As a person who struggles with anxiety, I pay attention to ideas about where it originates and ways to cope with it. I’m always on the lookout for helpful strategies. I’ve heard the claim that gratitude can be an antidote to anxiety because we can’t be anxious and grateful simultaneously.
This led to some introspection. Am I a particularly ungrateful person? Is that the cause of my anxiety? I thought of all the times I thank others for help and thank God silently throughout a given day and didn’t see myself as being ungrateful.
Then, as often happens, the Lord used parenting to give me a healthy dose of humility. My husband and I were talking to my seven year old daughter about how much she was complaining after we had done something fun together. As she did a little dance of exasperation in front of us, her eyes wide and her arms gesturing dramatically, she said, “I AM grateful, but–” I cut her off and explained that while her words might be expressing gratitude, her heart was not grateful. “I’m grateful, but…” and “I’m sorry, but…” often indicate a heart that is not actually grateful or sorry. Usually when we start a sentence this way, we are acknowledging the fact that the other person wants or expects us to be grateful or sorry, but we really aren’t.
As is so often the case, I saw myself in my daughter’s dance of frustration. I thought more about my particular brand of gratitude. It sounds something like this: “God, this has been a really tough day, but at least __________.” Or, to myself, “I don’t like this, but I’m glad it’s not worse.” Because of my fear that my lack of gratitude will somehow lead to something worse than the thing I’m complaining about, I try to do my part to head off the inevitable disaster by throwing a little gratitude out there. I really hate when I see the dark places in my own heart exposed by a child’s temper tantrum.
Then today, someone was asking me how I’m feeling about the process of writing and trying to publish a book. I told her I was feeling sort of frantic about it, like I needed to get it done as soon as possible. When she asked why, I was surprised by my own answer. I told her about how I have always loved writing but until recently, I had never allowed myself to consider actually doing anything with it because it didn’t seem like a safe, responsible option. I thought of the years in between pregnancies when I was a stay-at-home mom to a 2 year old. For me, the newborn stage was incredibly difficult, so the toddler stage felt easy by comparison. I remember thinking that life felt pretty easy and manageable during that time, but I was restless. I wrote a prayer in my journal, very timidly asking God for “more.” I said in the prayer that I wasn’t even sure what that meant, but I asked anyway.
Gradually and then suddenly, God burst onto the scene and made it abundantly clear to me that I was supposed to write for God. God began working in me in areas I hadn’t even been aware of, exposing brokenness and providing healing and giving me bigger dreams than I had ever allowed myself to have before. The past couple years have been an adventure that I didn’t know to ask for and have fulfilled me in a way that would not have been possible if I had carried on with my own small plans for myself. So, for me, the dream of publishing a book is about so much more than publishing a book. It’s a tangible display of God’s hand in my life, the fruit of the abundance God has poured out. It’s evidence of what can happen when I surrender my own plans and take a step of faith to follow the mysterious places where Jesus delights to lead me. This book represents a turning point in my life, when I left what was safe and reached for what was good. Writing has energized me and given me life and joy and purpose and fulfillment, which I believe is exactly what happens when we find ourselves in the thick of doing the work God designed us to do.
At present, even just having written a draft of an entire book is a dream come true. All of this–the way God has changed the trajectory of my life and the abundance God has lavished on me–is an indescribably precious gift to me. I told the person who was asking how I feel about my book that it feels like God has given me so very much already, I find myself afraid to hope or ask for more. “I think it’s the vulnerability of loving something so much,” I said, my eyes filling with tears.
Turns out that gratitude is more complicated than I thought. More often than I’d like to admit, what I have called “gratitude” is not authentic. True gratitude — that deep-down, heartfelt “thank you” for something precious that has clearly come from God — carries with it the possibility of loss and disappointment. For the first time, I saw the vulnerability of gratitude. Google defines vulnerability as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” When we are deeply appreciative of something or someone, we open ourselves up to the possibility of the pain of loss or disappointment. Instinctively, we sometimes try to protect ourselves by downplaying how much something means to us.
The problem is that protecting ourselves from disappointment is incongruent with gratitude, hope, and joy, and without these three, we can’t obey many of the commands of Jesus. Obedience can make us feel vulnerable, but it’s really the only way to live the abundant life that Jesus died for us to have.
I feel like I am taking wobbly baby steps toward Jesus, “tasting and seeing” that He is good. The old me wants to shrink back after every crumb I receive off of His table. If I love His gifts too much, I will be crushed when I realize there is no more. I have to remind myself that He is abundant, His love is everlasting, and the greatest gifts He gives come from abiding in Him and cannot be taken away. When we abide in Him and receive the gifts hidden there, we will find that there is always more. When something or someone we love is taken away or something we have dared to hope for does not come to pass, we may indeed experience loss and disappointment. BUT. If we abide in Jesus, the abundance is still available to us, and He will give us good gifts we never even knew to ask for.
All that research connecting anxiety with a lack of gratitude? Upon further reflection, I’d say it’s pretty solid. God spells out the connection for us. When we feel anxious, if we will pray and allow ourselves the vulnerability of being truly grateful, we trade our ineffective and even damaging self-protection for the protection of God. We can allow ourselves to feel the joy and gratitude of ones who have received many good gifts from a good God. When we do, scripture says that the Lord will protect our hearts peace. I think that just might be the best news I’ve heard all day.
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