“Okay everyone, let’s go around the table and share one thing we’re thankful for this year.” The familiar responses of, “Food, health, family, and friends” follow as those gathered for a Thanksgiving feast count their blessings together. That simple tradition has often been a part of my Thanksgiving Holiday right there along with eating turkey and watching football. Perhaps you have a similar tradition at your gatherings?
Beyond the fourth Thursday of November, just what is Thanksgiving? How would you define being thankful? Conventional wisdom would suggest that being thankful means you are happy that your circumstances in life are one way and not another. That feeling may apply to material possessions, physical needs, or it may be directed at a person who has served you in special way. Being thankful is a recognition that things don’t have to be the way they are. You have food while some do not, you have a good friend while some do not, you have a healthy marriage while some do not, and so on. In being thankful, you are acknowledging a privileged and unique position that you may not have otherwise enjoyed. And you are also acknowledging that those good things originated somewhere outside of yourself.
If that definition of being thankful is correct, it raises an important question. To whom is our thanks directed? This is a key point . . . thanksgiving does not occur in a vacuum. It is directional as it flows from us to somebody else. It cannot occur in isolation. In that way it is not just a personal experience, giving thanks necessitates the involvement of another. A thankful person who never gives that thanks in a way that it can be received is not really thankful.
If our degree of thankfulness is based upon our circumstances then we need to know what determines those circumstances. For example, if all of life’s circumstances are the product of random evolutionary chance, how do we give thanks? Randomness by definition means that life is the way it is due to the cold, impersonal, and unforgiving hand of chance. Of all the countless possibilities that could have been your life, this is the lottery ticket that you drew. If you are happy with your lot, then you have reason to celebrate but there is no need for thanks, you just got lucky. The universe cannot accept your gratitude and therefore you cannot really give it.
True thankfulness implies personality. It implies a relationship between the one giving and the one receiving. Words like indebted, favored, blessed, and humbled can all be used to show gratitude and they all point to a relationship. You cannot be blessed by evolutionary forces, favored by the universe, indebted to a set of stars, or humbled by a random process. All of those things require a personal relationship that includes giving and receiving.
Instead of by chance, what if our circumstances are controlled by an all-powerful and loving Creator? What if instead of just being lucky, we are truly blessed to be alive? What if it is God who gives gifts to His children because they are His and to the whole creation because of His common grace? What if God has placed in us the desire to express gratitude in worship toward Him? That would be reason to direct true thanksgiving to Him by acknowledging that we do not deserve the blessings we enjoy but God has given them to us anyway. It would mean there is a personality present to receive the thanks that should flow to Him for the blessings that flow from Him. Only in God can we truly be thankful. You can be happy with your circumstances in any worldview, but only in a personal being who benevolently blesses can you be thankful.
But what about those in the world who lack physical blessings? What about those who are hungry, diseased, displaced, persecuted, homeless, or in prison? What kind of thanks can they offer this supposedly benevolent God? First, the lack that the majority of the world’s population endures should motivate a profound increase in our thanks to God with humility knowing that most people living in the United States are materially rich and comfortable. We do not deserve this, it is a blessing, be thankful. Second, God’s best gifts are not material but spiritual and therefore available to all people no matter where they live. It is those spiritual blessings that we can enjoy in Christ that make the physical blessing pale in comparison.
. . . I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that our giving of thanks occurs in proportion to our circumstantial prosperity. In other words, the more we have the more we thank. But we all know people who seem to have everything except a thankful heart and others who have next to nothing that exude a humble thankfulness even in their meager estate. Being thankful is a state of the heart that transcends circumstances. As Paul wrote, “in whatever situation I am to be content.”
That supernatural contentment is why many Americans returning home from visiting Christians in an impoverished nation will be astounded at the joy and thankfulness of people who have no business to feel that way from a worldly perspective. That is the reason that even in sickness, loss, and death, Christians can overflow with continual thanksgiving to God knowing that this physical life is but a drop in the bucket compared to the oceans of happiness to be enjoyed in the presence of God forever.
So be truly thankful this Thanksgiving season, you are not lucky, you are blessed, and the Giver of all good gifts desires to have a personal relationship with you!
A thankful heart is a good way of living,
But who is to thank for all that gift-giving?
Not the universe, luck, or a star in the skies,
To the maker of all our praises should rise.
Without a gift-giver there isn’t a gift,
So with sounds of thanksgiving your voice to Him lift!