by Darla Isackson
Thanksgiving has become for most Americans a “minor” holiday–a feast day stuck in between Halloween and the scurry of Christmas preparations. I’m inclined to think that Thanksgiving, instead, should be attended with trumpet fanfare, news headlines and major spiritual focus. The importance of the underlying principle of feeling, thinking, and speaking gratitude can scarcely be over-emphasized. However, I’ve come to believe that expressing gratitude for the good in our lives is a preparatory law which we must learn and live to prepare us for the higher law–just as tithing prepares us to live the higher law of consecration. The higher law of gratitude I see as a commandment for today, challenging in its implementation, but replete with spiritual blessings.
How I Began to Live the Preparatory Law
One fall day in 1971, in Alcala de Henares, Spain, I was pushing my robust one-year-old in a stroller, holding tightly to the hand of my two-year-old. We were attempting to cross a busy street which I’d been told was the shortest way to a park that had turtles and ducks to delight my little ones. When the light was in our favor I made it to the middle of the street, then paused, perplexed. An island blocked our way, and I didn’t dare let go of my two-year-old’s hand to lift the stroller over it. Suddenly a man who had stopped his car at the red light jumped out, quickly lifted the stroller up and over the small barrier, and smilingly waved me across the street. He dove back into his car just as the light turned green, and was on his way.
Thanksgiving was approaching, and when I returned home with my happy children I decided to start a list of little things I was thankful for. I wrote that experience as the first entry. More than thirty years later, feeling gratitude for that small act of kindness still makes me feel light and happy.
That challenging season in Spain I had a special need to focus on the positive. I was far from home; I didn’t speak Spanish; my husband was flying mineral and oil survey in Algeria and wouldn’t be able to join us for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I had to shoulder the total responsibility for care of the children. But both Thanksgiving and Christmas day saw my apartment full of young LDS families stationed at the Torrejon air base. I had many more entries to make in my “gratitude notebook”! I was filled with thankfulness that the Church had provided me a ready-made group of friends so I didn’t have to celebrate the holidays alone.
The following summer my children and I were able to join their dad when he began flying out of Oran, Algeria, on the Northern coast of Africa where housing for families was available. Our apartment was spartan–cement walls and floors, water available only certain hours. We were lucky to get hot water one hour a day. Of course we had no washer or dryer or dishwasher. However, what I really missed was a branch of the church. We had always had the gospel and a community of Saints to worship with and had taken those great blessings for granted.
While in Algeria, we were invited into an Arab commune where each family occupied one tiny but immaculate room. In our travels we saw many people who lived on a poverty level I hadn’t known existed. We felt truly rich, and since then, I rarely take for granted the small comforts of life, and I frequently think of the blessings of the gospel.
Many writers, such as Sarah Ban Breathnach in her book Simple Abundance, suggests keeping a gratitude journal like I started in Spain. I have continued to do that sporadically, and have always benefited from the practice. In the June 2003 Readers Digest, in the Medical Update section, we read, “New research shows that people keeping a gratitude journal sleep better and have more good moods and a stronger sense of connection to others.” They suggested we each “spend a few minutes daily writing in a journal or reflecting on five things you’re thankful for.” (p.60) Obviously good advice.
When I have kept such a journal I have written in it only things I judged “good” in my life. I have been counting my obvious blessings. However, I now believe that: expressing thanks for all that makes my life pleasant or comfortable, or for what I appreciate more because others have less, is living only the preparatory law of gratitude.
The Higher Law: Thanking the Lord–in ALL Things
In D&C 59:21 we read, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments” (emphasis mine). The higher law of gratitude is found in that same section: “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.” (D&C 59:7, emphasis mine)
Things were not going well when the Lord gave this “thanksgiving” commandment to the early Saints; in fact, all hell was breaking loose. The Kirtland Safety Society had failed; most of the Saints, as well as the Prophet and his family, were in dire poverty. The attempt of Zion’s Camp to rescue the beleaguered Missouri Saints and restore them to their lands and homes had seemingly been for naught. Many key leaders had left the Church and were adding fuel to the fires of persecution. The Kirtland Saints experienced such severe persecution they had to leave comfortable homes and travel to Missouri in miserably cold and difficult conditions–and in Missouri they were anything but welcome. Agitated locals, chafing at the rumors of their land being chosen as the Mormon’s “Zion” were like a volcano about to explode. Nothing seemed to be going right for the Saints–yet it was at this time the Lord commanded them to “thank the Lord thy God in all things” (emphasis mine).
This situation is not without precedence. Elder Dallin Oaks, in the April, 2003 General Conference reminded us that the Book of Mormon peoples were “suffering all manner of afflictions” when the Lord commanded them to “give thanks in all things” (Mosiah 26: 38-39). His talk entitled “Giving Thanks in All Things” is full of wisdom on this vital subject.
The Challenge of Living the Higher Law
I rarely find it difficult to live the preparatory commandment. How hard can it be to remember to thank the Lord when a new grandchild is born healthy, when a prodigal son returns, when a priesthood blessing brings healing? But what about offering thanks for the very hardest, most painful, most challenging things in my life–all of which must surely be defined as part of the “all” the Lord was referring to?
Only in retrospect have I usually found myself capable of thanking the Lord for the hardest trials. But even in my spiritual immaturity I can choose to let gratitude illuminate the darkness of difficult times. it is impossible for both light and darkness to fill my mind at the same time, and when I choose to focus on and thank the Lord for every little thing I can clearly recognize as a blessing, I choose the Light in that moment. I express thanks for the sacrifice of early Church members and thank the Lord that the sacrifice required of me is different. I thank the Lord for the blessing of being able to stay in my home and be safe and warm. I put on warm fragrant clothes fresh from the dryer and thank the Lord I don’t have to travel in the winter in freezing wet clothes. I thank the Lord for every morsel of good food I eat, every drink of clear water. I thank the Lord for every object in my house that is either functional or beautiful to me. I thank the Lord for sunrises, sunsets, the beauty of moon and stars, for the love and support of friends and family. I turn my mind to spiritual things, and thank Him for the Savior and the gospel, the principles and saving ordinances that give me such direction and such hope.
When circumstances are so difficult that it is hard to feel grateful, I can remember that the only thing that really matters is our standing with the Lord. If, through the process of living, we eventually develop a Celestial character–everything in our lives has been a success, no matter how bad it looked at the time. I can give thanks for the scriptures–especially the astounding clarity of the Book of Mormon, and I can turn to favorite scriptures for spiritual refreshment. I can bear testimony to myself that I know the Lord is always there when I reach out to Him. I can give thanks that I know he answers prayers, brings peace, gives hope. I can memorize and repeat scriptures to myself such as “He is my refuge and my fortress. . . In him will I trust.” (Psalm 91:2) I can go to the temple and be healed and nurtured by the words of Light there–and give thanks for that opportunity.
Gratitude Brings the Light of Life
I have found that even on the darkest days, if I turn my thoughts to giving thanks, the Light returns. I can cry my eyes out when loved ones make choices I know will bring grief–and in the next moment feel joy as I thank the Lord for my testimony that He is watching over them and that all things work together for our good because we love the Lord. I can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and grieve with deep sorrow when a loved one dies, but feel the great joy of the Comforter when I give thanks for the assurance of a glorious resurrection and reunion. I can feel the pain of recognition of my sins and mourn for the pain I have caused others, yet rejoice and give thanks for the knowledge that the Savior will wipe away all our tears and that His Atonement will heal all hearts. And finally, as the years give me more wisdom, I can honestly thank the Lord for even the hardest times–I can see the deep purpose of agency and choice and trials and adversity. I can see clearly the unfailing invitation the Lord extends to turn to Him, to lean on Him when I am bereft of all illusion of my ability to function without His help–when I know how hopelessly lost I am without His Spirit to guide and direct.
With the perspective of years, I can echo Colleen Harrison’s words: “I do not have a past I regret. Instead, I have a glorious history of lessons learned.” Colleen has experienced some of the most difficult trials I can imagine, and the peace she now enjoys through Christ inspires me greatly. With my new and wiser vision, I do not choose to run from my life, but to embrace it–because I see that “all is as it should be.” As I restructure my perceptions in the light of the truth I now understand, there is so much to learn. In Colleen’s book, He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, Principle Four states: “My trials and mistakes are potentially great learning opportunities, not terrible things I should try to ignore or forget” (p. 39). The Savior’s love dissolves regret into gratitude. I thank the Lord for every opportunity of my life and know that “all these things shall give [me] experience, and shall be for [my] good.”(D&C 122: 7)
The Warmth of Faith’s Fire
Like all commandments, the commandment to “thank the Lord in all things” is for my good, for my well-being, for my comfort. When furious storms blow all around me, this key of gratitude unlocks the door to the house of joy, then let me stay inside where the fire of faith burns bright in the fireplace. I can pull up an easy chair and warm myself by that fire of faith even when I know that the world outside my windows is in cold chaos.
If, instead, I pick and choose what I will be thankful about, I choose doubt that God is over all, and the door of my house of joy stays locked against me. When I refuse to thank the Lord for the hardest trials, when I choose fear instead of trust, I choose to stay outside, unprotected, in cold winter weather instead of warming myself by the fires of faith. If I counsel the Lord–telling him I have a much better plan for how the world should be–instead of thanking him for the way it is–I align myself with the adversary and clearly choose misery instead of joy.
Choosing to Live in Total Gratitude is Choosing the Greatest Blessings
The Light of Life is found only on the path of gratitude. The light of the Spirit does not attend me when I resist “what is” and refuse to be thankful for it. God is a God of truth only; and His light is with us only as we accept truth–“the knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (D&C 93:24) The Spirit lightens my heart with rejoicing that the Lord’s purposes prevail over all circumstances–even those difficult to comprehend or bear–because they are all part of the truth.
I see now that my gratitude is the very heart of my faith, the very soul of my trust in the Lord. I am lost without it, because without it I lose the Spirit. The Holy Ghost never participates in my whining, self-pity, negativity, or blindness to the Lord’s purposes. The Lord never motivates or inspires me to complain about my circumstances or the faults of others or to grovel in self-denigration. Only when I am attending to the commandment to give thanks in all things can the Spirit attend me. No wonder this commandment has been often repeated.
The promises for keeping the “thanksgiving” commandment are amazing. The Lord said, “He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of the earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold” (D&C 79:19, emphasis mine). This Thanksgiving I will choose the Light. I will choose joy. I will choose to “thank the Lord in all things.”