It’s that time of year again. Pumpkin-flavored everything, falling leaves, and frosty mornings here in the northern US. Our Canadian neighbors… neighbours… have already celebrated Thanksgiving, and my Facebook feed is filling up with 30 days of thankfulness from US friends.
The holidays are upon us. And the focus this month is everything we’re thankful for… and, really, that should be everything…
A few years ago, I read Ann Voskamp’s 1000 Gifts (I still highly recommend it!) and started my gift list of blessings. It’s a good mental- and spiritual-health habit. I haven’t kept at it, but it would be a good habit to pick back up…
I admit, when I first saw the cover, I misjudged the book. It looked… pretty. Soft. And the concept? Writing down things that make us feel thankful? Oh, please. When will people stop with the positive-thinking watered-down faith stuff?!?
But that’s not what counting 1000 of what Ann calls gifts is. It’s not about making a list of all the shiny things that make you smile, while ignoring the hard and pretending the ugly doesn’t exist. Life can be hard. Heart-breaking. Things happen that don’t make sense. It’s easy to doubt that there is a good, loving God.
Ann’s family suffered one of those devastating events you could never see coming, and would have stopped if you could. My husband said 1000 Gifts began with the two most depressing chapters he has ever read. If you’re expecting a light read when you pick it up, it will quickly disabuse you of your misconception.
The opening losses of Ann’s story left me shocked and disoriented. I realized there was so much more to her gift-listing than I’d expected.
You can’t appreciate where someone is on their journey if you don’t know where they’ve come from. There’s nothing fluffy about Ann Voskamp’s journey from childhood loss, through the difficulties of growing up and raising a family, to her understanding of and relationship with God she describes in 1000 Gifts. The book is also her invitation to us to find deeper intimacy with God by looking for His grace in everything.
It’s vital. But so easy to forget.
One of the hallmarks of depression, particularly bipolar depression, is the seemingly unbreakable cycle of negative, graceless thoughts. Although keeping track of things we’re thankful for isn’t a magic cure for depression, it, along with other spiritual disciplines, is as important in the maintenance of mental health as it is in spiritual health. We’re not one-dimensional, and our approach to mental health shouldn’t be, either.
When we don’t consistently remind ourselves of the truth of God’s love, provision, and character, we’re distracted by lies and our perceived lack. We easily lose sight of grace. God’s grace comes wrapped in all sorts of packages, and, let’s face it, we try to escape the painful ones.
Nothing comes into our lives without grace. Whether God sends it or allows it, it can serve a purpose in our spiritual growth, worship, service in the Body of Christ, and testimony of God’s faithfulness. Whatever it is, God will bring us through it, and we can come through closer to Him and more like Christ.
In the worst of my depression, I believed I was beyond grace. It’s a terrible pit to fall into, a small taste of the horror and despair of eternity apart from God. But my inability to see or feel grace didn’t destroy its ability to get me through the worst.
While grace requires our cooperation to fully fill and animate us, our brokenness doesn’t cut us off from it.
Grace, it all its forms, truly is amazing. We can reject it, but we can’t break it.
Gratitude over Grumbling
Pointing out the negative, to others or just myself, sets me up for stumbling into depression. It can also make me unpleasant to be around, and put a damper on what could otherwise be happier times.
Have you ever heard the phrase If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy? You can take it more than one way, but the point is clear. My attitude typically sets the tone for family interactions. When someone in a group is having an off day, and being determined or passive-aggressive about it, there’s only so much others within the group can do to compensate for it.
While it’s unhelpful to take on the weight of making holiday celebrations, get-togethers, and family time perfect (perfection is impossible), we need to consider others when we’re tempted to put on our grumpy pants.
Honesty and transparency are important when it comes to managing a mood disorder, but that doesn’t mean telling everyone in every setting, or just giving in to our emotions. Sometimes it’s kicking ourselves in the rear end to get out there and get out of ourselves.
You don’t have to be struggling with a diagnosable mood disorder to feel miserable during the holidays, or to struggle with complaining. Complaining can feel like a great release, can’t it? There, I said it! But, in a way, emotions feed themselves. What we choose to focus on expands until we’re filtering everything else through it.
How different would life look if our focus was God and His grace? If we filtered everything through the Truth of His love and holiness?
It’s one reason we should never stop reading, memorizing, and studying God’s Word.
A Holiday Season Challenge
I’m a proponent of attainable, measurable goals. Challenging myself… and you… to not grumble or complain during the holiday season isn’t bad, but it’s broad enough to pretty much guarantee failure.
So how can we make it more meaningfully doable?
Let’s start with acknowledging that grumbling and complaining are a problem. Not just in general, but something we do. A bad habit that impacts our joy, mental health, relationships with God and others, and testimony.
When we acknowledge sin in our life, the response must be repentance.
Lord, I know I’m wrong to complain and focus on the opposite of Your grace. Renew my heart and mind. I know you are faithful to complete the job You’ve started, and I’m responsible to live what I know is true.
Let’s turn our grumbling on its head…
This morning I was feeling overwhelmed, and sad, about an unwanted situation in my life. It has been going on a long time, and is not something that can be resolved any time soon. And it was weighing heavy.
I’ve been working on this post far longer than I thought I’d be. The Gratitude over Grumbling Challenge seemed well formed in my mind, but when I started putting it together in words, it fell apart. I forgot how it broke down in practical, doable actions. But my monologue of negativity bumped up against it, and my need to consistently choosing gratitude.
With Gratitude over Grumbling in mind, I applied the brakes, stopped looking inward at my feelings and outward at my circumstances, and looked up.
What can I thank You for in this, Lord?
Thank you I have the power to make a change in this situation.
But the Truth not only confronted me, it jolted me.
I cannot fix this situation in the way I would like to see it fixed, but I can improve it in several ways, make it more livable for myself and others involved.
We hear it over and over again, but it bears repeating: We can’t change anyone but ourselves; we can’t control others’ actions, only our responses.
Go on the Offensive
When you find yourself stuck in something you’d rather not be stuck in, go on the offensive against overwhelm, resentment, and fear. Ask God what you can do to make things better. It may seem like what you can do will make too small of a difference even if it requires a lot of effort, but even if the exterior change is almost imperceptible, you’ve empowered yourself. And that feels good.
In sports, offense takes on the opponent head-on to accomplish a goal. Defense tries to keep the opponent from scoring. In the situations that weigh us down and trip us up, we need to go on the offensive. Our goal is to push through the obstacles, not attack those around us.
Our fight is not against the people who seem to stand in our way, or push our buttons, or create chaos, or hurt us. The spiritual battle behind what we can see is where our energy needs to go.
When you find yourself fixated on a problem, worrying over how to fix a situation, wanting to change someone’s behavior, or overwhelmed… Stop. Yes, I know. That can feel like trying to catch a waterfall in a child’s sand bucket.
Here’s something I’ve found helpful: Actually stop your eyes on something and look at it. To see it clearly your brain has to stop spinning to focus your eyes and interpret the image. Take advantage of the pause. Turn your focus upward.
It’s such a short, seemingly simple prayer. But it’s not easy. At least it’s not easy to really mean it and commit to listening to God’s response.
What can I thank You for in this, Lord?
If nothing quickly comes to mind, thank Him any way. He’s there with you, He’s listening if you’re honestly talking to Him, the sun always rises on a new day, and spring always returns.
Drop Your Defenses
We don’t always want to hear we have power to change something. Because with ability, comes responsibility. Knowing the right thing to do is the obligation to do it.
But it’s their fault, Lord. They need to fix it. They need to apologize. They need to… SOMETHING we thing they should do. Something we think we deserve to have them do. Or we think, with or without giving it words: God, You need to fix this!
While we must rely on God for the strength and wisdom to do our part, it’s not His job to make things go the way we want them to. It’s not His job to make us comfortable, or happy. It’s our job to align ourselves with His will and purpose and let Him work in and through us. It’s in yielding our will, in giving up our rights, that we find peace. And joy. And fulfillment.
Grumbling and complaining are signs of an ungrateful, unyielded heart. They reveal… pride. And fear.
God is the only One who can fulfill us. The only One with the wisdom to know what’s best, and the power to fix what’s broken. We need to open our hearts to His healing by accepting with gratitude all He allows, and stepping out in obedience when He calls us to act.
The Basics of Overcoming Ungrateful Thoughts
Think about what you’re thinking about! Is it true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy? Any thought that denies God’s love and holiness is a lie.
Stop. Literally stop your body and eyes, and look at something. Distract your mind from the cycle of negative thoughts.
Refocus. Look up, literally or at least figuratively, and pray. What can I thank You for in this, Lord?
Reframe. You can’t fix everything, but you’re not powerless. You can’t change others, only your reactions. Whatever it is, it won’t take you down, it will grow you.
Move on. Do you have a clearer picture of what’s going on and what you need to do? Do it.
The Basics of Overcoming Ungrateful Words
Listen to what you’re saying. How many times to we speak without thinking? Or give ourselves a pass on unhelpful or unkind words?
These basics may seem a bit familiar…
Stop. Feel those next negative words barreling toward your mouth? Bite down on them, don’t let them crash out onto those around you.
Refocus. Yup, God first. Then look for the blessings through the lens of God’s love and holiness.
Reframe. In every hard thing, in every good thing, in everything, there is grace to be found. Look for it; share it with others.
Move on. If you made your comments about or to someone, apologize. Make two positive statements for each negative one you let fly, even if it’s in an empty room.
The Habit of Gratitude over Grumbling
It’s far easier to fall into a habit of ingratitude than to establish a habit of feeling and expressing gratitude. Jealousy and covetousness come naturally. Humility and contentment don’t.
Let’s commit to replace our negative thoughts and ungrateful words with God’s truth, love, and grace, through the holidays and always.
Check out Six Tips to Do More than Just Survive the Holidays for more motivation to get through the holidays with grace.
Are you going through a hard season of loss this holiday time? Find encouragement in When You Can’t Feel Thankful