What it means to be truly thankful on Thanksgiving
I'm an incredibly grateful person when things go my way. Expressing thanks when someone has gone out of their way to be kind to me, or I've experienced unexpected benefits, or there is an abundance, then I exemplify thankfulness.
As a resident of a First World country, I have excessive material possessions and civil freedoms not known in many parts of the world. You would think I'd be profoundly thankful all the time. Unfortunately, gratitude is not my default response to life. But ... I've learned a lot about contentment and gratitude over the past 20 years, and hopefully, I'm more thankful today than I was 20 years ago.
This December marks the 20th anniversary of the death of my husband. One of the astounding side effects of deep grief and profound loss is that an individual can actually be refined and restored through the loss. It is a slow and arduous process — a journey none of us would voluntarily sign up for, but it is a significant path which yields the reward of contentment.
Genuine gratitude and sweet contentment are inextricably connected and both can be cultivated. They are learned responses rather than reactions to the circumstances of life.
In the New Testament, Paul, the apostle, wrote from prison, "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am." (Philippians 4:11). He said he had "learned" contentment. Well then, I figured, I too can develop a grateful perspective — no matter the circumstances of my life and as I cultivate gratefulness, I reap the harvest of contentment. Contentment is not the fulfillment of what I want but a settled rest in who God is and confidence that what he has promised he will accomplish (Romans 4:21).
Genuine gratitude has little to do with my circumstances or my possessions. It has a lot to do with whether or not I think rightly about God and who he is. Let me explain. If I focus my gratitude upon my material possessions or the things that go my way or the circumstances that make me happy, my gratitude is self-centered and shallow. I have a "Thank you, Lord, that life is convenient, happy, and comfortable" type of gratitude.
If however, I can look beyond the temporal things and give thanks for bigger things (God's faithfulness, wisdom, mercy, love — the character qualities that are the essence of who God is) my worldview becomes less "me centric" and more "God centric." And my gratitude becomes more genuine. Now I am attempting to thank God for who he is rather than what he gives.
I call this "thinking rightly about God."
It is critical that my idea of God corresponds as nearly as possible to the true being of God. My flawed tendency is to form a picture of God based on my life's circumstances. Then "God" becomes quite narrow and his attributes are skewed as compared to the almighty God we can know in the Bible. So I have to square what I think about God with the details of God revealed in the Bible and then focus my gratitude on who he is rather than what I receive from Him.
For most Americans, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of an extended season of stress, overindulgence, extra commitments, and exhaustion rather than a season of gratitude and contentment.
This year, I'm redoubling my effort to think rightly about God and give thanks for who he is in addition to what he's given. This Thanksgiving, may you be able to give thanks in the midst of your circumstances and find satisfying contentment even in the midst of disappointment or loss.
Dana St John has lived in Madras since 1993 and is a member of Cornerstone Baptist Church and a Colson Fellow. She recently published "Grace in the Fray: Anticipating, Enduring, and Embracing Loss."
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