This Thanksgiving, many Americans are hurting. Though most of us have what we need, millions of others are either without work or have jobs but are still struggling to make ends meet and provide for their families. Even as we thank God for His blessings our hearts break for those who suffer and we continually pray for God to meet their needs while also seeking ways we can help.
Our present challenges make 2011 an especially good year to recall that our Thanksgiving traditions were not born in times of great ease and opulence, but in moments of hardship and trial.
Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida, gathered for a thanksgiving celebration way back in 1565—and this was probably not the earliest such occasion on land that is now part of the United States of America. Most of us are more familiar with the 1621 celebration by Pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. They had suffered draught, disease, and death. They had many hard years ahead of them. And yet, in 1621, they paused to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest.
Thanksgiving celebrations continued over the next two hundred years, and some presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations. President Abraham Lincoln made it an official national holiday in 1863, when our country was in the throws of the Civil War. There may have been no darker time in our nation’s history, and yet Lincoln called on Americans to thank God for the blessings He had bestowed upon them. Here’s how Lincoln’s proclamation began:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
Unfortunately, it’s far too easy for us to harden our hearts to God’s blessings, so that they become “habitually insensible,” no matter the circumstances. Gratitude has little to do with our circumstances and everything to do with our hearts. Lincoln understood that.
So did the Apostle Paul. He told the Philippian Christians, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4: 11-13). Paul and Silas actually sang praises to God after being beaten and imprisoned in Philippi for preaching Christ. As a result, they were released, and the jailer and his entire family were saved. The city experienced the power of God’s love.
What is the secret of being content in any and every situation? It’s seeing every event in our lives—whether it brings pleasure or pain—in the warm and penetrating light of eternity. To be fully content, we must see everything in light of God’s ultimate gift of salvation. We must see everything as a blessing, a gift, and not as something we are entitled to.
This spirit of gratitude transforms how we receive everything else. It allows us to enjoy the obvious gifts, such as the pleasures of a warm house and a healthy family. We won’t reject these pleasures because of a legalistic desire to suffer. But neither will we clutch them greedily. “A gift should be accepted with such detachment that at any given moment you could return it,” writes the spiritual theologian Tadeusz Dajczer. “This is an astonishing paradox. We are gifted so that, in accepting God’s gifts, we are ready to return them. The gesture of our readiness to return to God a gift we received, is a sign that we have not taken possession of it. It is an expression of acknowledgement of the truth that we possess nothing. A gift returned comes back multiplied. Everything is a gift—your body and soul, wife, husband, children, what you have and what you do—everything belongs to the Lord.”
Learning to think this way is not easy. For most people, it takes years of hard work for it to become a habit. And it’s not even the hardest part of cultivating a spirit of gratitude. As Paul says, he learned to be content in hunger and in want. Even suffering can be an occasion for gratitude. Without the eyes of faith, this may seem crazy. Even with the eyes of faith, thanking God for suffering can seem like a paradox, since we usually reserve the word “blessing” for those things that bring us pleasure. But it is only in suffering that we learn to identify with Christ and His suffering on the cross for us. If our ultimate end is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (as the Westminster Confession says), to know Him, then even suffering can be received as a great blessing.
Alas, these days, many Americans are much more likely to have a spirit of ingratitude. They may thank God after they get a new car, or move into a beautiful house, or receive a handsome bonus. But, ironically, this disposition diminishes the pleasure they would otherwise get from the car, the house, and the bonus. Because they want to possess it rather than simply receive it with gratitude, they live in fear that they might lose it. That fear can even overshadow the fleeting pleasure they first enjoyed.
Moreover, no matter how many creature comforts one has, there is always more to be had. There is always someone who has a bigger house or a bigger car or higher salary or more accomplished children or better health or a thicker head of hair. The one who lacks the spirit of gratitude may resent the prosperity of others more than he enjoys his own.
Many Americans are discontent because they have failed to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, not because they suffer want and hunger. Even with high unemployment, most of us have our basic needs met, with some left over. We enjoy freedoms that earlier generations could only imagine. We have eradicated diseases that killed millions of people just a few decades ago. We live twice as long on average as our ancestors did a few hundred years ago. Ordinary people enjoy more food, technology, leisure and entertainment choices than the greatest kings and queens in history. Advances in technology happen so fast that our computers and cell phones are obsolete before we figure out how to use them.
Compare our lot to that of those early pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantations. They had all lost love ones to disease, malnutrition and exposure to the harsh northeastern winters. They were thankful to have survived. Few of us think to thank God because we have not suffered as many who live in unbearable conditions. Personally, along with our families, we find great joy assisting and encouraging others who are struggling.
Of course, we should be glad that America is so blessed that few Americans now worry about mere survival. But if we don’t cultivate a spirit of gratitude, then even the most delightful blessings can cause us to forget to be thankful. I pray God will grant us the grace experienced in the New Testament to “count it all joy when we face various trials.” In doing so we will be giving thanks to God , encouraging others, and seeking ways to share life and love more freely.
This Thanksgiving, let’s ask God to help us develop the practice of being content—the spirit of gratitude—not just for one Thursday in November, but in every situation.