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Often feel unhappy? Try this spiritual practice, every day

USA, Utah, Salt Lake City, Portrait of young woman looking away

I seem to spend a lot of time on this site unpacking and criticising beloved Christians phrases. I’ve suggested it’s probably not helpful to talk about God’s specific plan for your life; that we should retire ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, and that we need to lose the idea that ‘God’s got someone special waiting for you’. Yet there are some entries in the Christian phrasebook which, while they might not directly appear in Scripture, are really wise and helpful.

It’s not entirely clear where the phrase ‘count your blessings’ originates from. One possible source is an old American hymn by the wonderfully-titled Johnson Oatman Jr, written in 1897:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

I don’t know about you, but I often struggle to start the day with a hugely positive outlook in 2017. The world is tearing itself apart; injustice and pain seem to be everywhere. Instinctively, I don’t wake each morning feeling entirely ‘blessed’.

What Johnson Oatman Jr and all those who’ve co-opted that phrase are calling us to in these moments is a bigger perspective. It’s easy to forget all the good things, or take them for granted, when the bad things seem to loom so large. Yet when we take a step back, there’s a lot of blessing around – as well as all the discouragement and inequality. Of course we should mourn, but we should also choose to celebrate.

This encouragement to ‘count your blessings’ has two applications, and they’re both important. The firstis more individualistic, but that doesn’t render it invalid or unhelpful. Simply, we should take time every day to remember the good things in our lives, and thank God for them. Turning this into a specific, regular spiritual discipline, just try taking a few minutes every day to write a list of the things – both big and small – for which you’re thankful, and then taking a few more minutes to thank God for those things. Friends who have battled both mental and physical illness have reported this process to be absolutely transformative in their battle to recover (one popular derivation is to challenge yourself to write down three things each day for which you’re thankful, and even to consider posting them to social media).

The interesting thing about this process is – as Oatman Jr. suggests – how surprising it is. Especially if we’re feeling quite sad or negative, we might come to it imagining that we’ll have very little to write down. But as we start to think through the things we’re grateful for – friendships, family members, fond memories or things to look forward to – it’s amazing how quickly the list begins to grow.

If we leave it there however, the risk is that we just reinforce the idea that God is simply there to make us feel better; to grant our wishes and improve our lives like a sort of cosmic genie. If we just remember what God has done for us, we’re really embracing an individualistic faith which is arguably quite unbiblical. God relates to us as people, but more importantly perhaps as His People, a community of his followers; one body with many parts.

So when we take time to count our blessings, we should also do so in the context of a wider sense of ‘our’. My ability to feel thankful shouldn’t just sit within my own self-interest; I should be thankful for the good things going on in my friends lives; or in other parts of the nation or world. Counting our blessings shouldn’t just be inwardly-focussed; it should be a vicarious act. So if you’re writing a list of things for which you’re thankful, make sure your eyes lift beyond your own circumstances – there’s a great sense of pleasure and contentment to be derived from enjoying other people’s good news.

It might feel a bit trite to say that ‘counting your blessings’ is the sure-fire cure for feelings of sadness and despair. If we were to swing too far the other way, we’d lose our empathy with a hurting world. But with so many encouragements toward negativity and cynicism in our culture, it’s a really helpful counter-balance: a daily practice that anyone can adopt, and from which everyone will benefit.

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