Thankfulness is one of those words which suffers from its own popularity. Having a holiday dedicated to it, and being a “go to” virtue in the Christian community means that we all agree it is “good” but seldom stop to examine it. Does thankfulness have a practical purpose or is it just something we practice because we are supposed to? When things become obligatory, they often lose their power. So I ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt and imagine for moment that “being thankful” isn’t a commandment, but an option. Would we still find it a valuable practice? (Spoilers: Yes!)
Isn’t Discontentment A Big Motivator?
Ambition is seen as a desired virtue in our capitalist culture. After all, doesn’t the desire for a better life or the “American Dream” keep us motivated? At first glance, contentment and thankfulness almost seem to be contradictory to our hyper-driven lifestyles. We are always on the hunt for our next victory, promotion, achievement, or accreditation. No wonder thankfulness seems so awkward.
So What Does it Really Mean to be Thankful?
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Thankfulness is so often a challenge for us because we have confused it with contentment, and contentment with apathy. The truth is that one of our first directives from God was to toil. We are supposed to be working to improve our lives, the lives of our family, and the lives of the world around us. Being thankful doesn’t mean that we are “completely happy with everything just the way it is” is means that we are joyful in our circumstances. No matter where we are, what we have, or what challenges we face, there are opportunities to create joy and show those around us “I am thankful you are here.”
Perspective Can Be Helpful, but Thankfulness is Richer
When things are hard it can be helpful to remember “it could be worse, ” but that is not being thankful. If the only way we can practice being thankful is recognizing how much worse off we could be, then we are really just being pragmatic. There is a kind of backward self-pity in “it could be worse, ” as if the only reason for joy in life is that God hasn’t finished us off yet. When we are trapped feeling sorry for ourselves perspective can be a great tool to snap out of it, but it is not thankfulness.
Defer Gratification, not Joy
Priests of health and wealth, like Dave Ramsey, have always declared the virtues of deferred gratification. My sarcasm aside, it’s not a bad principle. However, while prioritizing our more extravagant material desires for later years may be wise, waiting for old age to practice joy in living is not a very good idea. Thankfulness is the art of finding joy in the here and now. Our minds effortlessly find problems, things that need improvement, and issues needing tended. If we didn’t intentionally practice thankfulness, we would be swept away in a sea of cynicism and anxiety.
The Power of Thankfulness
“Rejoice always, 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 (ESV)
If our minds are consumed with what is yet to come, then we have no joy. Thankfulness is about finding Christ in the moment. Whatever we are doing, wherever we are, we open the eyes of our spirit to see where God is working in the moment. This is a powerful spiritual discipline as it allows us to bring joy to ourselves and others regardless of circumstances. Without this discipline, we will constantly experience burnout, disappointment, and discouragement. Scriptures tell us to “Rejoice always” and being thankful is how we do it.
“But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.” – Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember
Finding Christ in the Moment
- Whatever is going on, how can you bless those around you? At this moment, how can you be Christ to another?
- If you are helpless, how can you allow others to bless you?
- What do we have at this moment which we are truly grateful for? Not because it “could be worse” but because we feel blessed by it of its own value.
- In what ways has Christ worked in you to bring you to this moment? What can you tell others about your journey?
- What things are we waiting on to “be happy?” What can we learn about ourselves by this? Now can we identify those needs and bring them before God with hope and faithfulness?