CS Lewis once said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

It’s true. We need to get more serious about our celebration! Repeatedly, the bible urges us to rejoice, suggesting that we have a say in the matter. Yet, some people think of joy like they think of the flu: it’s something you sort of catch. Others may think that it’s all personality-based: you either have it, or you don’t. But the Bible talks about joy as a choice—as something we can go after; an attitude we can cultivate. Yes, it’s true, joy is a fruit of the Spirit— a natural outcome of our life in the Spirit, just as naturally as apples grow on an apple tree. But, Philippians 4:4 Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say Rejoice!” The bible urges us toward joy. It commands joy. But how do we get there?

The gateway to joy is gratitude. Gratitude is the powerful force that feeds our joy and demands our celebration. A grateful person sees each day as a gift. When you reflect on your blessings it forces you to remember God’s accomplishments. And when you do that, you’re reminded that the good things of life are not haphazard or unpredictable, but they’re attached to a blessing-giver who has always been and always will be faithful. A regular discipline of gratitude can get you through all the hard stuff.

It’s important for ministry leaders to get in on the action. What does gratitude look like for real people in real life? Consider these 5 gratitude practices that can lead us toward joy.

  1. Look backward and forward at God’s faithfulness

It sounds confusing at face value, but gratitude involves looking both into the past and into the future. Looking into the rearview mirror of our lives and our heritage brings a sense of gratitude. This is particularly crucial when things are going relatively well.

In Deuteronomy 8:10ff, Moses warns the people that in the good times, it becomes very easy to forget God. He says, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God… otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

According to this verse, the opposite of gratitude is pride. It’s self-sufficiency. Forgetting to be grateful happens when you are taking credit for anything good in your life. Don’t get so comfortable with your state in life that you forget to thank the One from whom all blessings flow.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that if the stars came out only one night in a thousand years, everybody would stay up all night to behold them. But, since we have seen the stars so regularly, we don’t appreciate them with the wonder they deserve. Let us not become so accustomed to our blessings that we fail to look back and thank God. The Thanksgiving table is often a time to take a peek in the rearview mirror and remember God’s blessings.

But the bible also commands us to be thankful for the blessings to come as well. Paul includes an odd sequence in a popular passage about prayer. He says in Philippians 4:6, Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Normally we think the prayer sequence should follow this order: make your request, receive God’s blessing, THEN thank him. Paul suggests we should thank him AS we’re making the request. Thanksgiving is not something that just happens when you get what you want. We should instead be thankful for whatever he’s going to do in response to our prayer. This gratitude is based on a confidence that God will hear our prayers, and He will wisely and lovingly answer in a way that’s best. Even when God says no, we can thank him because we have faith that his “no” is for our good and for the good of His kingdom. And for that we can be grateful.

Gratitude is fueled by the ability to look backward and to look ahead to God’s faithfulness.

  1. Find a regular rhythm of gratitude

I said at the start, that gratitude is something that we can choose and nurture. If that’s true, it means we can build gratefulness into our calendars. I’ve always found if fascinating that God commanded so many holidays and festivals to help the Jewish people remember their heritage and their blessings. I particularly love the story of The Jordan River crossing and the command to build an altar with 12 stones that were procured from the bottom of the river while God held back the water. God was preparing for a day when people would ask, “what do these stones mean?”

We read the account and think, is that something these people would really forget? This great once-in-a-lifetime miracle from God! How could they possibly fogret a moment like that? But… have you?

Have you ever had God do something amazing in your life and you forgot? We forget, I forget.

Can you imagine being a God who does miracles like this and knows we’re going to forget. So He says – hey before I pull back my hand, and before I let this river get back to its flood-stage raging – send some guys out to get boulders from the middle of the river. Build yourselves an altar and whenever you’re tempted to wonder if I’m powerful enough or if I care enough or if I’m engaged enough or loving enough or present enough – bring them to this rock pile and tell them the story of what happened here today. When your kids ask “Hey dad, what are those rocks” make sure you brag about what you saw here in this place today. Not about what you did – but about what I did. Tell them that I can be trusted.

So, like a string on their collective finger, God used days and markers and random rock piles to remind them to remember gratitude.

Maybe it’s a daily habit of writing out a list of three or five blessings. Often gratitude just comes down to choosing where to focus. And a habit of focusing on blessings will begin to cultivate a grateful heart. A while ago, one of my friends posted this list for moms which I thought was brilliant. It highlights the importance of focus, and like that ancient rock pile using everyday objects to build in a rhythm of gratitude. It says,

I’m grateful for early wakeups because it means I have children to love, and a house to clean because it means there’s a safe place to live. And laundry equals clothes to wear and dirty dishes points to food to eat. Crumbs under the table equals family meals and shopping to-do lists means I have money to spend. And toilets to clean point the blessing of indoor plumbing, and noise equals fun and questions equal learning, and being sore and tired at the end of the day means I’m still alive.

  1. Speak gratitude out loud

There is a huge difference between feeling gratitude and expressing gratitude. Sometimes we feel thankful inside for something or someone, but never take the time to speak it out loud. There is so much power in giving our gratitude a voice. It helps us, but it is also a tremendous blessing to others we share it with.

Some years ago, I sat down with an incredible military hero in our area just to hear his story and to thank him for his service. I went to the home of Admiral Curtze for a conversation. We made small talk for a while, and it was delightful. He was still a military guy to the core. I could tell by the stoic look in his eyes and how he stood as tall and as straight as he could manage with his 93-year-old frame. Toward the end of our conversation, I finally looked him in the eye and just said, “I want to thank you. Not just for the time we shared today, but for what you did many years ago, for putting your life on the line so that young bucks like me that weren’t even born yet could live in a country that’s free.” And at those words, his stoic military face changed. His cheeks softened and his brow relaxed, his eyes filled with tears, and he was speechless.

Expressing gratitude does something. It does something in us and it does something in those that receive our grateful words.

  1. Choose gratitude during hardship

Suffering pushes our thankful hearts to the limit. It’s tempting to give up on gratitude during times of great difficulty. But this is the very time when our faith can take the lead. The prophet Jeremiah shows us the way. Ironically one of the most beautiful biblical passages about joy and celebration is the book of Lamentations. A book of Laments.

The author is Jeremiah was a rejected prophet. He sits in a cave, in captivity, overlooking his beloved Jerusalem. He weeps as he sees the rubble of the once glorious city that had just experienced their version of 9-11. The city lays in ruins. He’s in grief – an all-time low. He feels like he failed his people, and now it seems that even God has turned against him. He’s depressed. And Jeremiah goes on a depressive rant about the absence of God. And after he’s spewed out all his complaints, cried all the tears, yelled all the curses, he writes these beautiful words. They are like an island of hope in an ocean of despair.

Jeremiah says my world is falling apart, everything I depended on is gone, even God seems to have abandoned me. But in Lamentations 3:21, he changes the narrative. He shows us the pathway to hope through despair. He says, But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope… You see, what we call to mind in our hardship has a profound impact on the road ahead. The road toward joy. Gratitude repositions our thoughts towards God and His goodness. Jeremiah is saying, I’m going to call something to mind, and that thing is going to break the spell of despair. I’m going to think my way to hope, I’m going to worship my way to hope. So, what does he call to mind? His gratefulness is rooted in the character of God. On his darkest day, Jeremiah was able to muster these powerful words.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” – Lamentations 3:22-24

In the midst of hardship, gratitude is both attainable and necessary for our healing.

  1. Designate daily gratitude triggers

What would it look like to make gratitude into a daily habit?

In his great book Atomic Habits, James Clear spells out how small regular habits can have a massive impact on the outcome of our lives. He draws an important distinction between goals and systems. That we often focus on goals like I want to lose weight, or I want to start a business, or I want to spend more time with family. Or, as this post indicates, I want to be more joyful.

Clear says, instead of focusing on goals, we should focus more on the systems we put in place. The daily habits that will get us to those goals.  Few things will have a more powerful impact on the outcome of your life than your daily habits. So what if some of those habits became the trigger for our gratitude?

What if your morning cup of coffee was the trigger to write your quick list of three things you’re grateful for today? What if the home screen on your phone was a picture of some people in your life that you’re grateful for, and every time you see it you pray a quick prayer thanking God for them. Or how about the first 2 minutes of your daily walk or exercise regimen was a trigger to send a text of encouragement to someone you are grateful for. A post-it note on your computer screen or bathroom mirror reminding yourself to be thankful, a folder in your photos labeled “Gratitude” with picture reminders of your blessings in life. There are so many ways to remind yourself every day as you go about your normal life, to be grateful.

I’m convinced, that incorporating the discipline of gratitude can give you a whole new lease on life.

A few years ago, a friend of a friend was diagnosed with bone cancer which is a very deadly form of cancer – it was essentially a death sentence. Some weeks later he went for final testing and treatment and was told that he had been mis-diagnosed. Instead, he had a very treatable disease that had nothing to do with cancer.

Put yourself in his shoes. All the sudden you have a new lease on life. Every day is a gift! You realize, I am going to be able to watch my kids grow up, I’m going to grow old with my wife, I’m going to live. Yesterday, I thought I was a goner. But today is a second chance. Would you be able to stop hugging your kids, or looking into your wife’s eyes? Things that got under your skin before would fade into insignificance. Why? Because suddenly your filled with gratitude for the gift of life.

With or without a deadly diagnosis, that is true for all of us! Life is a gift. We don’t earn it, we can’t control it, we shouldn’t take a single moment of it for granted. Every tick of the clock is a gift from God. I pray that you would choose to practice gratitude.