A disposition of gratitude

As we work to be grateful in our circumstances rather than for things, we can find greater peace in life and greater joy in discipleship.

When you hear the word “commandment”, I’m guessing two or three words immediately come to mind: “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not”. Almost all of the commandments we know as the Ten Commandments begin with one of those phrases.

In a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith in August 1831, the Lord reviewed some of those Ten Commandments. Then He added, “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:7).

With those two words, “thou shalt” — and its inclusion in a list that also contained the commandments to love God, love our neighbor, and not to steal, commit adultery, or kill — it is arguable that the Lord elevated gratitude to the level of a commandment.

Like the speaker before me, I will focus today on a trait that I myself have difficulty with — something I am working to improve on. See, among my “skills” is the fact that I’m a very good complainer. I do it all the time, and I’m quite adept at it.

Let me illustrate.

I have always loved geography. I have always enjoyed learning about different places and the people who live in them. When I got to middle school, I was delighted to find out that my school had a geography bee. I won the geography bee at my middle school all three years I was there.1 I also qualified2 to go to the state geography bee in each of those three years, and in seventh grade I won third place in the state geography bee. My prizes included $50 and an atlas, which I still have.

In this atlas, there is a photo of the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, with Stanley Park and central Vancouver stretching beyond. I thought it looked like such a cool place. I said to myself, “I’m going to go across that bridge someday.”

Two years ago, in summer 2019 — and over 24 years after my third-place finish in the state geography bee — I finally got to go across that bridge. In fact, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Vancouver, a city in a spectacular location between the mountains and the sea. It was an opportunity I had awaited a long time.

And yet, even then, I couldn’t stop myself from complaining. The worst thing was the sun. It always seemed to be in my eyes. It was hotter than I had hoped. I was getting sunburned as I walked around the city.

In short, in this spectacular city, doing something I had wanted to do for nearly a quarter of a century, I complained because the sun was just too bright for my liking.

Like I said, I’m a very good complainer.

Of course, I had no idea then that only about half a year later daily life would change significantly because of a pandemic. The last year and a half has been hard. I feel like I have had even more reasons than normal to complain. (Though I realize that this pandemic has been much harder on some than it has been on me.)

If you have found yourself complaining — or “murmuring”, as the scriptures often put it — a lot, or at least more than usual, over the past 18 months or so, you have my sympathy.

Yet, no matter how justified we may feel in complaining, doing so is clearly in contradiction to the instruction to “thank the Lord [our] God in all things.” The Lord says, “in all things” — even, presumably, in the depths of a pandemic, and certainly not just when things are to our liking.

Why, then, are complaining and murmuring and ingratitude, even in difficult circumstances, so bad?

I think the answer lies in understanding why God gives us commandments in the first place.

What benefit does God get when, for example, we avoid stealing, or lying, or killing? We believe, after all, that he owns everything, knows everything, and has power over death. We must come to the conclusion, then, that God gives us commandments for our benefit, and the benefit of those around us, rather than his own.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, then second counselor in the First Presidency, provided valuable insight on this in the April 2014 general conference. He himself grew up in the difficult circumstances of post–World War II Germany, but he had this to say about gratitude, even when things are really hard: “… some might say, ‘What do I have to be grateful for when my world is falling apart?’” (Or, as it may feel now, when the world is falling apart.)

It is easy to be grateful for things when life seems to be going our way. But what then of those times when what we wish for seems to be far out of reach?

Could I suggest that we see gratitude as a disposition, a way of life that stands independent of our current situation? In other words, I’m suggesting that instead of being thankful for things, we focus on being thankful in our circumstances — whatever they may be.3

Obedience to commandments is always connected to the promise of blessings. “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise,” the Lord revealed to early members of our church (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10). The Prophet Joseph Smith later instructed:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated —

And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20–21).

In the Book of Mormon we read of an ancient prophet-king, Benjamin, who taught his people that the Lord “doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you” (Mosiah 2:24).4

In short, we are blessed whenever we obey God’s commandments.

But some commandments are connected with specific promises — promises that go beyond these general assurances of blessings for obedience. In the Ten Commandments, for example, the fourth commandment, “Honour thy father and thy mother,” is directly connected with a promised blessing: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12).

The Word of Wisdom, which the Lord expressly called “a principle with promise” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:3), describes the promises connected with obedience to it:

And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;

And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.

And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. (Doctrine and Covenants 89:18–21)

The commandment to be grateful is like these latter commandments I have described: the Lord directly connects it with a promise in return for obedience. In a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith in March 1832, about seven months after giving the commandment to “thank the Lord thy God in all things,” the Lord promised to those who were grateful, “And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more.” (Doctrine and Covenants 78:19)

But what exactly does this promise mean? One thing it does not mean, I believe, is that we can — to turn a noun into a verb — gratitude our way to wealth. Being grateful will not increase the size of your bank account, and being thankful will not pay for upgrades to your house or for your dream vacation. But it will increase your appreciation for the things you do have, and more importantly it will deepen and strengthen your relationship with your Heavenly Parents, who gave you all you have.

President Uchtdorf explains further:

When we are grateful to God in our circumstances, we can experience gentle peace in the midst of tribulation. In grief, we can still lift up our hearts in praise. In pain, we can glory in Christ’s Atonement. In the cold of bitter sorrow, we can experience the closeness and warmth of heaven’s embrace.

We sometimes think that being grateful is what we do after our problems are solved, but how terribly shortsighted that is. How much of life do we miss by waiting to see the rainbow before thanking God that there is rain?

How blessed we are if we recognize God’s handiwork in the marvelous tapestry of life. Gratitude to our Father in Heaven broadens our perception and clears our vision. It inspires humility and fosters empathy toward our fellowmen and all of God’s creation. Gratitude is a catalyst to all Christlike attributes! A thankful heart is the parent of all virtues.5

Gratitude helps us find peace and fulfillment now, even when the “world is falling apart,” and it leads us to become more Christlike in our attributes and more joyful in our discipleship. I invite all of you to join with me in seeking to become more grateful in our circumstances, whatever they may be — to develop a disposition of gratitude. As we do so, the Lord’s promises are sure: he will bless us “an hundred fold, yea, more.” He will do so by deepening our empathy toward others and all of God’s creation — by filling us with charity, the pure love of Christ (see Moroni 7:47–48).

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

This is based on a talk given in the ward conference of the Jamaica 1st Ward, 12 September 2021.

  1. I won the geography bee at Carmel Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1994, 1995, and 1996. ↩️
  2. My school’s geography bee was part of the National Geography Bee, sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Winners of school-level geography bees took a written test that determined whether they qualified to go to the state geography bee. The National Geographic Society announced this year that the competition would be permanently discontinued. ↩️
  3. “Grateful in Any Circumstances”, April 2014 general conference, Sunday morning session; I will point out that President Uchtdorf’s distinction here between “for” and “in” is reflected in this commandment to be grateful: the Lord instructs us to thank him “in all things”, not “for all things”. ↩️
  4. See also Alma 34:31 on the immediateness of God’s blessing for obedience to his commandments. ↩️
  5. “Grateful in Any Circumstances”, April 2014 general conference, Sunday morning session; I also appreciate this additional, empathetic counsel President Uchtdorf offered: “Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges.” ↩️

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