Gratitude at the Thanksgiving Season

Gratitude at the Thanksgiving Season

As we approach the season of Thanksgiving, our hearts and minds turn to the reasons behind the celebration here in the United States. Why is it that we take a day out of our normal routine to stop, take a breath, gather with family and friends, and celebrate a day of thanksgiving for all the blessings that we’ve received?

The Origins of Thanksgiving in the U.S.

 Let’s start at the beginning. Where did this cherished tradition begin?

The first Thanksgiving-type celebration happened in November of 1621, when the Pilgrims’ governor, William Bradford, declared a time of thanksgiving to celebrate the English settlers’ first successful corn harvest. After a long and bitter voyage to the west and a devastating winter, the remaining Mayflower passengers turned their hearts and minds toward God in gratitude for their blessings, which were a far cry from the stocked grocery-store shelves we see in most American cities today.

The English settlers celebrated with their Native American allies, the Wampanoag, and feasted for three days. One grateful resident, Edward Winslow, recorded the following in his journal:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” [1]

As the colonies formed, many municipalities set aside days and times for celebrations of thanksgiving. As states formed, many in New England also observed the celebration at different times. But it wasn’t until many years later, in 1827, when Sarah Josepha Hale, the writer who has been called the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” began her campaign to convince the federal government to set aside a national day for this purpose. For 36 years she maintained her campaign, writing to governors, representatives and presidents alike.

President Abraham Lincoln enacted the first official Thanksgiving celebration at the height of the American Civil War, “entreating all Americans to ask God to ‘commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife’ and to ‘heal the wounds of the nation.’”[2]

Gratefulness Called for in the Scriptures

As Christians, we are all called to be reflective, humble and grateful for the work God has done in our lives through his Son Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that lives within us. But before the arrival of Jesus and his work on our behalf, millions of people in ancient times were encouraged to turn their hearts toward God with an attitude of thankfulness.

King David recognized this need—no, this requirement—when he was organizing the worship of the tabernacle, recorded in 1 Chronicles 16:7–31:

That day David first appointed Asaph and his associates to give praise to the Lord in this manner:
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Israel,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth…

Sing to the Lord, all the earth;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and joy are in his dwelling place.

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come before him.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
Tremble before him, all the earth!
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!”

In fact, God commands that his people have a mindset of thanksgiving in his word. Psalms 106, 107, and 118 all begin with a variation on the following imperative: “Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Other psalmists set the same example for us to follow:

“I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness;
I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High”
(Psalm 7:17).

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me”
(Psalm 50:14–15).

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:1–5).

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul also had a lot to say about maintaining a sense of thanksgiving and gratitude. Despite all the hardships and persecution he experienced, he was able to encourage his listeners in the following ways:

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:15–20).

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6–7).

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful…And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:15, 17).

Finally, the apostle Paul lets us all in on a secret. For those of us who are always wondering what God’s will is for our lives, the following can be said with great confidence: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, italics added). No matter what situation we find ourselves in, thankfulness and gratitude is always appropriate.

Gratitude as a Parent Virtue

The ancient writer Cicero described gratitude as “the greatest of virtues, and the parent of them all.”

Pastors and teachers have long recognized that maintaining an attitude of thanksgiving is a virtue that leads toward and feeds all kinds of other positive factors in a person’s life. Being grateful for the abilities we possess, the education we’ve received, family we live with, the food on our table and even the very breath in our lungs keeps us from developing an attitude of entitlement or building up false pride in our own accomplishments.

Consistently pointing to God as the source of everything good in one’s life helps to maintain a proper perspective on the true Source of everything that’s good in this world. And of course, keeping the sacrificial work of Jesus front-and-center in our minds helps us as we move throughout our lives to spread that good news to others out of sheer gratitude for God’s grace and kindness toward us in providing us a way of salvation.

But there are other tangible benefits to maintaining the virtue of gratitude. In an online article entitled, “The Benefits of Being Grateful That You May Not Know About,” we read the following:

Expressing appreciation and being thankful can reduce depression, lower blood pressure, increase energy and happiness, and even prolong your life! Gratitude also increases the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin and helps you deflect those negative thoughts. So why not celebrate minor accomplishments, perform small acts of kindness, and appreciate the small things?[3]

Another writer notes:

“The practice of gratitude begets myriad number of very practical, tangible benefits to body and mind. Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically vetted than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.”[4]

Not only does gratitude move us in a more positive personal direction, but it also helps society as a whole. Writing online, UK researchers Alex Wood, Stephen Joseph and Alex Linley observed the following:

“Most recent research has focused on gratitude as a personality characteristic. Some people feel much more gratitude than others, reporting gratitude which is more frequent, more intense, and involves appreciation of a wider range of people and events (McCullough et al., 2002). Multiple studies now suggest that people who feel more gratitude are much more likely to have higher levels of happiness, and lower levels of depression and stress (e.g. McCullough et al., 2004; Watkins et al., 2003). However, many personality traits are related to levels of mental health, so what is it that makes gratitude unique?

The first reason that gratitude may be an important personality trait is because it seems to have one of the strongest links with [positive] mental health of any personality variable…Increasingly, a large body of research is building which is consistent with this conclusion.

Secondly, gratitude may be uniquely important in social relationships. The ‘moral’ effects of emotional gratitude…are likely to be as important in maintaining individual relationships as in maintaining a smooth-running society. People who feel more gratitude in life should be more likely to notice they have been helped, to respond appropriately, and to return the help at some future point. If the grateful person reciprocates the favor, then the other person is more likely to reciprocate the new favor, causing an upward spiral of helping and mutual support. Similarly, an ungrateful person is less likely to notice help, and less likely to reciprocate the help, making their benefactor less willing to provide further aid.

It therefore seems likely that grateful people will have better social relationships, characterized by greater closeness and heightened reciprocal social support. The latter may be particularly important, given the strong relationships between social support and physical and mental health.”[5]

So gratitude is a virtue that leads to other virtues. But what are those? Among others, here are four that are highlighted by stories in the Bible:

Understanding that God gives all good things on his timeline and in his own way is reinforced in the “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” in Matthew 20. In it, Jesus describes a wealthy landowner who hires several workers at different times of the day, but pays them all the same wage at the end of the day—even those who stood in the marketplace all day and only worked one hour.

When the other workers protest, the landowner replies, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13–15).

So we see that when we wait patiently for God to work, being thankful for everything he has blessed us with, we understand that waiting expectantly for God to act is actually part of the blessing we receive.

The miracle of Jesus healing ten lepers shows us the power of gratitude to generate a spirit of humility in our hearts and minds. As Jesus walked through Galilee, a band of ten lepers humbled themselves enough to call out to him, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (Luke 17:13). These individuals had a skin disease that was dreaded in the ancient world because it was incurable. They had become outcasts in their community and weren’t allowed even to see their close family members for fear of spreading the disease.

After Jesus performed the miracle, only one of the ten returned to express his gratitude to the miracle-working Savior, and was commended for it: “Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 17:17–19).

In the seminal book on suffering, the ancient God-worshiper Job gains wisdom through the period of intense suffering that he has experienced, including the loss of his ten children in one fell swoop, all of his possessions being lost to raiders, and even his wife advising him to “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). But we read that “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing,” (Job 1:22) and that “Job did not sin in what he said,” even chiding his wife by saying, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10).

In that brief statement, we see evidence of Job’s deep wisdom; wisdom that came from his unquestioning belief in God’s sovereign goodness. Throughout the book, three of Job’s friends pepper him with questions and accusations, reasoning that he must have sinned horribly in order to be in this situation. But Job maintains his innocence throughout, boldly questioning the God he has so faithfully served.

In the end, God doesn’t explain the reasons for the disaster that has come upon him, and Job concedes, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2–6). In the end, Job’s faithfulness is rewarded as God blesses him with family and fortune yet again.

Job’s deference to God’s oversight, power, and control in his own life is the very essence of wisdom, and is a wonderful example of the perspective that we should all have in life—hands extended to receive whatever the Lord decides to give us, with an attitude of thankfulness in all things.

Jesus observed and commended the deep reliance on God displayed in the act of an unselfish widow who, upon worshiping in the temple, presented her offering to God: “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:1–4).

When we realize, as this humble widow did, that everything we have already belongs to God and that we can rely on him to care for us, we can expend ourselves and our resources in service to others, responding to the challenge of God in Malachi 3:10: “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’”

Maintaining a Daily Attitude of Thankfulness

During this season of Thanksgiving, take some time to focus on the myriad ways that God and others have blessed your life. How can you maintain this attitude of thankfulness every day in the midst of the upcoming craziness of the holiday season?

Try one or more of these suggestions:

  • Take the time to write down lists of everything you’re grateful for—from the blessing of a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning to the warmth of upcoming family celebrations.
  • Celebrate the season all year long by being proactive in thanking others for the things they’ve done for you—starting with your spouse and your family. You’ll be amazed at how recognizing others’ work or thoughtfulness on your behalf will generate more of the same in the people around you.
  • Maintain a gratitude journal that outlines the ways that others have blessed you in the past. Reach way back in your memory to record acts of kindness that you’ve experienced, and take time to make lists of people to whom you want to send notes of thanks—either online or hand-written. In doing so, you’ll invariably bless those who receive your notes.
  • As you go through your daily routine, notice small the blessings that are around you. Are the grocery stores stocked? Do you have the money to buy special things for your family and friends? Is the sun shining? Did your car start and run well when you ran your errands? Did your computer at work function properly all day long? Noticing these and many other things, both large and small, and attributing them to God’s grace in your life can help move you toward maintaining a consistent lifestyle of gratitude.
  • Help others. If you can, take some time this holiday season to pack boxes at a food bank, offer your services to run elderly neighbors on their errands, or volunteer in your community to help it celebrate the thanksgiving holiday. Reaching out to others in response to your own gratitude will spread the love to others.
  • Always remember Jesus’ work for you on the cross. If necessary, place small notes in strategic locations to remember. It can be as simple as a small sticky note with the word “Jesus” on it placed on your bathroom mirror or your car’s dashboard, or pick one of any number of verses to write out so you can read them at different points in the day. Remembering the promise of salvation and an eternity together with your Lord and Savior will always shift you into a position of gratitude.

And remember one more important fact. Gratitude, like sunshine, doesn’t come from a place of scarcity. Rather, it comes from a place of abundance and generosity. As you reflect your thankfulness this season to God and others, the glow of positivity increases exponentially.

Don’t hesitate to express your gratitude to God in prayer and to show it to others around you. As you do, you’ll move in one small but tangible way toward making your world a happier place to live in!

By Mike Vander Klipp, Associate Publisher at Zondervan.

[1] [2] Ibid. [3] [4] [5]

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