A year ago, my wife and I decided to plant a garden. A for real, grow-stuff-that-you-eat garden. So we gathered seeds for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and a few other things, we tilled the patch of soil, we repaired the critter fence around the area that had fallen into disrepair, we dug holes, we planted seeds, and then we waited.
Every day I would come home and ask the kids if anything had grown yet. It had not. Until one day there was the smallest, green chute coming out of the ground. And we watched that little green chute, being careful to water it—but not too much—fighting off the weeds that would try to grow around it, until it would eventually bear fruit. From the time we began to plant until the day we ate the first tomato was around 3 months. Not a terribly long time in the grand scheme of things, but pretty long when you’re watching a clump of dirt every day.
Apparently, this is called cultivation—it’s the act of preparing, promoting, developing or promoting the growth of someone or something, and it takes time. And intentionality. And effort. That’s true of cultivating tomato plants, but it’s also true if you want to cultivate a characteristic in your life. Like gratitude, for example.
When I think of gratitude, I don’t want my life to only have brief spurts of thanksgiving; I want to actually be grate-full. I want the garden of thanksgiving to have entwined my heart and soul, so much so that I live and breathe gratitude. It emanates from the core of who I am. But if this, by the Spirit and grace of God, can actually be cultivated in our lives, what active steps can we take toward that end? Here are three such actions:
1. Remember what you deserve.
It strikes me that the moments when I am the most ungrateful are also the moments in which I feel the most entitled. That I deserve something better than the situation or circumstance in which I currently find myself. But that sense of entitlement is a lie. It’s not a lie in the sense that I’m not entitled to something; it’s a lie in the sense that I often forget what I am actually entitled to.
Which is hell. Separation. Condemnation. Eternal punishment. This is what I truly deserve. If I want to cultivate gratitude in my life, then a healthy dose of remembering what I am actually entitled to should go a long way.
2. Remember what you have.
It also strikes me that other moments when I am ungrateful stem from when I compare myself to others. I look at the bank account, the physical stature, the intelligence, the wit, or the influence of another and am so caught up in my own covetousness that I simply don’t have any room to be grateful. It’s in those moments that I can reflect back on what I truly have. And what do I have?
A beautiful wife? Wonderful children? Fulfilling vocation? Church that I love and loves me? Yes to all the above. But over and above that, I have every spiritual blessing in the heavens (Eph. 1:3). Every. Single. One. In Christ, God has held nothing back from me. By the virtue of His sacrifice on the cross, I am a coheir with Jesus (Rom. 8:17), and my inheritance in Him has already been secured. This is what I have, right now.
3. Remember what was paid.
And here we come to the meat of it all. For me, and for you, if indeed you are a Christian, a great and terrible price has been paid. We were not brought out of darkness and into the light, rescued from our empty way of life by silver or gold; no, it was by something much more valuable. The precious blood of Jesus was shed on our behalf (1 Peter 1:18-21). Jesus was given for our sake; only a price this high could atone for our sin so great.
The cross of Jesus—the price that was paid—is like water to the parched ground of our ungrateful hearts. We pour it on as we fix our eyes on Him, and watch gratitude sprout up and bloom. Slowly yet steadily, we can cultivate hearts by God’s grace that are no longer entitled, no longer covetous, and are burning white hot for the glory of the Lamb that was slain.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua (10), Andi (7), and Christian (5). He serves as Director of Groups Ministry for Lifeway Christian Resources. As a communicator, Michael speaks across the country at churches, conferences, and retreats and is the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God; Transformational Discipleship; and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Find him on Twitter:@_MichaelKelley.
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