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Thanksgiving is not a given. I do not mean that the national holiday is in peril. It is safe enough for now, although its rootedness in the theistic tradition could make it a strategic target in future culture wars. But as an actual occasion for giving thanks, it is already in a precarious position. The theistic worldview on which the practice of thanksgiving rests is eroding beneath it.
Of course, it is possible to express thanksgiving whether a theistic worldview is in place or not. Anyone can express gratitude to the important people in their life: a father or mother, family members, friends, and coworkers. It is possible, but it can hardly be assumed.
Gratitude, which is not an action but an attitude or a prevailing spirit, is the necessary foundation upon which the act of thanksgiving operates. Without the spiritual virtue of gratitude, thanksgiving will either be absent, manipulative, or hollow. The absence of gratitude in relationships, like the absence of some important nutrient in the body, is unhealthy.
It is not just unhealthy for the relationship, but unhealthy for the individual. Writing in Psychology Today, Amy Morin cites various studies suggesting that grateful people are physically healthier. They are happier. Their gratitude provides a bulwark against depression, restrains relation-fracturing aggression, and encourages greater sympathy. Grateful people even sleep better.
I have found gratitude to be, both in myself and in others, an accurate barometer of spiritual health. The ingrate not only knows less of life’s pleasures, but also knows less of God’s grace. Gratitude may be the single most important measure of spiritual vitality.
But just knowing that one should be grateful does not make a person so. Even a genuine desire to become grateful will not produce gratitude, any more than the desire to be thin will take away one’s appetite. If the 18th century English divine William Law was right and “the greatest saint in the world … is he who is always thankful to God,” then becoming a consistently grateful person is of enormous value. But how does that happen?
There are steps that can be taken. People can regularly recount their blessings to God and intentionally practice expressing gratitude toward others. These go together, for many of God’s blessings come through people. It is quite impossible that one should be genuinely grateful to God and unappreciative toward people at the same time.
The formation of a grateful spirit, and the habits of thanksgiving it produces, will turn out to be difficult without a foundational belief system to support it. What are some of the components of the grateful person’s belief system?
St. Paul outlines these essential beliefs in his letter to the Romans. The first is the conviction that God is at work and is bringing good to his people in everything that happens. Believing this, a person can be grateful even if she loses her job or house or is diagnosed with cancer. Without this belief, she may endure; willpower may keep her moving forward, but it will not make her a grateful person.
To be truly grateful, even in hard times, people must align themselves with God’s goal for humanity. This, according to the apostle, is nothing less than conformation “to the image of God’s Son” Jesus. For those who adopt this as their goal, everything that happens, both good and bad, can help them achieve their objective. If, however, their goal is to be wealthy, or healthy, or to avoid hassles, gratitude will always be elusive.
To become a grateful person, one must also believe in a God who loves unconditionally. Life will sometimes scream that we are unwanted, unloved, and unworthy. Our own failures will echo that scream. Gratitude can only be reclaimed in such moments if we are convinced that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thanksgiving is the fruit that grows on the tree of gratitude, which is planted in the soil of belief in the powerful, loving God Jesus knew. It is the sweetest and most nourishing fruit we can bring to the holidays.