I began these thoughts about gratitude in preparation for a sermon. I consulted some Bible commentaries to see what scholars had to say about the Apostle Paul’s statements about being “grateful in all circumstances.”

I found variations on a theme.

  • Some scholars suggested that Paul meant we are to see even bad things as the will of God, and therefore be grateful.
  • Others said that we should be thankful for our troubles, for they teach us to rely more on God.
  • Still others suggested that we should be grateful for our troubles because they make us stronger and build up our faith.

Each of these interpretations probably has some truth, but I believe they are inadequate. Each sounds like something you’d read on a Christian greeting card, merely putting a spiritual positive twist on a bad situation. The problem is that each starts with making a judgment about what is a bad situation and what is a good situation.

Therein is the flaw.

I do not think I am wise enough to judge a situation as good or bad. I can judge if something is comfortable or uncomfortable, desirable or undesirable, pleasurable or painful, but those are assessments based on my initial emotional response of how it affects me and my loved ones.

One problem with that approach is that I rarely know if something that is “good” for me in fact was “bad” for others who were affected by my good fortune. Does that make it a good experience or a bad one?

Another problem is that my vision is also limited. I have no idea how the situation will unfold or turn out. In fact, things rarely “turn out.” They simply continue to evolve. Life goes on and every situation continues to evolve until it gets folded into life. I am incapable of judging the final outcome of any given situation, because I can’t see the future.

I can think of several situations I judged as “good” for me. Yet, they turned out to be far more complicated or uncomfortable than I anticipated. Other situations that I evaluated as “bad” evolved into important shaping experiences. The initial labels “good” and “bad” were completely inadequate to describe the way the situations evolved.

The first principle of being grateful in all circumstances is to suspend judgment of the situation, to remove the labels “good” and “bad.” We aren’t making the most of a bad situation, we are opening ourselves to an experience or person that may cause us initial discomfort, but we don’t yet know what is to come.

That’s the starting place. Then what?