taking the words of Jesus seriously

Thanksgiving has just passed, and many of us don’t feel grateful. This year hasn’t exactly fostered gratitude. The COVID pandemic, the loss of so much we loved, the fires and storms of the climate crisis, economic depression, and a political nightmare that won’t end.

This is the year of no thanks.

A century ago, Albert Schweitzer, theologian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, remarked:

The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this know what it means to live. He has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.

Schweitzer was restating a bit of wisdom from the New Testament. “Rejoice always,” advised the Apostle Paul, “and pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And he was, of course, correct. To learn gratitude is to know the mystery of life.

But he was also wrong in a very important way.

As I watch the news fearing whatever comes next, that Bible verse, the one Albert Schweitzer alluded to, comes to mind: “In all things, give thanks.”

That verse, however, is a bit of a double-edged sword. It is often used to demand thanks. No matter how sad or scary or angering a situation, some well-meaning and eerily cheerful person will say, “you should be grateful for that” or “give thanks for everything.” But this is a misuse of the verse.

It does not say, as Schweitzer misquoted, and as many people seem to think, “For all things, give thanks.” Gratitude is not about giving thanks for anything that is evil or unjust. Never for violence, lying, oppression, and suffering. Not for illness, hunger, or abuse. Do not be grateful for these things.

The verse says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” That little Greek word, “en,” means in, with, within, and throughout. It locates us, in the here and now.  In the past, in the future. In happiness, in despair. In all things. In all times. In all situations. 

We shouldn’t be grateful for COVID, for the political chaos, for the broken climate, for economic suffering. But we can be grateful through these times, while we are struggling in them.

I’m not grateful for COVID, but through these days I’ve been reminded of the fragile gift of life, treasuring what I had taken for granted. I’m not grateful for political corruption, but through it I’ve come to value democracy and activism more than ever before. I’m not grateful for destructive fires and storms, but through them the awesome power of nature still stuns, reminding us of our dependence on the earth. I’m not grateful for economic distress, but through it I’ve remembered how we can live more simply and with more generosity and fairness. All of this has made me understand the giftedness of life, work, and wonder — strengthening my love of God and neighbor, more deeply aware of the tenderness of life and the necessity for dignity and justice for all.

READ: On Thanksgiving: An Honest Home in the Uncomfortable ‘Both’

None of us should be thankful for this terrible year. But, if we stop and reflect, we see that we can be thankful through it. 2020 needn’t have the final word and steal from us the possibility of thanks and joy.

Gratefulness grounds our lives in the world and with others, always reminding us of the gifts and grace that accompany our way no matter how hard the journey. Gratitude is an emotion. Gratitude is a practice, a disposition, an awareness, a set of habits. But ultimately, gratitude is a place – perhaps the place – where we find our truest and best selves. 

To know the mystery of life is to be grateful in all things. In.

In all things. With all things, through all things.

Sometimes the world turns on a preposition. To be grateful in these days is an act of resistance, of resilience, of renewal. We may not be able to gather around familiar tables. We may not meet with friends and family. We may not have the usual bounty of Thanksgiving. We may be worried about what lies ahead. We are NOT thankful for any of this. But the mystery of it all is that we can still be grateful as we make our way through it all.

Give thanks.

A Thanksgiving prayer*:

GOD, there are days we do not feel grateful. When we are anxious or angry. When we feel alone. When we do not understand what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. When the news is bleak, confusing. God, we struggle to feel grateful.

But this Thanksgiving, we choose gratitude.

We choose to accept life as a gift from you, and as a gift from the unfolding work of all creation.

We choose to be grateful for the earth from which our food comes; for the water that gives life; and for the air we all breathe.

We choose to thank our ancestors, those who came before us, grateful for their stories and struggles, and we receive their wisdom as a continuing gift for today.

We choose to see our families and friends with new eyes, appreciating and accepting them for who they are. We are thankful for our homes, whether humble or grand.

We will be grateful for our neighbors, no matter how they voted, whatever our differences, or how much we feel hurt or misunderstood by them.

We choose to see the whole planet as our shared commons, the stage of the future of humankind and creation.

God, this Thanksgiving, we do not give thanks. We choose it. We will make this choice of thanks with courageous hearts, knowing that it is humbling to say “thank you.” We choose to see your sacred generosity, aware that we live in an infinite circle of gratitude. That we all are guests at a hospitable table around which gifts are passed and received. We will not let anything opposed to love take over this table. Instead, we choose grace, free and unmerited love, the giftedness of life everywhere. In this choosing, and in the making, we will pass gratitude onto the world.

Thus, with you, and with all those gathered at this table, we pledge to make thanks. We ask you to strengthen us in this resolve. Here, now, and into the future. Around our family table. Around the table of our nation. Around the table of the earth.

We choose thanks.


*adapted from Grateful, p. 199-200

This piece originally appeared in The Cottage on Substack. 

About The Author


Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and is the award-winning author of ten books, including Grounded: Finding God in the World —A Spiritual Revolution (HarperOne, 2015), Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne, 2012), Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2006), and Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (HarperOne,2018).

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