I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately, and not just because Thanksgiving is coming up.
Being grateful for what I have, right now, doesn’t always come naturally to me. Being the perfectionist that I am, I can often focus on problems more than I should. If I get a stain on my shirt, for instance, I’ll refuse to wear it because all I’ll be able to see is the stain. I have a tendency to focus on what needs to be done or what needs to be fixed, rather than focusing on what is already right.
This tendency towards perfectionism can keep me from living with gratitude. My over-anxious aiming for perfection keeps me focused on the problem (something’s not perfect) rather than on the Solution (Jesus Christ). I see this when my prayers begin to focus too much on asking forgiveness rather than giving praise. The more I focus on my own imperfection, the more I focus on my own sin, the less I am able to see how God is already at work in my life.
And the less I am able to live a life of gratitude.
It’s like getting frustrated your camera isn’t working when all you want is to take that perfect scenic shot. You focus on the broken camera and, when you look up, you’ve missed the sunset.
And who doesn’t love sunsets?
Lately, I’ve been especially aware of the beauty of a sunset over the New York City skyline. It never gets old to me. I still feel like a kid from the country in awe of city streets and skyscrapers. It reminds me of that time my friend from Brazil saw snow for the first time: he had this look that was something between confusion and joy. New York sunsets are always new and exciting for me, and I’m grateful for each of them.
Yet, as we get used to something, and begin taking it for granted, we can lose our appreciation for it. We can get so used to snow that we forget to see the beauty of each unique snowflake. We can get so used to the city that all we see is the smog and traffic. We can get so used to driving during rush hour with the sun in our eyes that we forget to see the sunset.
We can get so used to the good, so desensitized to it, that all we see is the bad.
Just like how we might get so used to being Christians that we forget to see the beauty of Christ in our lives.
We sometimes need to have someone awaken us to the beauty that is around us. We need someone to remind us of what we have and to open our eyes.
Recently, a friend of mine did just that for me. He was telling me, with great excitement, all the good things that the Lord was doing in his life. He was so joyful because he was aware of what Christ had done for him. He was joyful because Jesus wasn’t just someone he heard about on Sunday, but someone he encountered and who impacted his daily life. His eyes were open to see how Christ was present with him.
But are my eyes open?
If I’m not watchful - if I’m not constantly keeping Christ in my thoughts - it’s so easy to forget where I’ve been, what I’ve experienced, and all the people I’ve been blessed to meet and to know. If I forget all those blessings, I can’t be grateful for them. Yet, through Christ, I’m slowly learning to be thankful for bad times, too, and how to use them to develop rather than to challenge my faith.
There’s a beautiful prayer written by Mother Alexandra of Romania (also known as Princess Ileana) which says “I thank you for the darkness for it has made me to see the light more clearly. I thank you for the enmity for it has taught me to forgive.” When I see my experiences in light of this prayer, it’s easier to trust in Jesus in all things; everything can be turned into an opportunity for gratitude.
So, when I find myself not living with gratitude, I try to remember my life without something I take for granted: like when I lived in Cairo, Egypt without organized trash pick-up or water drains in the streets; or when I visited the Turkana people in Kenya and saw how they have to carry water by hand for miles from the well.
Or when I remember what my life was like before I committed myself to Christ.
Without Christ, I can be weighed down by my own imperfection. Without Christ, I am like a lamp that’s not plugged in, like a life half-lived. But when I put my trust in Him, when I lay all of my worries on Jesus and I commit my whole self to Him one day at a time, He gives me rest (Matthew 11:28), quenches my thirst (John 7:37) and gives me life in Him (John 14:6).
A life truly lived.
As I reflect on what Christ has done for me in the past, it’s easier to trust in Him today. The more I trust in Him today, the more I’m able to live in gratitude in all circumstances. I’m no longer bound by imperfections or sin, because I trust that Christ is greater than those things.
Jesus is at work in your life today, too. But are your eyes open to see what He’s up to? And how are you living with gratitude for it, today?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.