of pain we may be experiencing. Giving thanks in all things is just another way of saying that we trust God no matter what! And being able to thank the Lord in all things is a lot like forgiving: we need the Lord’s help to really be able to do it. The challenge the Lord gives us to thank Him in ALL things drives us to our knees in humility, pleading for His spirit to make it possible.

Applying the Higher Law of Gratitude to the Here and Now

Let’s apply the Lord’s commandment to “give thanks in all things” to our latter-day trials. We live in a world that seems to be spinning out of control, leaving so many people overwhelmed with personal trials. And let’s be honest: to have the spiritual maturity to honestly thank the Lord in ALL things, even the hardest things, can seem well-nigh impossible when the waves of adversity keep knocking us off our feet.

Elder Clayton M. Christensen said, “Many of the Savior’s most profound teachings are counterintuitive. ‘Love your enemies’ is an example. The solutions that our minds are prone to develop are often different from those the Lord would have us pursue. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord’ (Isaiah 55:8).” (Ensign, February 2007)

Amen to that! My thoughts are often so different from His that I feel inclined to want to “help Him see” how different things ought to be than the way they are! The great Book of Mormon prophet Jacob pointedly counseled us who live in the latter-days to “seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand” (Jacob 4:10). We constantly need to remind ourselves that He is in charge! That all His purposes will be fulfilled. That we can count on Him to make all things right in the end. 

Turning to the Scriptures When the Higher Law of Gratitude Seems So Difficult

When I’ve felt like I was drowning in the waters of adversity, when life has not only failed to meet my expectations, but served up the exact opposite, I’ve found myself “grasping for gratitude.” I remember having such feelings as I prepared to take the Sacrament one Sunday. I took inventory of my current life situation and my failure to “always remember Him.” I was focusing on my weakness instead of being grateful for His strength. And gratitude seemed impossible, especially in light of my own inability to keep the covenant I sincerely made week after week.

However, a new thought occurred to me as I listened to the prayers being spoken on the bread and water: I may not “always remember Him,” but He DOES always remember me! And that can be the foundation block of my gratitude. 

In the Book of Mormon student manual we read, “Never in the course of history has the Lord forgotten His people, nor will He forget them now, for He has “graven [them] upon the palms of [His] hands” (1 Nephi 21:16).

“Can a mother forget her sucking child? . . . Yet I will not forget you”

Just as it seems impossible for a woman to forget a nursing baby, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained that it would be even more impossible for the Savior to forget us. He said, “This poetic passage provides yet another reminder of Christ’s saving role, that of protective, redeeming parent to Zion’s children. He comforts his people and shows mercy when they are afflicted, as any loving father or mother would toward a child, but, as Nephi here reminds us through Isaiah, much more than any mortal father and mother could do. Although a mother may forget her sucking child (as unlikely as any parent might think that could be), Christ will not forget the children he has redeemed or the covenant he has made with them for salvation in Zion. The painful reminders of that watch care and covenant are the marks of the Roman nails graven upon the palms of his hands, a sign to his disciples in the Old World, his Nephite congregation in the New World, and to us in latter-day Zion that he is the Savior of the world and was wounded in the house of his friends” (“Christ and the New Covenant” [1997], 84).

Elder M. Russell Ballard said, “I assure you, my brothers and sisters, that our Heavenly Father is aware of us, individually and collectively. He understands the spiritual, physical, and emotional difficulties we face in the world today. In fact, they are all part of His plan for our eternal growth and development. And His promise to us is sure: ‘He that endureth in faith and doeth my will, the same shall overcome’ (D&C 63:20).

“The Savior promised [in 3 Nephi 22:17] that ‘no weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper. … This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord’ (October 1992, The Joy of Hope Fulfilled, M. Russell Ballard).” His purposes will all be fulfilled. We can count on it. So we can count on the fact that everything that is happening right now, even the hardest things are part of that fulfillment.

I can trust that everything that happens is for my long-range benefit 

2 Nephi 26:24 offers this powerful reminder: “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him.”

So when I’m grasping for gratitude, I can remind myself of these scriptures, these bright and shining reassurances, and begin to understand how it is possible to “thank the Lord in all things.”

All Is Well

We can see a real and almost uncanny similarity to the circumstances of the people who originally received the commandment to thank the Lord in ALL things and our mounting latter-day trials. What was their outcome when they obeyed this law? The Book of Mormon people who maintained trust in the Lord in the face of their afflictions were greatly blessed. The early Saints who stayed true to the faith in spite of unbelievable hardship became our “blessed, honored, pioneers.” Singing with strong voices, “All is well,” when they were suffering cold, privation, death of loved ones, and all manner of trials is a living example of thanking God in all things—in spite of circumstance.

They faced hunger, privation, snakebite, Indian attacks and illness and injury with no medical help available—yet still sang with strong voices, “All is well, all is well.” We face natural disasters, whirlwinds of evil, wars and rumors of wars and trials of the spirit and soul of every sort. Can we still sing with the faith of our fathers “All is well. All is well?” There is much we can learn from their example, since we want to be like them. 

We wonder if we could have passed the tests of pioneer days. They probably are wondering from the Other Side if they could pass ours. The truth is, none of us could have or will pass our tests without the help and support and strengthening influence of the Lord.

The words of William Clayton’s hymn speaks to all our hearts:

“Come, Come Ye Saints. No toil nor labor fear. But with joy wend your way. Though hard to you this journey shall appear Grace shall be as your day” (“Come, Come Ye Saints,” Hymn 30). Each verse of that inspired song is like a rally cry, a reminder that no matter what we face, “all is well” as long as we keep trudging along on our journey firmly holding onto His hand, trusting in His tender care.

We can thank Him in all things and remember to: “Fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail.” D&C 6:34 …We can follow the Lord’s counsel to: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and we can remember His words: “even so am I in the midst of you” (D&C 6:32).

And so we can learn line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little, to thank the Lord in ALL things, trust Him in ALL things, and develop the kind of faith Elder M. Russel Ballard referred to when he said, “But faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—real faith, whole-souled and unshakable—is a power to be reckoned with in the universe. It can be a causative force through which miracles are wrought. Or it can be a source of inner strength through which we find peace, comfort, and the courage to cope. As we put our faith and trust to work, hope is born. Hope grows out of faith and gives meaning and purpose to all that we do. It can even give us the peaceful assurance we need to live happily in a world that is ripe with iniquity, calamity, and injustice. As the end of the Savior’s mortal ministry drew near, He offered this reassuring hope to His beloved disciples: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid’ (John 14:27)” (October 2014, “The Joy of Hope Fulfilled,” M. Russell Ballard).

May we anchor our lives in these scriptural promises which will give us the faith and hope to keep going no matter what, to trust God no matter what. Most importantly, they will ultimately give us the ability to thank the Lord in ALL things.