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I’ve had a remarkable ah hah! the last few days as I’ve recognized the rock bottom importance of gratitude. With Thanksgiving just around the corner I’ve been thinking about it more.
Thanksgiving has become for most Americans a “minor” holiday—a feast day stuck in between Halloween and the scurry of Christmas preparations. But I think Thanksgiving should be attended with trumpet fanfare and news headlines. It deserves our absolute attention because the spiritual importance of feeling, thinking, and speaking gratitude cannot be over-emphasized. It is a vital key to overcoming discouragement and feeling the Spirit.
What Is Our Definition of “Enough”?
In order to recognize where we are on the “gratitude scale” we need to ask ourselves, “How much is enough?” Is what we define as “enough” essential before we can begin to feel gratitude? Many times I have come to grips with the fact that gratitude was eclipsed in my mind by feelings of “not enough.” I wanted MORE: more time, more energy, more resources, more ability to connect with others, more of everything! I know “divine discontent” can lead us to put forth the effort to improve, but this frame of mind didn’t feel divine at all! No matter the improvement I might make in any of those areas, I still wanted MORE.
One day a plaque in a store grabbed my attention. It said, “Gratitude Turns What We Have Into Enough.” I bought it and placed it on a stand on my kitchen counter so I would see it many times a day. I was able to apply that idea first of all to temporal things. I could see clearly that the more I expressed gratitude for my home and everything in it the less I was inclined to feel that I couldn’t be happy until I made some grand improvement in décor or furnishing. Then I began to see how the principle applied to everything else too. Staying in a gratitude mindset could quell unhealthy dissatisfaction with family dynamics, with my level of health, with most everything!
Does Gratitude Only Apply to What We Label “Good”?
The next level of learning for me was to recognize that it was not enough to feel and express gratitude for the things I could easily label as “good” in my life. In the first place, with my tiny level of understanding, how can I judge what is “good”? I remember a long story where an old man in village has one thing after another happen that his neighbors label “good” or “bad.” For instance when his son, barely into manhood, broke his leg they all lamented what a terrible thing it was. The old man would always say something like, “We shall see.” In this case, shortly after his son broke his leg, every boy that age was conscripted into the army and he was exempt because of the injury.
So I learned that the higher law of gratitude is thanking God in all things, not trying to judge them but knowing that God will make “all things work together” for our good.
It’s especially hard to give thanks in all things when the world seems to be falling apart around us. But we can move in that direction if we remember that our eternal salvation is not determined by what happens “out there,” but on what goes on in our minds and hearts. President Benson said it this way, “Be warned that some of the greatest battles you will face will be fought within the silent chambers of your own soul.”1 Because Satan knows this, as long we draw breath he will never give up his quest to tempt us to ingratitude by whispering misery-producing lies and discouraging thoughts into our minds. We need to be forewarned and fore-armed.
Remembering to express gratitude to God for what we see as “good” may be a preparatory law, however, just as tithing prepares us to live the higher law of consecration, and is a good place to start. But let’s look at this higher law of gratitude as a commandment for today. Without a doubt it is challenging to live, but every time we do we will find it replete with spiritual blessings.
The Higher Law: Thanking the Lord—in ALL Things
In D&C 59:21 we read, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments” (emphasis mine). The higher law of gratitude is found in that same section: “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.” (D&C 59:7, emphasis mine)
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 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 is 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). His talk entitled “Giving Thanks in All Things” is full of wisdom.
Perhaps both of these examples stand as a type and shadow of our current crisis. We too are in a time of tribulation, with latter-day prophecies being fulfilled at an unprecedented rate. It’s a huge challenge to live this higher law as our personal adversities escalate. When everything is going well, gratitude is easy, but what about when we lose our job or our house, when our prodigal son doesn’t return, when we see the tsunamis of evil drowning dearly loved children? How can we feel one whit of gratitude for any of that? Yet the hardest, most painful, most challenging things must surely be defined as part of the “all” the Lord was referring to.
I’ve often been inclined to murmur when in the thick of trials instead of recognizing blessings in the making, and trusting that good will come from hard things. It’s not difficult to find good company in the scriptures. The Children of Israel had the Red Sea parted and water drawn from a rock to save their lives. Yet they murmured about the difficulty of their journey. They were kept from starvation by the miracle of manna, but complained that they wanted meat. Jonah complained to the Lord when Ninevah was spared.
And the best scripture examples of ingratitude are surely Laman and Lemuel.
Didn’t they murmur about everything? The Lord had spared them from the destruction of Jerusalem, but they complained about having to leave their riches and the comforts of home. He had led and guided them and given them a supportive and incredible family. But what did they do? They murmured even about their blessings! They spoke against their father and his prophetic and visionary ways. They murmured constantly about their younger brother and his righteousness and spiritual strength.
When Gratitude Seems Impossible
Maybe it’s a typical human trait, but I have usually found myself capable of thanking the Lord for the hardest trials only in retrospect. For instance, after decades of health challenges I can finally see that I probably would not have held still long enough to hear the Spirit without them.
Decades after a heart-wrenching divorce I am finally noticing the blessings I’ve received from having to dig my roots into much deeper spiritual soil. Thirty years into my second marriage to my loving Doug I’m spending a lot less time lamenting the difficulties and a lot more time thanking the Lord for all we’ve learned together from the challenges of differing backgrounds, ex-spouses, and parenting a blended family of seven sons.
Some life experiences are so hard they can try our faith and make us feel incapable of gratitude. For instance, the valley of the shadow of death of loved ones can be dark indeed. I’ve heard the analogy of comparing a coil of rope to our faith. When it is sitting beside us, we can glibly say, “yes, I trust the strength of that rope.” But what about when we are dangling over a precipice and the rope is our only hope for survival? That was how I felt when my son died tragically: the strength of that rope—my faith—was suddenly put to the test. Do you think I was thankful at the moment? Hardly. Now, however, with the perspective of years I can thank the Lord for the things I’ve learned from this unspeakable grief. It blessed me with the assurance that God is indeed trustworthy and that His strength is the source of any strength at all in my rope of faith. The strength I can get from His grace and His mercy is always enough to save me spiritually. I pray that I will remember to express gratitude for that!
I’m grateful for a sure knowledge of the Comforter, only because I’ve had a desperate need for it and experienced it. I’m grateful for renewed assurance of a glorious resurrection and reunion from that Source. I’m grateful for all the comfort found in the scriptures—especially in D&C section 138 about the Lord’s mercy extended in the spirit world where we are told that the gospel is preached by faithful elders who have passed on and the dead who repent will yet be redeemed.
I’m beginning to see the deep purpose of agency and choice and trials and adversity. I have experienced the Lord’s unfailing invitation to lean on Him because I am bereft of all illusion of my ability to function without His help. So am I now grateful for my biggest adversities? I guess I am.
I’m grateful that I’m less likely these days to try to counsel the Lord that things really should be different than they are. I’ve doubted and challenged and questioned and finally realized that if there had been a better, less pain-filled way to learn mortality’s lessons, God would have known about it and implemented it. Giving us this mortal experience, with all that implies, is His plan and it’s my job to trust that His plan is the best one available in all time and eternity.
God invites all to come to him. His mercy and forgiveness are infinite.
The thing I’m most grateful for is the Atonement of Christ. It is Satan’s very worst lie and deception that we can mess up more than the Savior can redeem. The adversary robs us of our best hope when he tells us that the mercy and grace and forgiveness of the Savior are for everyone but us. The Lord’s message is just the opposite: in 2 Nephi 26 we read, “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth . . . Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay. . . Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay . . .but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden. . . he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female.” And Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants assures us that Christ’s invitation extends to the spirit world—that even after death we can repent and come back.
Elder Boyd K. Packer said, Save for those few who defect to perdition after having known a fulness, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no offense exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. . . Restoring what you cannot restore, healing the wound you cannot heal, fixing that which you broke and you cannot fix is the very purpose of the atonement of Christ.” 2
But what about broken homes and broken hearts?
Elder Bruce Hafen, in his book, The Broken Heart, said, “Sometimes we say that no other success can compensate for our failures in the home. And while it is true that no other success of ours can fully compensate, there is a success that compensates for all our failures, after all we can do in good faith. That success is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. By its power, we may arise from the ashes of life filled with incomprehensible beauty and joy.”3
We have succeeded in our homes any day we have succeeded in turning to Christ, repenting, having faith in Him, making Him our counselor and guide. Now THAT is something to express gratitude for!
We can’t control the choices or values or actions of other family members in our earthly families. But we can control the choices that will draw our own hearts ever closer to the Savior. We can accept Christ’s Atonement in our behalf. His mercy and grace will leave us clean and forgiven. We can make the choices that open our hearts to His constant love and guidance, and that lead us on the straight path to being children of Christ. We can be sealed into the family of Christ by being born again as His sons and His daughters and making sure our own temple ordinances are complete. We can always have Him and Heavenly Father as righteous parent figures in our lives. We can have the assurance of fellowship with all others who eventually make those choices also, regardless of our marital status or the choices of our other family members. What gratitude we should have for all of that!
I’m Learning to Trust God No Matter What!
I now see that the only thing that makes it possible to thank God in all things is to Trust God No Matter What! That’s the title of my book that documents many spiritual lessons I’ve learned. I now stand as a witness that the only course in life that makes sense is trusting God no matter what and thanking him in all things. There is no light on any other path. And once we’ve tasted the light, darkness is unbearable.
I know now that I can trust God no matter what because God cannot lie. His scriptural promises are sure. When He tells us that “all things work together for our good” (repeated three times in scripture) and that “all these things shall give [us] experience, and shall be for [our] good.”(D&C 122: 7)—even though we can’t imagine how it could be true, it IS true because God cannot lie.
I see now that gratitude is the very heart of faith, the very soul of trust in the Lord. I am lost without it, because without it I lose the Spirit. The Holy Ghost never participates in my whining, self-pity, negativity, or blindness to the Lord’s purposes. The Lord never motivates or inspires me to complain about my circumstances or the faults of others or to grovel in self-denigration. But whenever I am attending to the commandment to give thanks in all things the Spirit attends me and I feel joy—no matter how bad the circumstances might be. No wonder this commandment has been so often repeated.
This Thanksgiving season my prayer for all of us is that we turn our thoughts and minds and hearts to thanking God for life, for His plan, for the blessing of learning through experience, and for the knowledge that all things can work together for our good. In short, that we thank God in all things. Gratitude is the grand solution.
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1 Ezra Taft Benson, “In His Steps,” 1979 Devotional Speeches of the Year, 60).
2 Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 18, emphasis added.
3 Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences, 1989, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 22.