Becoming more Christlike is about becoming a better Christian through a more committed application of the Bible, coupled with the guidance and grace of the Holy Spirit. This application of Scripture cuts two ways. First, it calls for doing away with ungodliness, for resisting and overcoming sin as much as possible. Second, it calls for us to put on Christ, 1 to embrace the godly virtues spoken of in Scripture, and live in a manner that strengthens these virtues within our lives.
In his book, Cultivating Christian Character, 2 author Michael Zigarelli conducted a survey of 5,000 Christians and found which virtues seem to help in the growth and development of Christian character. He identified three attributes that appear to be major building blocks in developing Christlikeness:
There are three attributes that best explain why high-virtue Christians are different from average-virtue Christians. Those attributes—those three pillars of success—are gratitude, joyful living and God-centeredness … Christians who have sown these three seeds into their lifestyle are far more likely to reap maximum Christian character … to see manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Fundamental but elusive Christian virtues (e.g., love, inner peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, compassion, and the ability to forgive) all flow from the roots of gratitude, joyful living, and God-centeredness 3
Gratitude is a key element of growth in Christlikeness because it’s a “parent virtue”—a virtue that helps produce other godly virtues and has a transformational effect on our character. It’s also widely understood in fields such as psychology and self-improvement to be beneficial for improving one’s health and emotional, social, and psychological well-being. Gratitude is universally considered a basic foundation for a better, happier life.
In Scripture, gratitude or gratefulness is based on the concept that everywhere and in every situation, God’s people should give thanks to God, the One who has created and redeemed them. The giving of thanks in the Old Testament is indicated most often by the Hebrew word todah, which is translated thanks, thankfulness, and thanksgiving. It’s also how you say “thank you” in modern Hebrew.
The New Testament is also full of examples of expressing thankfulness to God, as well as instruction to do so. In fact, we’re told to give thanks to God for everything 4 and always. 5
Cultivating gratitude changes our outlook on life, producing over time a new context or lens through which we process our circumstances. We begin to see our experiences and everything we have in the light of God’s love, and we recognize that no matter what our situation, it could be worse—but it isn’t. This doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to improve our situation, but we view it with thankfulness.
In a sense, gratitude is a mindset. No matter what our circumstances, we can choose to see them through the lens of thankfulness to God for His love, care, and supply, rather than comparing with others or bemoaning our lot in life. It requires focusing our thoughts on our blessings instead of what’s missing from our lives or how much better life could be “if only…” Gratitude causes us to want what we have, to be content with whatever state we are in, and to regularly thank God for our blessings, whether they’re meager or abundant.
It’s often difficult to feel grateful when we face adversity in our lives, when it seems life doesn’t make sense and our prayers go unanswered. But a grateful attitude isn’t based on events, it’s anchored in faith that God loves us, that He hears our prayers, and that there are always things to be thankful for even in the worst of situations.
One way to cultivate gratitude is to keep track of the things you are thankful for. Keeping a gratitude journal helps you take account of and focus on your blessings, which is part of developing a positive and grateful mindset. Each of us has numerous things in our daily lives that we are thankful for, yet we rarely take time to acknowledge them, so they don’t consciously register in our minds as blessings.
I recently started to keep such a journal, and I’ve been surprised at how many things I’m thankful for that I’ve rarely given much thought to. I go through my day surrounded by blessings—but until I started listing five things I’m thankful for each day, I rarely took specific notice of them. Of course, I regularly thanked God for my blessings, but I did so in general terms. I’ve found that keeping track of specifics has helped me both to be aware of my blessings and be more specifically grateful for the many things I’ve taken for granted for so many years.
In the short time I’ve been doing this, it’s already changed the way I respond to things. Just yesterday, I found out I had an unexpected bill to pay, and my first reaction was to complain about it, but then I reframed my thoughts and thanked God that I had the funds on hand to pay it. It felt so much better.
There are so many things in our lives, both small and great, which we can identify as God’s blessings: our gifts and talents, goals we’ve achieved, opportunities that have come our way, our health, the car getting fixed, food on the table, water in the faucet, and so on. Then we also have family and friends who love us, and others who have helped or cared for us in some way. Keeping a journal helps train our mind to recognize them, and eventually our mindset can change so that gratitude becomes part of who we are, putting us on the pathway to greater Christlikeness.
Remembering the poor in our prayers can also enhance gratitude. When we pray for those who have less than we do, it reminds us of how difficult life is for some and makes us grateful for our lives. When we pray for refugees who have to leave everything behind and risk their lives to get somewhere safe, it helps keep our situation in perspective.
Our frame of reference becomes the impoverished widow, the hungry child, the jobless father, the disease-ridden infant, the refugee forced from home by war, the third-world neighbor without electricity or running water. Praying daily for these people is a practice that illuminates our own existence in the blazing light of God’s providence, and as a result, one may experience a stunning series of reversals. Envy gives way to fulfillment. Resentment gives way to contentment. Complaints give way to praise. The catalyst through it all is gratitude, born of a clearer perspective that’s generated by reflecting on the poor. 6
As Christians, we possess the ultimate blessing—salvation, the knowledge that we will live forever with God. We are in relationship with the Creator and sustainer of all things. Our God is also our Father, who knows what we need and promises to take care of us. No matter our circumstances, we are in His presence. Gratitude isn’t our natural state, but as we work to cultivate it in our lives, we will be on the path to greater Christlikeness.