Most of us don’t find it a challenge to be thankful for the good things that come our way. It’s easy to be grateful for a beautiful day, a raise at work, or a good report from the doctor.
But what about when life is hard? When everything feels hopeless and dark? The gratitude doesn’t flow quite as freely in those times.
A couple of years ago, I walked through such a time. I was hit by some unexpected challenges, and the struggle was intense. The emotional weight of it all pulled me down, distracted me from my work and family, and left me gripped with anxiety, discouragement, and hopelessness. And it didn’t stop. Every day was a struggle. For months. And months. And months.
How can we be thankful for those times?
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think I’ve learned a lesson or two that could be helpful to others walking through their own valley. A disclaimer first: I’ll freely confess that while I was walking through that dark time I wasn’t feeling very thankful. I just wanted it to end. But now that I’m (mostly) on the other side, I’ve started experiencing some gratitude. And as painful as the experience was—and still is on some days—I’m really not sure I would change it if I could, because I’m finally catching some glimpses of how God can use it in my life.
So, how can we find thankfulness for the hard times?
Thankfulness Requires Trust
If we’re going to be thankful for the difficult things life brings our way, we’re going to need faith. We’re going to need to have a deep trust that God knows best and that He really does work everything together for good, as Romans 8:28 promises. If we don’t believe that, we’ll never be able to thank God for the valleys we walk through.
I have three young children. Like any parent, sometimes I have to make decisions they don’t like. From their perspective, there’s absolutely no reason for me to make the decisions that bring grief into their lives—no reason to say they can’t have more dessert, play longer, or stay up later. All they know is that they don’t like what I’m saying. They don’t recognize that I have more wisdom than them, and that if I allow them make all the decisions it will ultimately ruin their lives.
In the same way, God is exponentially wiser than us. Sometimes He knows we need to walk through a difficult time for some reason we can’t see. And just like a child who can’t comprehend why they need to eat broccoli instead of cake, we can’t comprehend why life sometimes has to be hard instead of easy. But just as we know more than our children, God knows more than us. Infinitely more. If we can accept that and trust in His goodness, we’ll be a long way toward expressing gratitude for the hard things.
Choosing Our Focus
One of the major lessons I’ve learned during the past couple of years is that we can choose where to focus. We can get stuck focusing on the difficulties we’re going through, or we can focus on taking the next step in front of us. We can focus on the lies of Satan, or we can focus on the truth of God.
One powerful strategy we can use to change our focus during a hard time is to ask ourselves a simple question: “What is true about God right now?” If you’re feeling upset or discouraged, your first answer to that question might be flippant or superficial. So don’t stop there. Ask yourself again, “What else is true about God right now?” Keep asking until you’ve peeled back enough layers that you’re speaking deeply meaningful truth into your own heart and mind. You’ll find your focus shifted from your problems onto the wonderful goodness of our God—a much better place for our thoughts to rest, and also much more likely to produce gratitude.
Look for the Blessing
One reason I can experience a budding thankfulness for the hard time I’ve walked through is because I can see how God will use it to make me a blessing to others who are walking through like trials. Just a few weeks ago, I was able to be an encouragement to a friend who is going through a similar challenge and was encouraged to talk with someone who has been there and understands. When I see God transforming my dark time into a ray of light for someone else, it helps me be thankful.
I wish I could say that I found gratitude right in the middle of those dark days. I didn’t. It took some time. Even today, it’s just a small bud of thankfulness—but I know it can keep growing with time, and that God can turn it into something beautiful.
At many Thanksgiving tables, family and friends will pause for a few moments to share things they’re thankful for. Most of the things mentioned will be positive: good health, provision, home and family, the love and grace of God, and so on. But maybe you’re walking through a valley so dark that gratitude—for anything—is having a hard time taking root. Believe me, I understand. But if we can trust God, choose to focus on His truth, and look for the blessings—however hidden or obscure they may be—we can begin to find the gratitude that has eluded us.
Jonathan Lewis is husband to Linnea, and Daddy to Patrick, Timothy, and Katherine. He is a writer, speaker, and self-employed graphic designer. You can reach him at jonathan@JonlinCreative.com.