The past year and a half of my life has been very difficult. Our family has gone through troubles of epic proportions. We are just now starting to see the end. The prospect that we might have reached the other side of the valley fills us with hope, yet there is a hesitation… a fear that it’s not really over, that it might never be over. But each day dawns anew with the promise of hope, so we trudge forward one step—one breath—at a time, stretching our crumpled wings, wondering if we’ve found a safe place to roost.
Last Sunday our pastor spoke about how the spiral of sin sometimes begins with something imperfect niggling at you. And if you dwell on that something too much, you might find yourself being dragged down the spiral of sin until you’re trapped at the bottom. He suggested that gratitude can help break us free from the trap, while ingratitude—often in the form of negativity or pessimism—can keep us imprisoned.
That got me thinking. Our family did not get a voice in the midst of our troubles, and I have been deeply struggling with that in so many ways. Bitterness, anger, hurt, abandonment, betrayal… If I dwell on these injustices, even for a few seconds, it’s not so much a spiral for me but a cliff I fall off or the steepest drop of an extreme roller coaster that sweeps me from happy and content one moment to the depths of despair in one quick rush. If you’ve ever experienced pain like this, you likely understand. Suffering and grief are difficult ordeals that are not so easily overcome. And while suffering inevitably ends in time, I don’t think you ever stop grieving great losses. Instead you learn to transition to a new way of life. Our family is still learning what that looks like.
So as I was sitting in church last Sunday, listening to my pastor’s words, it occurred to me that I can’t simultaneously choose gratitude and the depths of despair. My heart is not like my hands or feet. I only have one. Sadly, I can have one foot in God’s kingdom and another in the world. Or I can hold on to joy in one hand and bitter anger in the other. Doing this is not healthy or wise, yet it’s possible. But that is not how the heart works. The heart is “all in.” It can be confused and divided, yes. The heart might not know what it wants. But when the heart dwells, it dwells fully.
When I fill my heart with negative emotions—with anger and bitterness and desperation to have someone step up, defend my family, and speak the truth—I am not trusting God. I am not being thankful. I’m allowing my heart to dwell on that which imprisons me. There is no room in my heart for gratitude when my heart is so filled with other things. My heart cannot be both bitter and thankful at the same time. Such emotions repel each other. So I must willfully put down my bitterness and anger and hate and frustration and sorrow in order to pick up gratitude, joy, hope, and trust. I must choose. I must act. And I can’t just make the choice once and be done with it. I have to make that choice again and again and again because habits are not formed in a day, and I have been riding that negative roller coaster a lot lately. So I must practice being grateful, hopeful, and trusting God until it becomes habit. This is no easy task. Especially when life doesn't yet feel safe. Thankfully I don’t have to do it alone. My God is with me. And while people will sometimes let me down, my God goes with me always. He will never leave or forsake me. If I find myself stuffing those negative emotions back into my heart, I can call on his name and he will help me. I can choose. Always.
My husband works his way through Philippians 4:8 by listing all the things in his life that are 1) true, 2) noble, 3) right, 4) pure, 5) lovely, 6) admirable, 7) excellent, 8) praiseworthy, and in drafting those lists in his mind, he slowly comes to dwell on being thankful. Try it sometime. It works.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.” - Philippians 4:8
What is filling your heart today? Do you have any words of wisdom for breaking the hold of negative emotions? Share in the comments.
I love Jesus. I think my two daughters can change the world. I think you can too.
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