GALVESTON BAY, Texas (BP)–A thankful heart comes easy for many Americans. Even those whose circumstances provide reasons for sorrow and hurt can find something for which to express gratitude.
In her new book, “A Thankful Heart,” Carole Lewis offers her testimony of how God can cultivate thanksgiving every day of the year, bringing hope and healing that lasts into eternity.
“Often, the holidays are very depressing times for families as we’re tempted to key in on their dysfunction, critical spirits and anger problems. Every family’s got them,” said Lewis, national director of First Place, a Christian weight-loss program that grew out of First Baptist Church in Houston.
“Sometimes it seems like there are more bad moments than good in life,” she writes in her book. “The problem is that if we don’t stop and take a clear look at our perceptions of these situations, pretty soon we find that we have bitter, negative experiences all day long. Soon enough, having negative experiences all day long turns into having negative experiences every day, every year, every decade.”
From dealing with traffic to feeling overwhelmed with work to suffering from illness and disease, Lewis writes, “It is easy for even the ordinary irritations of life to build into occasions for continual grumbling and dissatisfaction.” Over time, “We wake up and discover that these experiences have transformed us. It isn’t the situations that are negative now — it’s us. We’ve become bitter, negative people,” she observes, adding, “And we hate who we’ve become.”
Negative attitudes eventually spill over to one’s health and well-being as the mind and body communicate with each other, she writes. “I’ve found it to be a simple truth — when I do not practice developing a thankful heart, the person this hurts the most is me.
“Gripe about your job for a week and see how long you stay employed. Or snap at your husband every night when he comes home and see what sort of marriage it produces. It’s in our best interest to not fall into the trap of focusing on what’s wrong with life. Becoming a thankful person is a benefit to our lives that we absolutely cannot overlook.”
If anyone could give a reason not to be thankful, it’s Carole Lewis. She experienced financial devastation that led to bankruptcy, felt derailed in her own weight struggle due to health problems and continues to walk alongside her husband in his battle with stage four prostate cancer. But it was on Thanksgiving Day four years ago that Lewis faced the greatest challenge to a thankful heart.
Her daughter, Shari, son-in-law Jeff and their three daughters had celebrated the holiday with the Lewis family before traveling to dinner with Jeff’s family. As Shari stood behind their SUV, a drunk driver swerved from behind, ricocheted off a light pole and sent Lewis’ 39-year-old daughter into a field. A few hours later she died in a Houston hospital.
Several years later Lewis was asked by her publisher to write a book on grief. “I didn’t have that in me.
“Undeniably, Shari’s death has been the hardest thing our family has ever gone through,” she said in an interview. “Though the days following her death were full of pain for all of us, I can also say with thankfulness that they are not a blur.” Lewis’ own prayer journal relates 22 things for which she gave thanks in those days after the tragedy. Some are to be expected — the Christian friends who gathered at the hospital. Others are surprising — a granddaughter witnessing about Jesus to the young drunk driver. And some are amazing — Jeff’s mom and brother accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord one hour after Shari’s death.
“I never dreamed that thankfulness might be one of the things God would use to heal the huge void left in my heart,” Lewis wrote after pondering why she never experienced some of the stages of grief that are presumed to be a healthy response to such difficult times. Though she was shocked by her daughter’s death and ultimately learned to accept it, Lewis said she anticipated the stages of denial, anger and bargaining, but never experienced them.
“Could thankfulness in the midst of a circumstance as shattering as the death of my child propel me from shock to acceptance without my having to experience the other three stages?” she asked in the book. “I know that people grieve in different ways and that everyone is different, but I have come to believe that being thankful in the midst of a tragic circumstance is the key to moving toward healing.”
Through her own journals, Lewis has been able to see how God answered prayer during the death of a sister and sister-in-law, her own surgeries and her husband’s cancer, calling these her spiritual markers. “I used to wonder how you could ever know the Lord’s will,” she reflected, “but I cannot get out of His will if I’m walking with Him every day.”
Saved at the age of 12, Lewis admits in the book, “I had pretty much run my life my way since that time and until it was totally shipwrecked.” When poor money management, the loss of a business and ultimate bankruptcy turned her world upside down, God got her attention so dramatically that she finds herself grateful for the experience.
“Was I thankful at the time for the financial straights our family was in? Of course not!” she writes. Yet, when she thinks of all the ways God has prospered her family since, she is more amazed than anyone. “I am forever grateful for our money woes, because they were the vehicle that drove me to God,” she recounts. Eventually, they recovered their credit rating, paid off debt, began to tithe and even saved for retirement.
“I believe our God is able to work absolute wonders on our behalf if we can learn to thank and praise Him in the middle of any stressful situation of life,” Lewis writes. “When we’re not thankful, we tend to focus on what’s wrong. When we focus on the muck and grime of stressful situations, we begin to grumble and complain — and that makes the situation appear worse than it actually is.”
Even as holiday gatherings bring to mind difficult relationships with family and friends, Lewis suggests learning to thank God for those people. “Instead of our running from the difficult people in our life, God desires to change us first as we learn how to thank Him for our difficult person.” In her own experience, Lewis has found God either heals the other person or moves them on to some other place.
“Chances are, you didn’t receive something you needed from certain family members, and you’ve wasted a lot of time trying to receive that particular something from those people,” she writes, adding that they “may not have a clue about your need.” She suggests reversing the pattern: “We can get what we’ve missed, not by grasping or clutching from those people, but by giving to them.”
With parents, a Christian can give the respect, courtesy and gentleness that was needed but never received, she writes. With spouses, admiration, encouragement and unconditional love should be offered. Parents can begin giving children the love, attention, boundaries and devotion they may never have received during their own growing-up years. “I’m talking about the type of lavish giving that expects nothing in return,” she states.
From 1 John 4:20, Lewis is reminded that if anyone says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar. “Our love for God can be best seen in our love for people. If we don’t love others, we don’t love God. Those are strong words.”
Even in casual contact with other people, Lewis advocates speaking blessings on them. “When someone cuts in front of us in traffic, we can ask God to bless him or her instead of railing against the person’s lack of courtesy.” We never know what other people are going through. By asking God to bless them, we are extending the same grace to them that God has extended to us.”
Through the loss of her own daughter, Lewis is even more convinced that “family is the most precious commodity we have.” Even when a person may not have caused an offense or separation, she encourages Christians to be “the sacrificial lamb” in such relationships. “Begin thinking about and watching for things in your family that you can be thankful for. Try not to key in on their dysfunctions,” she advised. “If you’ve got family members you’re not speaking to, call or write them now. If we’ve prayed about it, God’s going to go before us and He can heal our families. He wants to do that.”
“As we begin practicing thankfulness today, God will begin an amazing transformation in our hearts,” she writes, reflecting the focus of her book and the 13-week study rooted in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in “Christ Jesus.”
Lewis said her family has watched every year to see what God is going to do on Thanksgiving Day that is especially for them. “When you lose a loved one on or near a holiday, it doesn’t matter that it’s always on a different day. It’s always the holiday,” she said. While it is never easy, she does feel it’s getting easier. “God just got us through it and he’s done that every year.” For Lewis, thanksgiving is a heartfelt response.