What do Americans do for the Thanksgiving holiday? We gorge ourselves on food and then on Black Friday bargains, though we know the one is unhealthy for our bodies and the other for our bank accounts. We sit on the couch for hours watching Thanksgiving Day football, though we know that rooting for the Lions is never good for our mental health.
We do these things year in and year out at Thanksgiving, but do we give thanks? After all, that was what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when, in some of the darkest days of the Civil War, he issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. It was for the same reason the United States Congress, amid the dark days of 1941, passed a joint resolution that declared the fourth Thursday of November would henceforth be known as Thanksgiving Day and observed as a national holiday.
Declaring a thanksgiving holiday was easier for Congress – and you know nothing is easy for Congress – than giving thanks is for us. St. Paul recognized this difficulty and located its source in a failure to relate appropriately to God: “…although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile.”
G. K. Chesterton wrote, half in jest: “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” Never having been an atheist, I cannot know whether this is true, but I find it doubtful. I do know, however, that it is a bad moment when a believer who does have someone to thank is not thankful.
Many of us, including some who are well acquainted with suffering, feel we should be thankful. But feeling like we should be thankful is not the same thing as being thankful. Nor is giving thanks. Even unthankful people can give thanks because they think they should, or because they think doing so would be advantageous to them and not doing so would be disadvantageous.
Anyone can choose to give thanks, which is good, but no one can choose to be thankful, which is better. The former is an act; the latter is a consequence. The former is the choice of a moment; the latter is the result of a lifetime. The first requires a decision; the second depends on a set of beliefs.
It is possible to develop habits of gratitude, to be intentional about expressing thanks to people and to God. (Genuinely thankful people will do both.) But developing these habits will be difficult, perhaps even impossible, in the absence of the kinds of beliefs from which gratitude flows. Giving thanks does not make us thankful; beliefs do.
People who are routinely thankful have learned things that others do not know. They know, for example, that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” They receive life and all its pleasures as a gift.
This means that they know that the goods they experience – family, friends, the bracing air of a frigid day, the warm home in which they sleep at night – are not things they deserve. They do not have an entitlement mentality. Entitled people are not thankful people.
Of course, they worked hard so that they could buy some of the things they enjoy, but they realize that the energy with which they worked was itself a gift. Life is a gift. They are a gift. And God is the giver.
Because thankful people expect the God who has been faithful to them in the past to be faithful to them in the future, they are learning to overcome anxiety—a primary obstacle to thankfulness. Because they have come to know God’s character, which is to say they have discovered what kind of person he is, they trust his care even when circumstances are difficult.
Most importantly, they know that God loves them, that God loves everyone, that God is love. At one time – and at many times – they struggled to believe this, but now they are confident of it. They feel loved and are therefore thankful, for they know that love, whenever it comes, is pure gift, and it is always coming from God.
(First published by Gannett.)