Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Gateway Virtue of Gratitude

I gave a talk this last Sunday on gratitude and I really liked it. Since putting together a reader's theater on the subject a year ago for my Relief Society group and trying to write a sestina on the subject (um, yeah, right, Laura! The day I am a skilled enough poet to write a sestina will probably coincide with the second coming.) I've been thinking a lot about gratitude. So it was awesome to have the opportunity to put my thoughts down on paper in a coherent way. I prayed a lot and I spent a good ten hours researching and writing the thing and it's still imperfect, but I thought I'd share it with you all. Happy Thanksgiving and happy reading!

p.s. It's long--it was supposed to be a 10 minute talk and I talk fast--but it's worth reading the whole thing!

“To Live in Thanksgiving Daily”
The power of the gateway virtue of gratitude

“When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,” a favorite hymn begins. “Are you ever burdened with a load of care? Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?” it questions. Then it advises, “So amid the conflict, whether great or small, Do not be discouraged, God is over all . . . Count your many blessings; Name them one by one. Count your many blessings; See what God hath done. ” This simple admonishment of gratitude that we sing in buoyant tones is one that we hear often and one we probably underestimate the power of.

Science tells us about the power of gratitude. A 2003 study from the University of California showed that people who kept gratitude journals enjoyed a host of benefits: fewer physical ailments, more alertness and energy, a higher rate of personal goal attainment. They were more optimistic and were more likely help others. Children who practiced gratitude benefited as well, showing more positive attitudes toward school and family. ( ) A 2008 study from the United Kingdom concluded, “Gratitude is . . . uniquely important to psychological well-being.” For every thank-you we offer another our own self-esteem and mental health are increased.

The power of gratitude goes well beyond the psychological, though. It is a spiritual power as well. President James E. Faust said, “It seems as though there is a tug-of-war between opposing character traits that leaves no voids in our souls. As gratitude is absent or disappears, rebellion often enters and fills the vacuum . . . A grateful heart is the beginning of greatness. . . It is a foundation for the development of such virtues as prayer, faith, courage, contentment, happiness, love, and well-being.” When viewed from an eternal perspective having a spirit of thanksgiving within ourselves is a gateway to not just more optimism, which is a considerable benefit, but also many wonderful spiritual blessings. Gratitude is an important beginning step on the road to eternal life. We cannot live with God or like God until we learn to show gratitude in all things.

Gratitude serves us in such a major spiritual way because it is actually a “binding commandment” (Faust, “Gratitude As a Saving Principle,” Ensign, Dec 1996). In Doctrine and Covenants section 59 the Lord tells us, “Thank the Lord thy God in all things . . . in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (verses 7 and 21)—all things meaning the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. Both ancient and modern prophets have counseled us to live this commandment. King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon counseled that in order to truly take Christ’s name upon ourselves we must, “live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which [God] doth bestow upon you” (Alma 34:38). More recently, President Monson has succinctly stated, “Think to thank.”

Like other binding commandments, gratitude is more than just a two-way street between us and God. For every little bit we comply we do get something back, but that is a narrow view. Heavenly Father does not work on a strictly this-for-that basis. If He did we’d all be doomed because no matter how valiant our efforts we are always “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). Just like when we pay our tithing and the Lord blesses us in a myriad of ways so too are we blessed when we are grateful. It isn’t as if since we thank the Lord for our dinner He will only ensure that we get another dinner. Rather, because we have thanked the Lord for our dinner our perspective will change, embracing a more eternal point of view. We will appreciate all the effort that went in to preparing the food; the food will probably taste better because we are in a more positive mind-set to begin with; we will have a better idea of the greatness of God’s creations and the depth of His wisdom that those creations testify of; then our dinner isn’t just something to fill our bellies, but something to feed our souls. This can make us more grateful and will in turn further adjust our perspective. It is this reciprocal relationship between gratitude and spiritual insight that makes gratitude a spiritual gateway.

This commandment to thank the Lord in all things is one that most of us try to embrace—especially during the holidays—and most of us have seen the benefits of as we have increased our efforts in this area. In my life when I have made a serious effort to be more grateful I have seen many spiritual blessings, but there are two I’d like to share with you today: blessings of faith and blessings of repentance.

Gratitude is the foundation of faith; it is very difficult to believe in something we are not grateful for. True faith—the kind that leads to devotion, action, and testimony—grows through small expressions of belief, of which gratitude is a primary example.

This is something we can see in our own families. I have noticed in my own family is that when we go through busy and stressful times one of the first things to disappear is gratitude. When we are busy we just forget to thank each other for the all the little things efforts that make a family run smoothly. The more we forget to thank, the more we take for granted and soon that taking for granted turns into plain old taking or, in other words, selfishness. As selfishness takes hold inside us we are blind to other efforts and can only see our own work and frustrations. It divides us and makes us miserable. Then conflicts occur.

But a thank-you can turn all that around. When meetings and appointments and homework begin to encroach our family dinner time and I start to get stressed and frustrated, for example, just getting a quick hug and a quiet thank you from my husband puts things back in perspective. It pushes the pause button on my stress and reminds me that he believes in me and in my efforts to make our family a happy one. It makes the frustrations worthwhile.

The kind of faith we show family members when we say thank- you is similar to the faith that the tenth leper showed when he returned to thank Christ for healing him. After questioning the whereabouts of the other nine the Lord didn’t say, “Thy gratitude hath made thee whole.” He said, “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” When the tenth leper (who not coincidentally was a Samaritan) stopped to thank the Lord, inherent in his expression was the acknowledgment that Christ was his Master and the source of all blessings. After all, scripture tells us that the leper offered a true sentiment of gratitude. He didn’t only thank Christ but also glorified God. It was those inherent statements of faith that met the demands of the command for gratitude and that opened the door for spiritual blessings-- because when Christ made the leper whole he had already healed him physically. The wholeness given, the resultant blessing, was spiritual wholeness.

Our own expressions of thanksgiving can must us spiritually whole too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of us start our testimonies with statements of gratitude for the scriptures, the priesthood, temples, prophets, and especially for our Savior. When we stop and realize that depths of gratitude what we are really realizing is the depth of our faith. Which is one reason Elder Ballard has encouraged us to move from only stating our gratitude to also stating our faith; one kind of statement implies the other.

I think a similar relationship between gratitude and faith is evidenced in our prayers. When we take time in our prayers to really converse with our Father in Heaven and thank Him for our blessings what we are actually doing is acknowledging His hand. We are testifying that we know He loves us, we know He takes care of us, and we know He is the ultimate source of power and goodness in our lives. When we properly, mindfully thank Heavenly Father we are placing our trust in Him and aligning ourselves with Him thereby making a powerful statement of what we are and will be faithful to.

I think it is because of this reciprocal relationship between gratitude and faith that I have seen my understanding of and my ability to receive forgiveness grow. A weighty expression of a Latter-day Saint’s faith is his or her weekly partaking of the sacrament. When we partake of the sacrament we renew the covenants we have made and we ponder on Christ’s sacrifice for us. When we chew the bread we are, as the sacrament prayer says, to remember how Christ’s perfect and unblemished body—the body that walked on water, healed the sick, and raised the dead—was broken for us. We remember how he was tied up, beaten, spit upon, scourged, stripped, whipped, and hung on a cross. We remember how the nails pierced his hands, feet, and wrists and how the soldiers stabbed him in his side. And we remember his willingness to endure those things for each of us. President Eyring has said, “Remembrance is the seed of gratitude,” and for me it is impossible to remember those wounds and those hurts without feeling grateful—extremely and inadequately grateful, but grateful all the same.

It is similar with the water for, as the prayer reminds us, the ounce or two of water that we drink each week is in remembrance of Christ’s blood—the blood that was shed drop by drop and pore by pore for each and every one of our sins, mistakes, and weaknesses. Each week, there are so many sins that I need to cleansed of that they, drop by drop, can fill that cup. It is hard for me to not look at that cup and not think of the pain Christ suffered for me so that I could be relieved of those burdens. And that makes me grateful—again, inadequately so, but deeply grateful.

Over the course of time, when I let it, that gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice has a surprising effect on me. It softens me and makes me aware of how far I have to go. My gratitude humbles me so that I can see how many weaknesses I have. It strengthens my love for my Savior as it makes His suffering more real and allows Him to work with me in my daily life. Gratitude for Christ’s atonement, when I really feel it, takes away my desire for sin. It helps me to truly repent and helps me to receive forgiveness and to change my habits and to become born of God. It is this kind of gratitude that helps me be grateful for my weaknesses and for hardships in my life because it changes my perspective. Deep, knowledgeable, and heartfelt gratitude is a prerequisite to that all-important change of heart.

This kind of powerful gratitude was chronicled in the Book of Mormon when King Benjamin said,
“And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as yea have come to a knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel. And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.”
Gratitude leads to faith and repentance and forgiveness which then leads to more gratitude, and the cycle of growth continues.

President Benson remarked, “The Prophet Joseph said at one time that one of the greatest sins of which the Latter-day Saints would be guilty is the sin of ingratitude.” We arguably live in the most blessed period of history, and yet how often do we stop to utter thanks, to God and each other? When we fail to be grateful for our blessings—all the blessings, from the small ones like salt for our potatoes to the big ones like temples and the Restoration—we not only lose the opportunity for growth but we risk backsliding into selfishness and ignorance. A lack of gratitude closes our minds and hearts and is a “form of pride” (President Faust). Ingratitude is a great sin.

But when we remember to be grateful it can open us up to so many, many blessings—especially as it works within us to increase our faith and our desire to repent, rooting out selfishness and ungodliness and guiding us as we seek to link our lives to our Father in Heaven and our Savior Jesus Christ.

Since I opened with a modern hymn of gratitude, I’d like to close with an ancient one, the 100th Psalm:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.”


TJ said...

Wow. Thats a powerful talk. Very well composed and researched.

mary lou said...

Thank you, Laura! I needed to think about and ponder those thoughts today--your own and also the references. O remember, remember...!

Kelly said...

Very good talk, Laura. Your delivery was very good too -- I don't think you talked too fast. You made some very good points I hadn't thought about before. Great job!

IM AN RN said...

Once again you make me proud to be your mother. I am grateful for you and all the blessings you bring to our family life. Your topic was beautifully treated leaving me with a desire to be more thankful. I wish i could have been there to hear it.

Dad said...

Excellent Talk! Can I borrow it??? :) I was particularly impressed with its internal unity and organization. Very easy to follow and understand! I'm GRATEFUL to you for sharing! Lotsa love, Dad

Charlotte said...

So beautiful! Definitely well written (and knowing you, well delivered). That was a perfect reminder for me - thank you so much for sharing it with us! You really found that balance between admonishing and inspiring.

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