Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” -1 Thessalonians 5:18

When I first started dating Ben, I noticed something strange about his family: they made comments quite frequently about how they don’t deserve anything good from God. If you ask his dad how he’s doing, “Better than I deserve!” is likely to be the answer you’ll get. When it came down to it, I supposed I agreed, but it seemed pretty intense and kind of self-deprecating to say it out loud. I’ve learned a couple things since then.

I’m discovering (slowly, slowly) that gratitude is perhaps the most essential component of happiness. But being thankful cannot be just a token thing, a fluffy, trite act done for the sake of achieving happiness or feeling like a good person. It’s got to run deep enough to be truly thankful even in the hardest of places, even truly thankful FOR the hardest of places. And I’m learning that the only way to have that kind of gratitude is to take a posture of humility. For gratitude to be transformative rather than trite, it’s got to come from a belief that you weren’t entitled to the thing you got, but that it was truly an unearned gift.

I’ve been home alone with the kiddos most of this month while Ben travels for his veterinary rotations, and the days have actually been going quite smoothly, except when it comes to bedtimes. Bedtimes are usually sweet, with cuddles, stories, songs, and connection on a level that doesn’t always happen during waking hours. Yet these days, the slightest delay, whether caused by childlike fears, bathroom breaks, or pleas for one more story before bed, has been triggering extreme frustration in me (especially when any noise is involved that might wake the sleeping baby). The other day I realized why. I’ve been looking so forward to the downtime that comes only when the kids are both sleeping that I want to guard that time fiercely. I have come to rely on that time, to expect it, to the point where I view it as time belonging to me, and every minute that infringes on it feels like something being stolen from me, and that makes me angry. I realized that my expectations are robbing me of happiness, not only by causing me to miss out on the sweetness of time with my kids, but even to put a damper on the alone time itself by fostering an ungrateful attitude of “Finally! I get what I should have had an hour ago!” It’s an ugly, joy-stealing attitude, and it’s rooted in a sense of entitlement. Sure, rest and self-care is important, but an attitude of bitterness accomplishes the opposite of refreshment. And does not every minute of my life belong to God, to be used willingly and faithfully for whatever he would like me to do? Isn’t my time much better spent serving him and caring for his people than scrolling facebook or catching up on dishes? Isn’t he going to give me all I need to accomplish whatever it is that He wants me to do that day? His agenda for me on a given day may or may not include getting all the dishes done, resting, writing, exercising, taking to a friend. It probably does involve making sweet memories with my kids. It probably does not include facebook most days.

The key is viewing my time rightly: as belonging to God and not to me. If we cannot accept that, we will forever be frustrated by “interruptions” intruding on our time. If we can accept God’s ownership of and sovereignty over our time, we will be able to assume that interruptions are actually opportunities to do something even more important. If I’m not entitled to my time, then it all becomes a gift.

The same principle applies in all areas of life. If my spouse takes out the trash, I can receive the blessing if I appreciate it as a gift and an act of service rather than viewing it as something he should have done anyway (even if it was). If he takes the kids to the park so I can have a half hour to myself, I’d be wise to appreciate it rather than wishing he’d given me an hour. If he brings me flowers, it will brighten my day and my marriage only if I recognize he didn’t have to do it at all, not if I’m just thinking about how it would have been nice if he’d done it a month ago. Gratitude that comes from a humble, expectation-free place is the kind that brings true joy. How can you not be happy when your reality far exceeds your expectations? Conversely, how can I be happy if my expectations are such that reality is never quite going to measure up, or if I am just feigning gratitude for things that I think I deserved in the first place?

This idea of ridding ourselves of expectations and entitlement is crucial, crucial, when it comes to our relationship with God. We are going to struggle with seeing God as loving if we believe we deserve anything from him. If we believe he owes us health, it’s going to be pretty hard not to be bitter if we become sick. If we believe he owes us nothing, we can view not only health as a gift, but even find a way to view sickness as a gift, even if that sickness is hard and painful. If we believe he owed us a happy childhood and we didn’t get that, we won’t be able to bring ourselves to let him be our friend in adulthood. If we believe he owes us nothing, we will see our very life as a gift, we will be able to forgive the people who let us down, and we will be able to look back and see his hand was carrying us all along, bringing about redemption and beauty out of the ashes. If we believe he owes us heaven, we’re likely to balk at, or try to ignore completely, the idea that it cost him his own Son, that Jesus is the only one with the merit to secure it for us. But someday none of these thoughts will be vague or ignorable anymore. We’ll be face to face with God. Will you or I be able to look him in the eye and tell him we deserve a thing?

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” Hebrews 12:28

What if we could believe that he gave us life as a gift in the first place, free and unearned? What if we could see everything we have as pure grace, pure love from our God? What if we were willing to own up to our sin enough to be blown away by the fact that we’ve been granted a forgiveness we didn’t deserve, to be overcome with relief and joy that He takes it off our shoulders? What if we could remember all this when somebody cuts us off in traffic or when all the other inconveniences of life come our way? Could we draw a breath of fresh air into our amazing, life-sustaining lungs and live like it’s a gift to be here in the first place?

Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His loving kindness is everlasting.” -Psalm 106:1