What is Thankfulness?

Updated: Nov 29, 2018

Last week, families across the country celebrated Thanksgiving. Studies estimate that Americans consumed nearly 46 million turkeys. It also estimated that wives, mothers, and grandmothers across the country collectively spent roughly 322 million hours preparing the Thanksgiving feasts. What a load!

Thanksgiving means different things to different people. Some adore Thanksgiving. Others hate it. I remember growing up with the tradition where each person went around the Thanksgiving table and named one thing for which they were thankful. As a college student, when I suggested to my classmates around the Thanksgiving table that we do the same, half the room scoffed, and one girl even cried! Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday, and not always in a good way.

Two Extremes of Thankfulness

But a holiday literally called, “Thanksgiving” brings up the question: what exactly does it mean to truly be thankful? What is real, authentic, thankfulness?

Some use thankfulness as a tool to tear others down. “I’m thankful I don’t have a son like that.” “I’m thankful I don’t have to put up with that kind of marriage.” People use this false form of thankfulness to belittle others in a socially accepted manner. It intends to lift oneself up by tearing others down. Here, thankfulness is nothing more than well-mannered arrogance.

People also use thankfulness as an excuse to brag. Who hasn’t seen pictures on social media of people in front of their shiny new stuff, going on and on about how “thankful” they are? Type in “thankful” on Facebook or Instagram and count how many trucks, boats, and houses you find. Sure, it’s great to own nice things. It's even better to be thankful for having them. But when thankfulness is a device used to boast in a socially accepted manner, the meaning of the word becomes lost.

Thankfulness, Not Just for Kids

But worst of all, society has reduced thankfulness to a trite sense of manners taught to preschoolers. It’s a pithy lesson hammered by babysitters and parents to make sure their little one always says “thank you" after receiving a toy or a cup of juice. As a result, this has lead to a population of adults who say “thank-you” as a filler statement to follow the unstated rules of adult conversation. Society has deregulated thankfulness from a powerful, life-changing action to a social construct meant to grease the wheels of interaction.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our children to say “thank you.” If anything, kids need to be saying thank-you more, not less! But it means that, even though we have taught a basic form of thankfulness to our children, we have failed to continue teaching it to adults. Because of this, grown-ups dismiss thankfulness as a childish virtue when in reality they need it most of all.

Real Thankfulness

So what really is thankfulness? Thankfulness at its core is the deeply seeded recognition that something good has happened even though it could have been bad. For Christians, it means recognizing that God has caused something positive to happen even though He could have just as easily allowed something negative.

Thankfulness is more than just gratefulness. Gratitude leads to a temporary feeling. Thankfulness leads to a tangible action. If you are grateful, you will feel good about it for a while and go about your day. If you are thankful, it means that you are so grateful that you have no other choice but to show it. Thankfulness, therefore, is greater than gratefulness because thankfulness leads to love.

The REAL "First Thanksgiving"

The word for “thankful” in the New Testament, εὐχαριστία, is where we get "Eucharist," the title used by Catholics and Anglicans for Communion. This is because, at the last Supper, while Jesus was explaining the symbolism of the bread and the wine, the Bible states that He was doing it as He was “giving thanks” for the food. This was the first “Thanksgiving meal.”

And what better occasion! The Jews’ Passover celebration really was a Thanksgiving celebration. The Jews remembered and were thankful for God’s provision in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt. They were more than just grateful, they had to do something about it! Their thankfulness was in response to God’s liberation and love.

And so again, as Jesus was about to provide for a second time an exodus for His people, He gave thanks. In this we see the purest form of thankfulness. Jesus enjoyed a meal with His friends before He experienced betrayal, torture, and execution. Jesus saw the bad, but focused on the good. He could've complained about the negative, but He praised God for the positive. People were dead in their sins, but Jesus was about to make them alive again. The world was enslaved by wickedness, but He was about to set them free. And Jesus was thankful for that.

Wanted: Thankful Christians

In the same way, we should also be thankful. Thankfulness is worship. Anything less is well-disguised vanity. Although faced with dire circumstances, Jesus humbled Himself and worshipped God for the good He was about to provide, both immediately on the table and eternally on the Cross. In the same way, we should actively seek ways to display thankfulness in a way that both humbles ourselves and exalts God. This is rugged, real, adult thankfulness that can mend marriages, heal families, explode churches, and shift societies. In the end, God’s people are at their best, and most like Him, when every thought and emotion leads them to actions of love. That is thankfulness.

Resting in Him,

-Pastor Stephen


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