The Scriptures, saints, and experience all agree that if there is a secret to living the Christian life, it is the cultivation of a thankful heart. No one can be both grateful and angry; both thankful and judgmental. Anyone can begin to practice gratitude; you don’t have to be smart or strong—just willing. A person with a thankful heart can’t help but practice the presence of God throughout the day. Gratitude changes everything. It’s like putting on corrective lenses; everything is now seen rightly, clearly.
Thanking God even for the bad and difficulties in our lives transforms them from evil to good. Just look at Joseph: you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen 50:20) Gratitude is what made it possible for Joseph to love and save the brothers who sold him into slavery—and their families. Gratitude sustained him in adversity, kept him through the years in prison, and allowed God to save many lives through him.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet officer during World War II. He was twice decorated for his conduct at the front. But he was also troubled by Russian atrocities and critical of the conduct of the war. He shared his views with a friend in personal letters which were intercepted and read by authorities. He was arrested, tried and convicted as a political prisoner. He was sent to several Gulags (Soviet concentration camps) in Siberia. Political prisoners were treated especially harshly. Even the most hardened criminals looked down on them and were allowed to treat them with contempt and cruelty. He spent 15 years in these camps before he was released. Solzhenitsyn lost everything—status, freedom, family, marriage, and any hope for a decent life. After his release Solzhenitsyn began to write. He was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Other works were published in the West and in 1970 he won the Noble Prize for Literature. In 1973 he wrote a scathing critique and autobiographical account of his experience in the camps, The Gulag Archipelago, which was published after his exile in 1974. He lived in the United States until the fall of the Soviet Empire and returned to Russia in 1994. When Solzhenitsyn died at the age of 89, both Russian and world leaders paid tribute to his work and life.
There is one other thing worth knowing about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In those Gulags he endured humiliation, degradation, physical hardship, and witnessed the worst in human behavior. But he also witnessed something else…he witnessed the grace and dignity with which Orthodox Christians lived and died. They shared his status, but not his hatred or bitterness. In The Gulag Solzhenitsyn writes about how Christians lived—and died—differently in the camps, and writes briefly about his own conversion ending with these words, “bless you, bless you prison.” Solzhenitsyn could be grateful for his own pride and folly that led him to the horrible evil of the Gulags because it brought him to faith in Jesus Christ. He could affirm the words of a contemporary hymn: God bless the broken road that led me straight to you. In 1978 he gave the commencement address at Harvard. In that address he criticized the Western educational and political institutions for abandoning the Christian values on which they had been built.
Henri Nouwen put it well; “to be grateful for the good things in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for the bad, the successes as well as the failures, requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.” Cultivating a grateful heart may well be the secret to the Christian life and the way to transform all of life from evil to good.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Rev. Don Muncie