When I rounded the corner, the beauty of the lake filled my vision, bright and sparkling, dancing in the bliss of sunshine. My heart rose in answering joy, and spontaneously, I began to thank God for allowing me to live in a place where I experience such regular and stunning outbursts of beauty. Five years later, it is still the same.
We moved a number of times in our marriage, and at times, I went reluctantly. However, we made a decision to intentionally love and be thankful for every new home and region, and ultimately, our deliberate love and appreciation grew to become a genuine feeling. We chose to embrace where we lived and, in turn, where we lived embraced us. I thank God for my time in Mittagong, a little mountain town in NSW, Australia, where I learned some of the basic rules of life and leading, and I thank him also for my time in Great Britain, which has been the richest season of my life, but I moved reluctantly to both of those places.
“Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7, NIV).
Complaining Is Addictive
Sometimes the place you find yourself in, whether physically or metaphorically speaking, is tough. It feels as though you’re in exile, but the decision to live in a thankful way for what you do have, a way which seeks the peace and prosperity of your context, will result in your own peace and prosperity also. At least, I have found it to be so.
By the time God directed us to return to Australia, I longed to stay in the beautiful nation of England, which had been so good to me and my family (adding two lovely daughters-in-law and seven perfect grandchildren to our family), but I know better than to say no when God speaks, and so we returned. Arriving in Newcastle, one of the multitudes of beautiful beach suburbs in Australia, I was startled to find thankfulness springing unbidden to my heart and mouth. Where at other times I had to consistently make the choice to be thankful, now I was living in a place of such immediate and constant beauty that being thankful wasn’t difficult.
There is much scientific data confirming that thankful people live longer and more satisfying lives than those who habitually complain. I happen to know the truth of that, because, by nature, I’m a complainer, one who used to search assiduously through the details of my life, circumstances and relationships looking for something to find fault with. It didn’t make me happy, but it did feed something in my irritable, unsatisfied little heart.
Complaining is addictive. It feeds itself with reasons for unhappiness and pity-parties. It gorges on a bounty of explanations as to why my life, my friends, my job, my context is never enough. It consistently finds ways to confirm that my life is somehow less than the lives of the people around me, despite all evidence to the contrary. Complaining doesn’t need to have a real reason to exist because it’s a state of my heart as opposed to a state of my life. Complaining doesn’t need for things to be really wrong, it just needs to dramatize what’s happening to make it worthy of full-on belligerence, or at the very least, peevishness.
Becoming a Christian changed my life in many ways, not least being that I became convicted about my constant complaining. I began to hear my own voice in my ears, squawking its petulant self-pity in a neverending verbal stream. That was the best thing that could have happened to me because now I could hear what others heard. Until then, I could fool myself that I was just being honest, but now, I couldn’t deny what a downer my company must be when I was on a roll. Even I got bored listening to me! I knew I had to change.
Learn the Language of Thankfulness
It was the beginning of a life-long transformation in the way I speak, and my life is far more satisfying than it used to be. Learning the language of thankfulness contributed significantly to that. Because thankfulness is a language, and it does have to be learned. To change midpoint in a sentence is disconcerting but not difficult. To stop yourself from saying something and look for a way to express yourself thankfully is not difficult, but it is different. And the amazing thing is that once you get into the habit of looking, it’s easy to find things to be thankful for.
Earlier this year, after attending the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I flew out to visit a friend. However, a freak snowstorm grounded my plane for the two days I’d intended being with my friend. Around that time, our airways were being flooded with news reports from Europe regarding the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and terrorism in tiny, overcrowded boats. Many of those people, including small babies and children, drowned in their frantic attempt for freedom. I shuddered to imagine myself being so desperate to get my children and grandchildren to safety that I risked our lives to do it.
So, every time I had reason to complain of being stuck in Grand Rapids, I had a comparison to make. I thanked God that I was warm and safe in a hotel room with friends and enough to eat. I didn’t have to manufacture that thankfulness because now my soul is used to being appreciative for all that I have. It has become my default rather than an intention I have to follow through on. This wasn’t a compare and contrast exercise but a real, heartfelt awareness of the privilege I live within but seldom notice without something to jog my awareness.
It’s All About Perspective
If I think I am the centre of my own universe, then anything that doesn’t suit me becomes a source of irritation and complaint. However, if I have a bigger picture, if I can see beyond my own self-importance and self-absorption, much of my irritation, depression, frustration and self-pity evaporates, and life remains on an even keel even when the boat is rocking wildly with unforeseen incidents and pain.
I can’t imagine the lives of so many other people who are in such desperate circumstances that they must take their little ones and flee for their lives on unseaworthy boats. It’s important to pray for them and others who are in untenable situations, but I also feel it’s vital that we who live in comparative comfort and ease make a point of remembering to thank God for the lives we have. I mean, thank him until we really mean it—until it sinks into our hearts just how much we truly have.
It’s true that there are much bigger questions than you or I are able to answer about the state the world is in right now, but we make a beginning when we put our own lives in perspective by considering what is happening to many others. From there, we can work to see how to use our money, influence and knowledge not just for ourselves, but for the people God loves. I’m not talking about developing a guilt complex about everything we have, just the opposite in fact. I’m talking about working to develop thankfulness in every area of our lives–really seeing what we have to be thankful for and go from there to support others.
Thankfulness Is a Faith Issue
Thankfulness to God for what he has given us is one of the greatest expressions of trust in and love for him. Thankfulness acknowledges the goodness of God–his omnipotence in providing for us over and above the situations we are in. Thankfulness releases in us the awareness of what we have rather than what we have not.
The change in my life has been a lasting one, dealing with petty thinking and the craving for pity-parties. It’s risen in me a ‘can-do’ attitude that acknowledges the situation and thanks God for what he has given me to work with and pursues his plans for the way forward. That’s far more satisfying than keeping a Filo-Fax of my problems and discontents.
Bitterness leaves a sour taste in the mouth of the complainer. Thankfulness tastes like joy. When my mouth and heart work together with God to change my perceptions, it’s a win/win—more for the state of my heart than anything else. Thankfulness is a key to peace in ways we cannot fathom until we try it.