Last week, during the question-and-answer segment of Prof James Houston’s public lecture, someone asked him what spiritual disciplines had enabled him to continue to serve so vibrantly even in his 94th year. Prof Houston’s immediate reply was a hearty guffaw that was followed by a single word: ”Nothing!” All of us in the audience laughed of course, but then as his answer sank in, the hall fell silent. He appeared to be mulling over something for a while, and then proceeded to say that if he had to give an answer, it would be “gratitude”.
He explained that his attitude of gratitude is what has seen him through the ups and downs of his very fruitful life. Now, he greets each new day with deep thanks for being allowed to enjoy another day and all that comes with it.
It was a word in season for a time such as this, when world events (natural or man-made) give us cause for much soul-searching and prayer. We could spiral into an incapacitating fatalism, or we could choose to thank God for strength for the journey, an ability to recall past blessings, and a capacity to bless others.
I know I have been less than grateful on so many occasions and have complained bitterly on others. Perhaps the grievances were genuine and I did have cause to mutter. But what good did that do for me or the situation? It was a momentary relief, sure, being able to gripe and whinge (hey, I’m human). But it didn’t solve anything. This reminds me of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood in C.S Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1944).
You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptation with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it — all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. (143)
I have indeed run the risk of wearing out my soul by attrition; the slow drip of unhappiness eating into my storehouse of gratitude. God in His mercy jolted me out of this downward spiral through His Word and His people. My favoritest gal in the Bible is Ruth. The die-hard romantic in me loves the pathos, drama, and joyful resolution in her story. Through Ruth and Naomi, I was taught the difference between grateful hopefulness and bitter regret. One gives you the strength to go on and the other causes you to want to shrivel up and die.
I have also seen, first-hand, how gratitude has helped others navigate the trials of their lives. A good friend lost her father to pneumonia and a massive stroke two days ago. I was with her when she saw her lifeless father in the hospital bed. But, although her eyes sparkled with tears at this earthly separation, there was a different spark in her eyes as she turned to me and shared her thankfulness to God for allowing her to be here in Singapore sharing her father’s last days with him.
My friend lives 12,813 kilometres away in Vancouver. In February this year, she was prompted to book a visit to Singapore in November, without any inkling of what was to come. She arrived two days before her father returned to His Father in heaven. So, yes, she and her family are in grief. But there is so much joy as well. Because there is so much gratitude…for divine promptings, for a life lived for others, for an example of integrity and courage that is now a living legacy for his children and grandchildren.
I, too, have much to be thankful for. When I was searching, God found me and made me His child (that story will have to come in another instalment). Learning the full counsel of God has given me a hope that goes beyond present vicissitudes and momentary joys. He has seen me through the death of a husband and the trepidation of bringing up two boys on my own. There have been days of wondering where the money would come from to pay for the next semester’s university tuition fees or my parent’s medical bills. But through it all, God sent reminders, tangible or otherwise, that He is in control and to help me understand the truth of:
What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. (Matthew 10:29–31.)
So, yes, I wake up each day grateful to be able to taste and see afresh that God is good, not just in the cosmic things, but in the mundane struggles of daily living. Of seeing seeming coincidences reflect God’s hand at work.
In this season of Thanksgiving, it’s good to be reminded again of how life-giving gratitude can be.