Gratitude is difficult. Isn't that ironic? It seems so easy and innate. God gives, we accept and are thankful—end of story. But it's rarely so simple or clean. What if we're not in a healthy place to receive God's blessings? What if God takes something or someone away from us? How do we live gratefully in the midst of suffering, or simply in the normal messiness of life?
It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that gratitude is passive: God is the one acting, bestowing gifts upon us. We just have to receive what he gives us. Receptivity, though, isn't always easy, and it is never passive. It means actively unclenching and opening our hands and our lives, not just when God wants to give us something shiny and new, but even when he gives us trials.
True gratitude stems from this receptivity. It is an intentional, courageous undertaking, challenging our assumptions of what God's faithfulness looks like in good times and in bad. If we are only grateful during good times, our response hinges on God's gifts to us, and our gratitude becomes conditional and weak.
The Israelites expressed this conditional gratitude to God many times throughout the Old Testament. They were thankful when the Lord delivered them, but they were often grumbling and ho-hum in their faith when things didn't go their way. We, too, are often irresolute with God because, if we're honest, it's easier to be thankful when things are great in our lives, not when they are hard.
Of course, it's always right to express thankfulness for specific situations, things, or persons God has given us. There is a sweetness found in this gratitude. The old adage "count your blessings" seems corny and over-used, but it is helpful at its core: Naming those good relationships and things in our lives is part of actively pursuing gratitude.
The danger comes when our warmth toward the Giver becomes dependent on the tangible good things he provides us rather than the good God he has proven to be. It becomes formulaic and impersonal, like a monetary exchange or an unhealthy friendship.
God desires that we desire him, the Giver, and not the gifts alone. But here's the good news: God manifests himself through his goodness to us, and this is why we offer him thanks. As the Psalmist says, "Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of men!" (Psalm 107:15, ESV).
God is not aloof or distant, nor is he fickle in his love like the Israelites and us. He is ever-present and continually offers the gift of himself, even when we experience suffering, persecution, sickness, financial burden, relational turmoil, or other hardships.
James tells us that "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17, ESV). Because God is faithful, we can be receptive to him even during difficulty. This doesn't mean we like the situation or that we have to find some sort of good in it while we're in that situation. Sometimes the only good thing we will meet is God himself, and he will sustain us.
C.S. Lewis, in one of his letters, says, "We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is 'good,' because it is good, if 'bad' because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country." In other words, we don't have to muster up a false pleasure in bad times, but true gratitude comes from seeing the hand of God working in our lives.