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How the Texas Church Shooting Changed My View on Gratitude

by | Nov. 06, 2017

Mormon Life

Before I could finish the first line of the opening hymn in Relief Society, my phone buzzed with a news notification. 

Typically, I don't check my phone during Church. In fact, I try to look at my phone as little as possible on Sundays. But before I could glance away, I saw the headline: "20 Killed in Church Attack."

My heart skipped a beat. 

Twenty people dead? How? Where? Why?

Still mumbling the opening hymn, I search "23 Killed in Church." As the search results popped up, my heart broke. Twenty-three people from 5 to 72 years old had died in Texas' deadliest mass shooting in history.

The death toll would later climb to 26 and include the pastor's 14-year-old daughter.

Nearly all were found dead inside the small church. 

I looked around at the sisters gathered in Relief Society. This could easily have been us. We didn't live in Texas, we weren't in a Baptist church, but there were so many ways something like this could have happened to us. 

Dread, fear, anger, sadness—I struggled to focus on the lesson as I wrestled with my feelings.

Disasters like this are sickeningly common in the world today, but that doesn't mean we have answers for why acts of horrific violence like this happen.

However, we do know how we can live despite these horrible tragedies—it's just not the answer we expect. 

In his April 2009 general conference talk "Be of Good Cheer," President Monson said:

"It would be easy to become discouraged and cynical about the future—or even fearful of what might come—if we allowed ourselves to dwell only on that which is wrong in the world and in our lives. Today, however, I’d like us to turn our thoughts and our attitudes away from the troubles around us and to focus instead on our blessings as members of the Church."

As I struggled to listen to the lesson in Relief Society that day, I didn't realize just how the message was affirming President Monson's counsel for us. 

At first, I thought the lesson about gratitude was nice. There's nothing wrong with showing gratitude, but I didn't see how that had anything to do with what just happened in Texas or other recent tragedies. How could the families of the victims be grateful at a time like this? How could I?

We then turned to Job 1:20–23. It was the passage just after Job found out his children were dead, his servants were dead, and all of his livelihood was stolen or burned.

Instead of turning to feelings of hatred, instead of giving into fear, Job does something very interesting.

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly . 

When nearly all Job had was taken away by fire, by violence, and by pestilence so suddenly and without reason, his first reaction was to turn to God. He still acknowledged God's will and His blessings.

In his April 2014 general conference talk, President Uchtdorf gave advice for just this type of moment.

"But some might say, “What do I have to be grateful for when my world is falling apart?”
"Perhaps focusing on what we are grateful for is the wrong approach. . . . Could I suggest that we see gratitude as a disposition, a way of life that stands independent of our current situation? In other words, I’m suggesting that instead of being thankful for things, we focus on being thankful in our circumstances—whatever they may be."

This type of gratitude isn't easy. It's not something we can do passively. It requires faith and constant effort. But the reward we will receive is greater than the feelings of bitterness, fear, and cynicism that is so easy to indulge in these days. As President Uchtdorf said:

"This type of gratitude transcends whatever is happening around us. It surpasses disappointment, discouragement, and despair. It blooms just as beautifully in the icy landscape of winter as it does in the pleasant warmth of summer.
"When we are grateful to God in our circumstances, we can experience gentle peace in the midst of tribulation. In grief, we can still lift up our hearts in praise. In pain, we can glory in Christ’s Atonement. In the cold of bitter sorrow, we can experience the closeness and warmth of heaven’s embrace."

It doesn't take away the sting of sorrow or dimish our losses, but living in gratitude can bring a sense of peace, assurance, and even joy into our lives. 

"And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more" (D&C 78:19).

As I listened to the Relief Society lesson that Sunday, I realized it was the perfect message for the world today. It seems strange to be grateful when so many tragedies are happening around us. But gratitude puts our focus on the Savior. It puts our focus on the blessings the gospel brings to our lives. It opens up the pathway to joy. It gives us a way to live despite troubling times. It gives us an eternal perspective.

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