While Christ traveled in the wilderness, a multitude came unto Him, “having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus’ feet,” hoping, no doubt, that He would exercise His miraculous power for their benefit. Of course, He was moved by His incomparable love and “healed them” (Matthew 15:30). That multitude then remained with Jesus for three days, and the Savior said to His apostles, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way” (Matthew 15:32). Beyond addressing the needs the people had brought to His feet, Jesus wanted to make sure that all their needs were addressed before they departed His presence. Thus, He asked his disciples what food they had among them, and they responded that they had seven loaves and a few little fishes. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus then “took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude” (15:36). All ate, and, in the end, there were baskets of food to spare.
Referencing this miracle, President Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explained, “Notice that the Savior gave thanks for what they had—and a miracle followed…. We have all experienced times when our focus is on what we lack rather than on our blessings. Said the Greek philosopher Epictetus, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.’” I bet that if I had been faced with feeding thousands with a basketful of food, I would probably have felt abject despair; however, faced with that prospect, Jesus Christ gave thanks—that He had something—and a miracle followed.
It can be difficult to see past what we lack in order to express gratitude for what we have. It’s hard to be grateful for our shoe when there’s a pebble stuck in it. At such times, we often fail to realize just how uncomfortable walking would be if we had no shoes at all. I can’t say that I’ve mastered the ability to see past the troubles of my life, but I can remember a time when a conscious effort to express gratitude opened my eyes to the abundance of God’s mercy during what could have otherwise been a defeating and discouraging time.
While I was serving in Brazil as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ, my missionary companion and I were about to knock on the door of an apartment complex when two men rode up beside us on a motorcycle. They stopped us and shouted, “The Mormons’ house is on fire!” After they told us the address of the apartment in question, my companion and I abandoned our plans and headed home. When we rounded the corner of our block, we found inky smoke oozing out of the open window. Our neighbors were gathered at the foot of the building, terrified and screaming that the flames would make it to the propane tank connected to the kitchen stove. While we waited for the firefighters, the security guards at the hospital behind our building ran up and put out the fire. I called the other pair of missionaries who lived with us, and we headed upstairs to see what was left.
One of the missionaries living in the apartment had accidentally left the iron plugged in before he left for the day’s work. At some point in the afternoon, the iron had caught fire, taking the ironing board and a pair of black rubber boots with it. Though the flames had been hot enough to consume the boots entirely and to discolor the tile floor in the corner of the room, they only singed the edge of the couch that shared the corner with the ironing board. The burning boots had filled the apartment with smoke and covered every exposed surface with stinky soot, and we spent the rest of the afternoon staring at the blackened walls and ceiling in a sort of daze, contemplating the work that lay ahead. I couldn’t help but feel grateful, though, that the Lord had kept the fire from burning the couch: had the couch caught fire, the damage would likely have been catastrophic.
Of course, we spent the next week cleaning and painting the walls, soaking our white shirts in countless liters of bleach, and sleeping in an apartment in a distant corner of the city. That meant that after splitting the day between restoring the apartment and teaching the gospel in the streets, we ended the day with a fifteen-minute bus ride and a twenty-minute walk through dark, narrow streets. On about the third day of that routine, my companion and I got to the door of our temporary apartment to find that our key had stopped working. My companion jiggled the key in the lock; I jiggled the key in the lock. We tried every key on the keyring without success. We pushed the door and pulled the door, hoping to shift the lock somehow. Dirty and exhausted after a day’s work, we each offered silent prayers for help and then returned to our assault on the lock with renewed fervor. The lock didn’t budge, but we kept trying, and, eventually, the door swung open. We staggered into the apartment and fell on our knees to give thanks for the Lord’s intervention in our time of what felt then like desperate need.
With a charred apartment, an upset routine, and a worthless key, we had enough pebbles in our shoes to spare. President Monson taught, “When we encounter challenges and problems in our lives, it is often difficult for us to focus on our blessings. However, if we reach deep enough and look hard enough, we will be able to feel and recognize just how much we have been given,” adding later that “to express gratitude is gracious and honorable, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live with gratitude ever in our hearts is to touch heaven.” For some reason, I found it particularly easy then to see the blessings by looking past the fiery trials of that week. I was then able to see how a loving Father in Heaven had been involved in the details of my life, always working to bless and encourage in the midst of discouraging circumstances. By focusing my efforts on expressing gratitude, I became more aware of the reality of God’s love, and, even now, the week my apartment caught fire stands in memory as one of the periods in which I felt closest to heaven.
Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord asked, “[W]hat doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold,” He continued, “he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:33). In order to give thanks for a blessing that we receive, we have to acknowledge first the blessing and then the God who has blessed us. As clear as it was for me to see the hand of the Lord at work in my life during the week of the fire, I fail occasionally to recognize the blessings in my life—and that makes it impossible to see God’s hand at work and to rejoice in His love. Speaking of gratitude, the Psalmist wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness” (Psalm 97:11), reminding us that joy and gratitude are closely linked. As we look for blessings in a spirit of gratitude, we get better at seeing them, and the abundance of little mercies and comforts begins to outshine the ever-present distresses of life, illuminating each day with the joy that comes from knowing that God lives and that He loves us enough to take care of us from day to day.
When we, like the Savior, incline our hearts to heaven in gratitude for what we have rather than fret over what we lack, we prepare ourselves to witness great miracles. We may not see something as dramatic as the feeding of thousands with several small loaves, but, when we witness a door open after trying in vain to unlock it, the miracles that we do witness will seem great because of the incisive way in which they teach us about God’s love for us. We will come to see that God doesn’t afflict us with adversity, but that He blesses us with the help we need as we face the tribulation that is a natural consequence of living in a fallen world. I know that as we live with gratitude in our hearts we will, as President Monson promised, “touch heaven” and rejoice in the unconditional love of our Father in Heaven.