I wrote a letter to a friend who had suffered a bad setback. It was unlikely that her life was going to unfold the way she had hoped. She was angry and depressed. But after she received the letter she started to feel better … in fact, her outlook improved so much that she started sharing the letter with other people who were also feeling down about their lives. Since the letter helped so much, I decided to post it here (with a few details left out, to respect my friend’s privacy). If you’re in the middle of tough times, I hope this will help. Actually, I know it will help, if you will just do what it says.
I’m so sorry your expectation of how life will unfold isn’t going as you hoped. You’re being reminded very forcefully that the Lord’s ways are not our ways. As a woman of strong faith, it’s something you’ve always known and accepted intellectually, but of course it’s much more difficult to sincerely say “Thy will be done” when circumstances look so different from our own hopes and dreams. Most people our age have learned that the hard way, but most of us still have to be reminded now and then that our hopes and dreams are often not what’s really best for us. It can be very painful. But we (or at least I, for sure) often make it worse than it must be, by “kicking against the goads.”
You wrote, “I’m going to need for God to make some serious changes in my heart and my attitude….” I was glad to read your words, because I think that’s exactly the right prayer for you right now. In fact, every single time I pray for you, I get the strongest sense that there is a path to deep joy and peace for all of you in this, but you can’t set out along that path until you adjust your thinking. The path involves complete rejection of everything you hoped would happen in the years ahead, and sincere acceptance of whatever God desires instead.
You probably think that’s easy to say, but hard to put into practice. But with the greatest respect for you, I want to offer one specific suggestion–an action you can take–that will absolutely change your life for the better. It’s going to seem very “Pollyanna-ish” at first read, but if you will give it a try I promise it will make a huge difference. Here goes:
Starting immediately, thank God for every gift He gives, from those as small as a whiff of honeysuckle or jasmine in your backyard, to the realization that you just had a few moments without pain, to really big things like the fact that your husband is in the next room safe and sound.
I’m talking about the practice of intentional gratitude. “Intentional,” because it involves an aggressive effort to remain aware of God’s gifts as you move through your day, and to actively acknowledge each gift with a simple “Thank you.”
…intentional gratitude is not as easy as it sounds.
Rather than being a Pollyanna suggestion, this is an extremely powerful spiritual technique that will eliminate the self-centered and negative thinking that distances us from the Lord. In a life filled with the practice of intentional gratitude, there can be no “Yes, but…” or “It’s not fair,” or “Why me” downward spiraling kinds of thinking. The two attitudes simply do not mix.
Also, to focus on life’s gifts you must live in the moment. With the practice of intentional gratitude, there is no time for regrets about the past, or worries about the future. There is only thankfulness for the here and now.
This is the secret to contentment in any circumstance that Paul mentioned. It’s also the secret to Paul’s apparently impossible command to pray without ceasing, because every expression of gratitude is a prayer, which means the practice of intentional gratitude leads directly to a life lived in continual worship.
But another reason this is not a Pollyanna suggestion is that intentional gratitude is not as easy as it sounds. Part of living in a fallen world is a default setting that causes us to take most of life’s details for granted, when in fact almost every part of every day is a direct gift from God. So especially at first, you may have to work at recognizing blessings for what they are, and at giving thanks as blessings come throughout your day. It’s not easy, but it’s simple and actionable, and if you do take this seriously and work at it until it becomes a routine part of life, I promise unconditionally that you will regain your joy.