I used to think that “Be grateful” was code for “Stop whining.”
The scriptures command us, “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). That means everything—even the hard stuff, right?
I’ve struggled to live in a spirit of gratitude, in part because understanding what it means to be grateful in all circumstances has been an ongoing process for me.
I’ve heard people say before that they were grateful for their trials. Growing up, that was hard to wrap my mind around. How can you be grateful for something awful that happens to you? I felt discouraged when people would say things like that, because I thought it meant that if you really had faith, you would welcome every challenge with a smile and be immediately grateful, and I couldn’t do that.
Several years ago, my mom passed away from cancer, and through that experience I have begun to understand better what people mean when they say they are grateful for their trials.
Grateful in Grief
I still remember the sorrow of those days immediately following her passing—the gut-wrenching, awful emptiness; the weight pressing down on my heart so intensely I at times felt I couldn’t breathe. The pain was exquisite.
I was a missionary in upstate New York at the time, and part of my assignment was to conduct tours at the Church historic sites in Palmyra. A few days after my mother’s passing, I took a woman on a tour at the Joseph Smith Historic Farm on a cold, wintry morning.
As we walked, she asked me about my family, and I mentioned that my dad was coming to New York to pick me up when my mission ended.
“And your mom?” she asked.
“She passed away on Tuesday.”
Right there in the cold, standing in the snow, she stopped and threw her arms around me and cried with me. As we continued walking, she shared how she was also dealing with the loss of a loved one and had come to the Joseph Smith Farm after a desperate prayer to know how to help her family. Neither of us had all the answers or could fix each other’s problems, but being together and praying together gave us both hope and strength.
As she left, I was grateful. Grateful for the way my own sorrow had helped me to comfort her in hers. Grateful for the opportunity God gave us to help and uplift each other when we were both in great need.
I learned something about gratitude from that experience. Gratitude isn’t a way to ignore our problems or a quick fix for deep sorrow. Gratitude comes from actively remembering God and His goodness. It’s having eyes to see how He has worked in my life. It doesn’t come in the absence of pain; rather, pain can bring my need for the Savior into focus, and gratitude flows from remembering His grace and mercy to me in my hour of need.
“I’m Grateful for Trials”: Only Part of the Sentence
It helps me to think of the phrase “I’m grateful for trials” as only part of the sentence—the full sentence is “I’m grateful for the opportunities for growth that have come through my trials. I’m grateful for the ways I’ve seen God at work in my life because of those circumstances.”
I don’t think that anyone would say, “Yes, I would like to lose ___________ [fill in the blank with job, loved ones, home, health, security, relationships, and anything else that has value in life].” I don’t think the people who lost everything in natural disasters this year were grateful when they saw the hurricane, fire, or earthquake coming toward them.
Am I grateful that my mom passed away? Of course not.
Am I grateful for what I’ve learned from that experience? Yes. Profoundly. That doesn’t mean that I’m “over” my mother’s passing. I will always miss my mother, and my grieving process has been ongoing. There are some challenges that we never “get over” in this life. Such trials become continual refining influences in our lives that help shape us into the people that God wants us to be, and for that we can be grateful.
Seeing God’s Hand
Doctrine and Covenants 123:17 reads, “Let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for His arm to be revealed.”
I used to think that “standing still” to see God’s hand revealed in my life meant doing my part and then looking toward the future to wait for God do His. That is sometimes the case, but I recently realized that it is often when we stand still and look back that we see God’s hand revealed. When I “stand still” and look back over my life, I see things like:
- How being sick multiple times in the last four months has helped me recognize the need to slow down and take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
- How acting on the answer I received to a prayer about what one thing I could do to improve my health has increased my self-control.
- How God helped me work through finally letting go of an old relationship to make room for my relationship with my husband.
When we remember God by pausing to look for times that we have seen His hand at work, our eyes can be opened so we can see those times more clearly. Sometimes we need a little distance from a difficult experience to be able to see these things, but with time and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can see how God led us through those times and be grateful.