“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, ESV). Sometimes, this can be the hardest command in Scripture to obey. Thankfulness can easily drown in a whirlpool of self-pity when life’s circumstances cloud our view.
About 15 years ago I was in a meeting where everybody wrote a “gratitude list.” We all brainstormed things for which we were thankful, trying to see how many blessings we could write. As I recall, I filled a page rather quickly and was making substantial headway on the other side of the sheet of paper. There were not too many glamorous or exotic items on that list; it was mostly rather basic, ordinary things to appreciate, like health, family, a job, etc. Although fame and fortune were not on the list, there were many little things that I was grateful to have in my life.
About nine months later, I stumbled upon that list again. It still said “Gratitude List” at the top of the page, but this time the title should have read “Emotional Kick in the Face.” Almost every item on that list was gone. Marriage? My wife and I were going through a bitter separation, child custody battle, and divorce. My son? I had not seen nor spoken to him in months. My job? Nah; I only found the list because I had just been fired.
I realize this is not the standard lead to an article about thanksgiving. However, thankfulness demands a right perspective. If we base our sense of security on things that can change or disappear, we have little reason for gratitude. We need to cherish things that last instead of those that are temporary or unreliable.
Saint Paul wrote often about the attitude of gratitude in his New Testament letters. Yet, he did not have an easy life. When he would discuss his credibility as a minister of the Gospel, he did not whip out a diploma from an esteemed seminary or point to his popular television show and huge megachurch. Instead, he validated his apostolic ministry by writing, “I am a better one—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). It does not sound like he had much reason to give thanks, but his perspective was vastly different from that of most men. He had written, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Situations and circumstances are temporary. If your life and joy are tied to things that are temporary, your gratitude will lack security. There will be no foundation. Temporary blessings bring temporary gratitude. However, the opposite is true as well: temporary hardships bring temporary sorrow: “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
This life is temporary, but eternal life last forever. People may change, fail, or betray, but Jesus will never fail us.
Within five years of that gratitude list experience, I could write a newer, better one. In 2000, I celebrated Thanksgiving with a new wife, who has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. I have spent the last 14 years working in publishing (I had always wanted to do something with books or magazines; scientific journals will do). While the workplace has been stressful in recent years, thanks to economic challenges in the publishing industry, it still beats every other job I had before. A few months after finding the gratitude-list-turned-kick-in-the-face, I gained some fairly generous visitation rights with my son. Today, I enjoy chatting with him once or twice per week over the phone, and during part of those conversations I get to talk to my 2-year-old grandson (the 7-month-old is usually too busy to chat). I have obtained some great blessings over the years, but I had to go through some painful times before I received them.
Perhaps it was the hard times that enable me to appreciate the good things I have now. James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” God often prepares us to receive a blessing by allowing us to grow through trials. Even on Thanksgiving Day in 1996, when I felt like my entire world was collapsing around me, I could thank God that He still had a plan and purpose for my life.
When I was an assistant pastor, our church would occasionally sing a worship song with these lyrics: “Give thanks with a grateful heart / give thanks to the Holy One / give thanks, for He has given Jesus Christ, His Son.” No matter what else God may give us, He has already given us a great blessing by sending His Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. He has given us a gift that allows us to call upon the name of the Lord and be saved (Romans 10:9,13). No job, earthly blessing, or human relationship can compete against such a great gift.
Thanksgiving is a very appropriate climax to the month of November, as it leads to the conclusion of the church year. We begin November by observing All Saints’ Day. This feast day, observed by most traditional denominations, gives us the opportunity to thank God for the example of great men and women who served Christ faithfully. It encourages us to follow their example, which included maintaining an eternal perspective. It also reminds us that, like the great saints and martyrs of ages past, we have been offered an eternal home that far surpasses anything we have on earth. We end the month by thanking God for all the blessings He bestows on us throughout the year. Immediately after Thanksgiving, we begin the season of Advent, as we thank God for sending His Son Jesus into the world for our salvation.