Thanksgiving: How the Practice of Gratitude leads to the Presence of Contentment

“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content…I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Eph 4:11-12). I used to read those verses and think, “Good for you, Paul…I wish.”

Contentment and I have a troubled history. Many reasons: chronic illness, physical limitations, and especially the propensity to live in the future ( I think I will be content when I get married…have a baby…accomplish this career or ministry vision…)

As a future oriented person who has always lived with chronic, holy frustration, reading Ann Voskamp's book, 1000 Gifts seven years ago changed me. Her close-to-the-heart chronicle of her journey into thanksgiving and contentment, and my processing it with her, felt like discovering Paul’s missing, long-sought-after secret.

Whether you've read her work or not, this is the perfect time to read or refresh her transformative  insights, Ann describes herself as a “woman who speaks one language, the language of the fall—discontentment and self-condemnation, the critical eye and the never satisfied.” Her childhood story of loss and betrayal breaks your heart. 

But she took a dare to list 1000 gifts in her everyday experience. In the midst of piles of dirty laundry, piles of dirty dishes, squabbles among six children and her husband’s concern over the viability of their farm in the great recession, Ann began to train her eyes to see God’s gifts and record them on her blog.This Thanksgiving I give thanks for Ann's book, especially three deep insights that have radically altered my life. 

First, the connection between searching out and listing God’s gifts and the Spirit opening the eyes of our hearts to see their true value.

Try as we might to see spiritual reality, it is a work of God’s spirit. Paul prays for the Ephesians (1:18) that God would “open the eyes of their hearts." Sometimes God gives us the grace to see the treasures of his kingdom fully and sometimes he withholds until the right moment.

An unmistakable link unfolds in Ann's life: on the one hand the intentional seeking of God’s gifts and the acknowledgement of gratitude and on the other, the Spirit’s gift of a far richer seeing—a seeing the true worth and spiritual beauty of something that triggers a deeply authentic feeling and experience of gratitude in our hearts.

As Ann records the richness and abundance of her often overlooked gifts, her focus changes from what she does not have to what she does have. Gratitude enables a way of seeing that leads to a deeply authentic contentment which leads to more gratitude…

Secondly, we see the connection between gratitude and a deepening trust in God.

The longer Ann’s list becomes, the more she expresses thanks, the more she sees, experiences and feels the goodness of God’s heart. She becomes overwhelmed with God’s grace and lavish generosity in her life. She counts the ways in which he deeply loves her and is for her, more than she ever realized.

There is, she notes, a direct correlation between gratitude and trust simply because, when you have eyes to see all God’s gifts in your life, you begin to value the giver more and more. Like a bride drawn to her groom’s lavish and sacrificial gifts given to woo her. When you begin to richly experience God’s goodness in that way, you naturally begin to trust his heart far more. Even when the giving of thanks–for a child’s maimed hand, a Mother’s betrayal by her spouse–is hard, hard, hard.

Thirdly, as I journeyed with Ann through those hard places and watched her choose to say words of thanks instead of words of anger or despair, I was inspired to do the same. We all find ourselves in hard places. Someone lets us down. We want to write “the book” on how unfair it is. How damaging to our relationship. How all these negative consequences will ripple out to diminish and destroy.

Instead we make our mouths say “thank you for”…and make our minds fill in the blank. We do it again. And again. And, as Ann bears witness, it is the closest thing to magic we may ever experience.

Our anger softens, the eyes of our hearts are opened to God at work. God drawing near. Love returns. This too shall pass. All is well. We are learning. Not arrived. But we find that wellspring of contentment in searching out the gifts of our Father and seeking, really seeking his face…

As often happens when we read a life changing book, God deepens the impact with extra links and sidebars. Reading 1000 Gifts I began to think about what I wrote about my own spiritual journey in Godsight years earlier: "At a relatively young age rheumatoid arthritis forced me to surrender the hope that I would find the life I long for here. With gratitude I looked back to the cross and Jesus' sacrifice.

But gratitude for what God had done for me in the past did not fully engage a heart that lives in the future. God had mercy and truly opened the eyes of my heart to see the worth and beauty of his Kingdom, especially the hope of heaven. It was like installing a Vortek V-8 engine into a limping old Volkswagon." Hope is the jet fuel that pulled me out of duty and resignation and propelled me into an outward, kingdom-building life.

But jet fuel is highly combustible. To live mainly motivated by hope, especially the hope of transformation and bringing God's kingdom in this world is to continually deal with holy frustration. 

I'm learning that giving thanks is like an engine additive that makes hope far less combustible. We focus not just on the future but also on the present where God is giving us so many beautiful expressions of his love. Life is so much more peaceful, contented when I live from hope AND gratitude. 

One more sidebar: I read in Psalm 50, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…the one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me…” New thought to ponder: In what ways is thanksgiving a sacrifice? What do we give up? I’m thinking it is many things…the temporary feel-good buzz of our anger, of writing “the book”…our right to self-justification, even justice…our vision of what should be or could be…our finite perspective on a situation…

When we sacrifice all this what might we gain? Authentic, down to the bottom of our souls contentment.

Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.