The morning of June 13th dawned early—much too early. But it wasn’t just the hour that came too quickly—though that certainly was a factor, as we were bone-weary tired from seven jam-packed days of sweating and service. It was more that the week, which had once stretched out before us full of hope and promise, was now drawing to a close and within hours we would lift off from this land that had become dear to us, not knowing when we might return.
We came to breakfast tired. Hungry. Heavy-hearted. Reluctant to leave. And as we did every morning of our trip, once we had eaten, we invited God to join us there.
I opened our time with the June 13th reading from Jesus Calling, one of my favorite devotionals and one that had been well-utilized during our times together. It was as if Sarah Young had written that day knowing exactly what we would need to hear:
I am creating something new in you: a bubbling spring of Joy that spills over into others’ lives. Do not mistake this Joy for your own or try to take credit for it in any way. Instead, watch in delight as My Spirit flows through you to bless others. Let yourself become a reservoir of the Spirit’s fruit.
Your part is to live close to Me, open to all that I am doing in you. Don’t try to control the streaming of My Spirit through you. Just keep focusing on Me as we walk through this day together. Enjoy my presence, which permeates you with Love, Joy, and Peace.
If nothing else, it spoke to me loudly and clearly. The promise of a new work when I had just written before our trip about sensing this trip was somehow a turning point. The irony of that work being JOY, which I had begun studying at the beginning of this year, only to be derailed by illness and chronic pain and fatigue and (further irony) depression. The reminder that this joy is not merely for ourselves—it is for others, as well… perhaps even most importantly. The prompt to spend time in God’s permeating presence—a reminder I unfortunately need more than I would like to admit.
I knew I couldn’t be alone in that. I had known several of these women before the trip, and had come to know more of them fairly well throughout the course of our week together. I knew I was not the only one coming to that table with a heaviness of heart that preceded our trip, let alone our trip’s end. I knew enough of each of them to know that we longed for more of God. For more of his heart. For more of his freedom. For more of his joy.
I believe, that week, we received a new glimpse of what both the pursuit and experience of these things should look like—and as they closed their eyes and allowed the images of the week to come and go, I read to them from Galatians 5:
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day.
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.
Of all the things that stood out to me—and there were many—it was this final line that most resonated. This new work within me—this work meant not to benefit merely myself but to overflow for the profit of others—would not ever come to pass if the things God put on my heart of the course of the last week (and, indeed, the last several months) remained merely ideas in my head or sentiments in my heart.
So what, then, I asked both myself and mi amigas, should be our response to the week we’d just experienced? How are we to work out the implications of such an experience in every detail of our lives?
I believe we are to make some commitments. To ourselves. To those most in need. To the God who gives all. I shared with them the list God had put on my own heart:
- A commitment to pray. To really pray. And to lift up needs beyond my own and those closest to me. To pray for the girls we’ve met by name. For the project directors. For the projects, themselves. And for my heart to be burdened in such a way that I cannot NOT pray.
- A commitment to gratitude. To embrace a renewed and redeemed perspective— on God, on wants versus needs, on what is enough, on what is good, better, or best, on what I really deserve, on grace—and to thank God as I should.
- A commitment to sacrificial giving and service. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified. I have given, but only to a comfortable degree. We are called to more. We are called to question, especially as Americans, what is truly necessary. And to make redeemed choices regarding what we do with our time, energy, and resources accordingly.
- A commitment to selflessness. To live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit, so as to not feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. To learn to not be driven by commitments to personal comfort that end with me placing myself before others but to instead put the needs of others before my own. Consistently.
- A commitment to working it out. It is all too easy to return home and slip back into our break-neck pace and mind-numbing routines, pushing the events of the last week into the far recesses of our memory. I must commit to slowing down. And to making an intentional and conscious effort to not only revisit my journal and my pictures but to actively wrestle with the convictions and revelations and stirrings and callings they created (and continue to create) within my heart, mind, and spirit.
- A commitment to Romans 12: 1-2. So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. (The Message)
What more is there to say?
You will be changed from the inside out.
Look, I am doing a new thing! See how it springs up? (Isaiah 43:19)
I am creating something new in you: a bubbling spring of Joy that spills over into others’ lives.
We left the Dominican Republic that morning, reluctant yet still just as expectant as we’d been when we’d arrived. There is more work to be done. In us. Through us. And, by the grace of God, even in spite of us.
We are ready.
We are able.
We are willing.
Your kingdom come, Lord. Your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.
Amen, and amen, and amen.Read More
Here is a list of resources for this month, to help you with your experience of practicing gratitude and thanksgiving!
One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp (Jan 17, 2011)
Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy by Nancy Leigh DeMoss (Apr 1, 2011)
A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life by John Kralik (Dec 27, 2011)
Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life by Angeles Arrien (Oct 28, 2011)
Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude by Nina Lesowitz, Mary Beth Sammons and Lee Woodruff (Oct 1, 2009)
Gratitude Factor, The: Enhancing Your Life through Grateful Living by Charles M. Shelton (Nov 1, 2010)
Radical Gratitude: Discovering Joy through Everyday Thankfulness by Ellen Vaughn and Chuck Colson (Mar 22, 2005)
Grateful Heart, The: Living the Christian Message by Wilkie Au (Mar 1, 2011)
There are times, I must admit, when I am a fair-weather thanker. Oh sure, I can give thanks with the best of them when the sun is shining and my kids are behaving and my body is free of pain and the traffic angels have smiled upon me, gracing me with smooth, wait-free travel. I’m all about the gratitude when things are going well and I am, well, um, *ahem* getting my own way.
But despite my best, most mis-placed efforts, I rarely, if ever, seem to, in the words of the old BK commercial, “Have it MY WAY.”
Which creates a little “issue” in the gratitude department. How do I be thankful for that which I did not ask or want? Or for that which I lack? Or for that which evades me, or plagues me, or torments me mercilessly?
My thoughts turn, as they always do when this topic arises, to a story Corrie ten Boom tells of her sister in The Hiding Place. I dig my old, warn copy of the bookshelf, cracking the binding as I open it to find the passage. The pages are yellowed and warn, but the story is ever-new.
Corrie and her sister, Betsie, were leaders in the Dutch Underground during the Nazi invasion and occupation in Holland, hiding people in their home in a specially built room and aiding their escape from the Nazi’s. The ten Booms were found out (though the secret room successfully spared the lives of the “watches in their closet”) and all were shipped to concentration camps, where Corrie and Betsie remained for almost a year.
The particular story to which my thoughts have turned takes place after Corrie and Betsie have been moved to Ravensbruck, where they are hopeful they will have better accommodations. What they find, instead, are even more overcrowded quarters, and large bunks with rank straw mats upon which nine women slept in a space meant for four—complete with an infestation of fleas.
As soon as they discover this newest plague, Corrie laments, “How can we ever live in such a place?” while Betsie starts to pray, “Show us. Show us how.”
And no sooner does she pray this than she declares with excitement He has given them the answer—and it is to give thanks in all circumstances. And so, they begin to pray.
“We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!”
“Such as?” I said.
“Such as being placed here together.”
I bit my lip. “Oh yes, Lord Jesus!”
“Such as what you’re holding in your hands.”
“Yes! Thank you, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all the women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages.”
“Yes,” said Betsie. “Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!” She looked at me expectantly. “Corrie!” she prodded.
“Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds.”
“Thank You,” Betsie went on serenely, “for the fleas, and for—“
The fleas! This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“’Give thanks in all circumstances,’” she quoted. “It doesn’t say ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”
And so we stood between piers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
Fleas are a part of this place where God has put us.
I encounter Betsie, every time I read this amazing story, with no small amount of awe and wonder—and perhaps even a little jealousy. Oh, to have a heart that can truly practice gratitude in all circumstances.
Because my heart, I must admit, is not nearly as—as what? As humble? As pliable? As faithful? As obedient? As grateful? I do not yet know how to truly be thankful for chronic pain, for the endless struggle to make ends meet, for the lifelong battle with my weight, for merciless depression and anxiety, for those things which wound most deeply and make the least sense in light of a loving God. Minor irritations? Sure—I can make that leap. That from which I can see future benefit? Absolutely. But these?
I just don’t know how to say it like I mean it.
And that is, of course, imperative. I can make my lips form the words, but unless I mean them, they are worth very little.
So what then, do I do, when I am commanded to give thanks in all circumstances, yet find myself with a halting, faltering tongue?
I must remember.
As Corrie and Betsie remembered:
Fridays—the recurrent humiliation of medical inspection … filing slowly past a phalanx of grinning guards … But it was one of these mornings while we were waiting, shivering, in the corridor, that yet another page in the Bible leapt into life for me.
He hung naked on the cross…
…I leaned toward Betsie, ahead of me in line. Her shoulder blades stood out sharp and thin beneath her blue-mottled skin.
“Betsie, they took His clothes, too.”
In front of me I heard a little gasp. “Oh, Corrie. And I never thanked Him…”
All gratitude begins with the Cross—and it is to the Cross my attention must turn in those moments of pain and struggle and weariness and even despair. My practice must begin with the ultimate, most sacrificial gift—that I may appropriately appreciate all others.
Corrie and Betsie lead scores of women to a saving relationship with Jesus—with this Jesus who hung naked on the cross and whom we never thought to thank—while in residence at Ravensbruck. The reason they were able to do so without being ever being caught or detected by the guards, who stayed mysteriously far from their living quarters?
Help me to be thankful for even the fleas. For the most hateful, irritating, miserable aspects of my current circumstances. Help me to remember to hold these events up against the sacrificial love of Jesus, who hung on a Cross to bear MY SIN AND SHAME—that my heart may be properly positioned before you.
Help me to truly learn to give thanks in all circumstances.
And help my heart to become more like yours, in the process.
As I’ve spent some time with the scriptural references to joy I’ve collected, I’ve noticed a couple of interesting things, one of which is that most verses referencing joy are not causal in nature. That is to say, there are not a lot of “if _____, then _____” when it comes to joy. This is interesting to me, because we do encounter cause and effect relationships documented in scripture with other emotions or fruits of the spirit, such as peace, wisdom, faith, or blessing. This means, alas, there is not a clear, scriptural formula for joy (the absence of which, I must admit, is more than a little disappointing).
What seems much more common, when it comes to joy, is that it seems to run concurrently with other emotions, practices, or mindsets. Such is the case with this month’s practice, gratitude.
What we find in scripture are examples of times when thanks are given, and where joy is also present:
The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
Isaiah 51:2-4 (in Context) Isaiah 51 (Whole Chapter)
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD— the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.
Jeremiah 31:11-13 (in Context) Jeremiah 31 (Whole Chapter)
…and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.
Colossians 1:11-13 (in Context) Colossians 1 (Whole Chapter)
We see, in these verses, the co-existence of joy and thanksgiving—indeed, when it comes to the act of giving thanks, it almost appears that joy is a pre-requisite or perhaps an essential ingredient, much like the instruction to give cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7). In this way, both the action and the heart are engaged: giving is done with cheer. Thanksgiving is done with joy. The heart must be properly engaged—just as with love (I Corinthians 13:1-3)—for the action to have any meaning or bear any fruit.
I believe this must inform our practice of giving thanks, this month. What this tells me is that this practice is not meant to be approached as a chore or as if we are grasping at straws to come up with items to list within our gratitude journals, if we’re even bothering to list those things for which we are giving thanks. It is meant to be done WITH joy, so that we may further CULTIVATE JOY.
So, what does this mean? If we do not FEEL joyful as we are thinking back over our day (remember the Examen exercise?), or, even worse, if we are struggling to see that for which we ought to be thankful, what do we do? Do we fake it?
Here is what I suggest: Meditate on your list. (And if there is nothing ON your list? Meditate on the cross.)
But what does that mean? It means this: find a quiet setting free of distractions, and try to get quiet, both internally and externally. When you feel quiet, begin to review the items on your list (or the events of The Passion) one by one, taking time with each to really ponder them—to engage your senses and your emotions, to enter in to the memory of that item upon which you’re meditating, to reflect on what it means to you and why you are thankful. Then, when you find you have connected emotionally with the memory or event—when you have touched upon that feeling of gratitude—stay there for a moment. FEEL the gratitude. Marinate in it—let it soak in. If you feel so led, express the gratitude—in worship, in writing, in person to whom you owe thanks to or for. And then take a moment to step back, and survey what else is going on emotionally within you. Chances are joy may be close by…
But what if there is still no joy? Then repeat, as necessary. (Often, if possible.)
I conclude, in my reading of these scriptures, that joy and thanksgiving are meant to intertwine—to be wrapped up in one another like two different skeins of yarn left to their own devices. Tangled, if you will—unable to be separated. But the key?
The key is this:
You must not merely express gratitude.
You must FEEL it.
And once you feel true gratitude, joy can’t be too far behind.
we so very, very rarely feel true gratitude. The kind that wells up within our hearts until we feel we will burst. The kind that compels us to put words to it in some inadequate form of expression. The kind that drives us to our knees in awe of you.
But we want to.
We want to give thanks joyfully. And we ask you to teach us how.
Teach us how to see.
Teach us how to feel.
Teach us how to express.
Put our hearts in their proper places.
And fill them to overflowing with thanks to you.
If I were someone else, I might think my naiveté were cute and perhaps a bit sweet.
“Isn’t she funny?” I might say. “She always does this—that girl is a hoot. One of these days she’s going to remember this whole There’s Another Team on the Field thing…”
But I’m not, alas, someone else. I’m me. And this tendency to be continually blindsided is less than endearing. (Quite frankly, it’s freakin’ annoying as all get out.) But despite my best efforts, it always manages to sneak up on me. Every. Flippin’. Time.
I wish I were one of those people who never got rattled by the enemy. But I’m not. At least not YET.
When I began The Joy Project in January of this year, I was looking forward to the process nearly as much as the outcome. As one who has struggled with depression and anxiety, the possibility of JOY gave me hope and stirred a bit of excitement somewhere deep within where that tiny hope-flame had first become lit. But truthfully, the pursuit was equally as appealing—the commitment to engage in twelve different spiritual practices, both old and new to me, indicated by scripture to bear such fruit—it sounded like fun at the time.
See? You’re already shaking your head, mumbling, What was she thinking? Kind of like when I prayed, during pregnancy, for a Strong, Passionate, Creative, Independent Young Woman. Who does that?
Me. I do.
And then, later, unexpectedly, I wonder what the heck hit me?
So, what DID hit me? I’ll tell you. Somewhere around the six to eight-week mark, just as I was finding a groove, the debilitating headaches hit. Three to five days at a stretch. Roughly every two weeks. Breaking through the medication. Breaking through the prayer. Breaking through my best attempts to hold them down.
Then my schedule hit. A week of training, here. A commitment at the school, there. Extra hours at my real job. Extra hours at my mommy job. Extra hours at my volunteer job. I couldn’t keep up with the writing. I couldn’t keep up with the practices. I couldn’t keep up with my life.
Then my weight hit. Between the lack of time and the lack of energy and the lack of motivation, I gained another five pounds—the scale continued inching its way back up insidiously, creating both panic and despair in my mind and heart and spirit.
Then sickness hit.
Then financial strain hit.
Then self-pity hit.
Then DEPRESSION hit.
And that is how, in the course of pursuing JOY, I found myself face to face with my old nemesis, once again held captive by his evil minions.
The enemy, he is sneaky, is he not?
And yet so predicable. If, that is, you are paying attention.
Which, as is apparent, I was NOT.
Enter: This month’s practice.
But this is different, I want to say. That had to do with unfulfilled dreams. This has to do with the continual, relentless slamming from the enemy that God somehow sees fit to allow in my life under the premise that it is good for me.
*deep cleansing breath*
Where was I?
To all that is ugly within me.
A simple thank you. Repeated. Again.
I need this.
I want this.
And yet I fail, every time.
Ann Voskamp testifies:
…life-changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time.
And I realize it is no wonder gratitude hasn’t stuck.
I have not yet been willing to crucify.
I need you to suppress these cancerous cells that grow within my spirit. Come, with your gentle nudge… with your yellow highlighter… with your still small voice…
And help me see.
And in seeing, help me be changed.
May my heart be filled to overflowing with the gratitude that is due you.
Regardless of what must die within me in the process.