Gratitude: Discipling Your Mind
What do you see in the pictures below?
What is the story you see in the picture?
What is about to happen?
Is each glass full or empty?
Reflect on your answers for a minute. Picture 1 could be telling the story of an upwards journey, a curious man, a weary task, or….the light at the end of the tunnel. Picture 2 could be an image of a storm about to happening, the bottom about to fall out of the dark clouds, or… the light about the break through the dark clouds. Picture three could be one glass empty, one glass full, and one glass half empty/full. Or Picture 3 could be 3 full glasses – full of either air or water, but nonetheless full of something that we need to survive!
Notice that the answers to each picture can be different…depending on your perspective! And perspective matters, especially this time of year.
It’s Thanksgiving this week and soon to be Christmas (though you’d think it already was from the decorations.) All the goodness and thankfulness and seasonal cheer comes out. Smiles on faces. Seasons greetings on the tip of every tongue. I love it.
And I feel guilty about it. Don’t get me wrong. Everything and everyone is great. It’s just that I’m not so sure that inside myself I always live up to the hype. I’m not sure that deep down I am as joyful as I think I should be. I’m not sure my heart is big enough. I am definitely worried that my wallet isn’t big enough…and of course I feel guilty for worrying about that. I mean, really, am I thankful enough? Am I cheerful enough? Am I grateful enough? Do I believe enough? Am I filled with Christmas spirit enough?
I mean, come on…am I the only one? No, I’m not. And I know I am not because despite all the holiday goodness in the air, you probably saw storms and long journeys up stairs and empty glasses in the pictures above! And even if you didn’t, there is at least someone else who is with me. It’s Paul. He struggles a lot! Check out Romans 7:15-24.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
I hear myself in Paul. Struggling to want to do and feel and believe what is good and right. But then failing…or, at the least, feeling like I am failing. Maybe you can relate.
My brother Paul and I, we struggle with what is good. And so that got me thinking about what is good this week. When we speak of someone who is good and upholds high moral character and lives a righteous life, we sometimes say this person is virtuous. A person full of virtue.
Virtue is more of a traditional word used classically and throughout antiquity. And yet it is still poignant and relevant to the life we as Christians strive to live. And as people today disagree over morals and values and what is right and wrong, we all tend to agree on virtues, for example charity, kindness, patience, humility, diligence.
Well, the philosopher Cicero argued that among virtues, gratitude is “the parent of all the others,” a virtue that gives birth to other virtues. And Paul would seem to agree.
Why do I say that? Well, when you turn back in the book of Romans to the beginning you discover what Paul’s letter is all about. (Hint: Greek letters always state the reason for the letter at the very beginning.) Paul begins by greeting his readers and then he says, First of all, I give thanks… Next, Paul goes on to talk about people with whom he is concerned whom he calls ungodly, wicked and he says that their ungodliness and wickedness is rooted in not honoring god or giving God thanks. Listen:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks.
So, there you go. For both Paul and Cicero, gratitude is a chief concern. Gratitude leads to goodness, godliness, and righteousness. And as I think about that as a Christian, I would sum up Paul and Cicero together in this way:
Gratitude is a vehicle that makes us more Christ-like
Gratitude gives birth to Christ within us. And not only that, gratitude also cultivates what we might call the “good life.” That is, people who are consistently grateful are happier, more stable, more rested, more content, more of most everything good!
Why? Well, Paul has hinted at this too in what we just read. He said that knowing God is plain, but those who are not grateful, they (me….maybe even we) suppress the truth.
In other words, there is something that is plain to see, but we don’t see it. There is something that we could understand, but we don’t. Or to say this another way:
People who are grateful think and see differently from the way many of the rest of us think and see.
And so in one of the most famous verses in all of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul gets really clear on exactly what we need to do to be more grateful and thus more Christlike:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
Think about those three pictures again. Look at them again. What do you see in each picture now?
Most likely you now see the light at the end of the tunnel and the light about to break through the clouds and three full glasses! So once you were made aware of something, your perspective is now changed. Interesting, huh? Your mind can be transformed and renewed. You can see the truth of what is right in front of you. And you can start acting on it!
Which answer you gave earlier depends on how you brain was wired in that moment. But the good news as Paul says, is that your brain can be taught, trained, and transformed. You can quite literally retrain your brain to see the different thing.
Gratitude exercises, journals, meditation, mindfulness exercises, etc. are all attempts to retrain your brain. But here’s the kicker: You have to do them consistently for an extended time to retrain your brain.
You see, your brain is full of millions and billions of neurons and synapses. In this moment, there are particular pathways and connections between these neurons and synapses which have formed through the habits of your thinking. If you have had some particularly difficult situations lately and felt really awful and disappointed, then pathways have formed in your brainway that sort of open the floodgates for disappointment and despair. So that the next time you experience something – whatever it is – those pathways are more open and connected to elicit those emotions – regardless of exact experience. Just think about Eeyore!
But, you can rewire your brain! New pathways can be formed and these old pathways can break apart. You just have to be intentional about your thinking habits, your responses to situations, and how you handle and manage your self, your emotions, and so on. You can be transformed and renewed. And its not magic! It’s not even rocket science. It’s brain science!
This holy season, I encourage you to take time to work on your thoughts. Intentionally re-orient yourself towards things you are grateful for. And do this over and over. And slowly it will re-train your brain to see and understand what is good and beautiful and wonderful. And this gratitude, as Cicero and Paul say, will birth other virtues in your life transforming you into the way of Christ. And brothers and sisters, because of the way God created all that is, life will begin to open to you in new ways!