Monday, November 10, 2008

An Attitude of Gratitude

1 Thessalonians 5:18 ...give thanks in all circumstances for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

Gratitude is more than saying a perfunctory "thanks" over your meal or celebrating Thanksgiving. It is a powerful force both spiritually as well as physically. In 1 Timothy 2:1 God includes the giving of thanksgiving as a prerequisite to true worship. Consider the story of the ten lepers Jesus healed in Luke 17:11-17. Ten men suffering the ravages of leprosy saw Jesus on the road and begged Him to heal them of that devastating disease. His instructions to them were to go show themselves to the priests and it says "as they went they were cleansed." Obedience by faith caused the cleansing of that physical disease. However, it goes on to say only one, a Samaritan, a despised foreigner, returned to praise and glorify God and thank Jesus when he realized what had taken place in his body. Jesus' response seems incredulous - He asks, "Were not ten cleansed - where are the other nine?" Gratitude is precious to Him. Jesus then tells this grateful man that his faith has made him "well." When I look at that word in the original Greek it actually means "to be made whole." This suggests that perhaps the nine were cleansed of the disease but that thankful man was not only cleansed but made whole. If leprosy had damaged his fingers, toes, nose, ears, they were made whole again! He received so much more than simply being healed.

It is true in the physical realm as well. Studies conducted on the effects of gratitude reveal that thankful people:

Handle stress better;
Are more optimistic;
Are more alert and energetic;
Attract gratitude and kindness from others; and
Are healthier overall.

The reasons for this are due to the fascinating manner in which God created our bodies. It is related to our nervous system which is divided into two parts, the voluntary and autonomic or involuntary. The voluntary controls movement and sensations and the autonomic is concerned with functions we don't even have to think about like digestion and blood pressure.The autonomic is further divided into two more branches - the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic is the fight-or-flight system. It is concerned with our survival in a dangerous or stressful situation and acts as the body's defense system by activating organs and glands that provide the extra energy needed at those times. Because it necessitates so much energy expenditure, it breaks down the body if it is in operation too often or for too long. We now read about how the release of too much cortisol (the stress hormone) damages our bodies. The parasympathetic system is the rebuilding, nourishing, healing system. It stimulates the systems and organs that cause cleansing, stimulate our immune and digestive systems like the liver, stomach and pancreas. One or the other of these two systems are activated most of the time. Since the sympathetic system deals with our physical survival, it tends to overshadow the other. However, to enable your body to heal, rebuild and repair itself, it is critical to turn off the sympathetic system as much as possible while activating the parasympathetic. When you are experiencing chronic stress, even though it is not actual, physical danger causing the release of those hormones, it is damaging and breaks down your body systems. Stress of any type, as well as thinking negative, anxious, angry, fearful thoughts, activates the sympathetic nervous system.On the other hand, the parasympathetic system is activated by rest, relaxation and positive, happy thoughts, especially gratitude! Several studies found that healthy parasympathetic dominance occurs very infrequently and only in spiritually developed people as they tend to live in a state of peace, contentment and gratitude. It's hard to argue that Father really doesn't always know best!

Research was also done on how to optimize the coherence of the heart, or what they also refer to as the "emotional heart." Coherence simply refers to the heart's ability to adapt to certain situations and remain harmonious. The impact of thoughts and emotions in the test subjects was visible immediately as their heartbeats were observed on a monitor. Fearful, angry, anxious thoughts caused erratic rhythms. However, when the subjects exercised thoughts and feelings of joy, gratitude or love, the parasympathetic system normalized the heart rhythms.

The effective activation of the parasympathetic system naturally declines with age. However, as with any muscle in the body, or spiritual quality, it will respond if we exercise it consistently! We can consciously choose to exercise gratitude and joy daily and not only live happier lives, but healthier ones as well.

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