Recently I received an email from a Christian organization that was seeking to provide counsel to parents on how they can help their teenagers fight anxiety. The theme of the email was about cultivating thankfulness or “gratitude,” being the word they used, in their teen’s life. Having a posture of gratitude coincides closely with what has been identified by the secular world as a helpful practice to counter anxious thinking. At first glance, this seems to be great advice that agrees with the teaching of the Bible and a Christian worldview. However, there’s something significantly missing from most of the resources seeking to fight anxiety by using thankfulness, including the article that I read. What was missing? The one who is to be thanked – God.
Just a few months ago we celebrated Christmas and, for most families, this includes a time of giving gifts to one another. I’m guessing that you likely gave a gift to someone that you love, which required significant thoughtfulness as well as time to buy and wrap the gift, and you did this all because of your heart of love for another person. Now imagine if you gave the gift to your loved one, they opened it up and expressed how much they liked what they received and then said, “I need to go write this down in my gratitude journal” as they run out of the room. Then they returned but never thanked you to your face for giving them a good gift. That would feel quite strange, wouldn’t it? You were there, present with them, but they did not thank you, the gift giver, for the gift.
For the record, I’m not against journals of thankfulness. In fact, I personally am now in my sixth year of recording 1,000 gifts that I’m thankful for each year. Tonight, I will be on item 6045 that I have written down as a record of what I am thankful for. I began this habit after reading Ann Voskamp’s 1,000 Gifts which was deeply formative in my perceptive of seeing God’s work in the world.
I must admit, often times I do just write down three things I am thankful for and quickly move on to respond to text messages and answer emails, which is not a good practice. What is far better, what will truly serve in calming anxiety is not simply to keep a thankfulness list, but to identify what to be thankful for and then thank God directly for those things, all while recognizing that he is a generous, good, and loving God.
The Bible clearly teaches us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Yes, that’s right, in all circumstances. This statement was written by a man who lived through far more suffering than most. He was single his entire life, he was physically abused, he was often on the run and nearly killed numerous times, and much more (you can read a descriptive account in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29). But, in all of this, he never stopped giving thanks to God. It’s a staple of his letters found in the Bible that in nearly every one Paul begins his writing by giving thanks to God for the work that he is doing in the world and in the lives of those he’s writing to.
I believe with deep conviction that one of the best ways to fight anxiety is through thankfulness. But, that is because truly being thankful is about acknowledging a gracious God who still does loving acts of kindness in our lives even while we are in the midst of suffering.
Almost exactly one year ago found out that I had a brain tumor and that I needed brain surgery to remove. It was by far one of the most jarring moments I’ve had in life. However, because of the cultivated habit of thankfulness I’ve fostered for years, by God’s grace I still was able to give thanks. I gave thanks to God for the pastor that came to be with me in the hospital, for God speaking to my wife and filling her with a vision of hope, for reconnecting with a long-time friend I had not talked with for quite some time. From the very beginning stages of dealing with difficulty I saw how God could take hardship and turn it for good, and I’m very thankful that I did.
If you are feeling anxious, please do fight it with gratitude. However, pause long enough to see the good God who stands behind every good gift in your life and who will never stop loving and pursuing you.
If you need some additional encouragement, here’s one of my all-time favorite songs of worship that I’ve had for many years now. I pray and hope that no matter what you are facing right now in life, that you are able to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8)