Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Gratitude Changes Us

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever….”

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
    We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
    and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

Show me a spiritual sourpuss, and I’ll show you a person who lives without daily gratitude toward God and others. But show me a gracious person who liberally gives thanks, and I will show you a person profoundly in touch with God’s steadfast love.

The psalmist chose to give thanks for God’s goodness and faithful love. I wonder how much different each day would be if we began it with the psalmist’s great call to worship: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

There is a misguided notion that only certain people have the attitude of gratitude – that some folks are just naturally ornery, and some are just born happy. But the truth is that gratitude and giving thanks is a practice which needs to be carefully cultivated. As it grows and develops, gratitude bears the fruit of joy. 

Thankfulness is a daily decision of faith to have the kind of attitude which pleases God and blesses others.

We now know so much more about the human brain. Research has discovered that the brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of 100 trillion neural connections. That’s a lot of neural power! Most of those neural pathways are good and healthy. For example, I didn’t have to think about how to tie my shoes this morning because I have a well-developed neural pathway that automatically makes the connection to do it.

However, some of those neural pathways are not good, even unhealthy. There might be connections in our heads which lead to substance abuse when under stress, or to violently lash out when afraid or hurt, or things like plain old procrastination. If you have ever had the experience of telling yourself that you’re not going to respond a particular way, then end up doing it anyway, it is likely you have a well-worn neural pathway which connects certain events to a set of focused actions.

What this all means is that willpower won’t do the trick in changing behavior. That’s because our brains don’t work that way. The good news is that all those neural connections and pathways, like ruts in a gravel road, can fade away and new ones can be developed. Scientists call this “neural plasticity.”

There are practices which can help unhealthy neural connections go away and create new healthy pathways.

One of those practices is gratitude. Giving thanks changes our brain chemistry! Yet, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we identify three persons or possessions which we are grateful for and say them out loud at least three times a day over the next three months, then we have developed a new neural pathway in our brain.

So, in the future, when we face a stressful event – whereas in the past we might deal with it in an unhealthy way – now our brains reflexively go to a different place and see the situation in a different way than before. And we choose different actions and behaviors.

Readers of this blog know that I continually encourage reading the psalms out loud as prayers to God. If we make this a practice, it will not only change our brains – it will create new spiritual pathways in our souls which fortify us for those times in life when things are tough and hard.

Spiritual practices have a purpose. And when we use those disciplines, we end up developing connections with the Lord which support us and sustain us for a lifetime – not to mention that we become a delight for others to be around instead of being a tedious fart.

Loving God, this is the day you have made; I rejoice in it and am glad that your steadfast love covers all things. Help me to connect every good thing with your gracious hand upon me so that I will not look and act like I was baptized in pickle juice.  To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray.  Amen.

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