This week, Americans will celebrate a treasured holiday in our nation’s history, Thanksgiving Day. On this day, families will gather around the table to share turkey, dressing, and all the other fixings before they laze away the afternoon visiting with relatives, taking naps, or watching football.
Many families will take a few moments at the table, before they partake of the delicious food, to give every person a chance to express their own thankfulness. These expressions of gratitude will continue around the table until everyone has had the chance to articulate thanks. But when this national day of thanksgiving ends, and the turkey, dressing, and fixings are put in the fridge for leftovers, the expressions of Thanksgiving Day are often put away until it is necessary to bring them out for the next Thanksgiving Day.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not being cynical about this holiday. I appreciate the fact that we have a day set aside for the purpose of giving thanks. I also believe that this day serves a grand, and yet, humbling purpose as a yearly reminder of our need to give thanks to God and to appreciate what is truly valuable in this life. But thanksgiving must be more to us than just a day.
Scripture tells us that we are to give thanks continually and in all circumstances. Thanksgiving is not something we do only on one day out of the year when we feel all warm and cozy in our nice homes and around the people we love. No, as Christians, thankfulness is something we are to feel and express everyday of the year as we live, work, and play, and as we struggle, suffer and mourn among our family, friends, acquaintances, and yes, even strangers and enemies.
But I don’t mind confessing that having a constant attitude of thanksgiving is very difficult, if not impossible. Daily we are confronted with issues, events, and yes, even people who challenge our ability to be thankful, even our desires to be thankful. I think that particularly during these difficult times when our nation is facing very challenging barriers to progress, we are more apt to be less thankful. Instead, it seems easier for us to complain about the state of our existence in this world.
Certainly there is room for these kinds of feelings. We only need to read some of the psalms to find out that those who wrote these poems were not always thankful. Indeed, while there are those psalms that express joy and thanksgiving for God’s orientation of goodness in our lives, we can also find those psalms in which the psalmists call out to God in anger and protest because of the pain, struggle and disorientation of life. In fact, although giving thanks might be considered a Christian virtue, even Jesus expressed a lack of thanksgiving and an honest anger at God from the cross as he called out, “My God, My God. Why have you abandoned me?” Not the most thankful expression one could voice to God.
Such expressions of protest, anger, and even lack of faith are normal for us to voice to God. In a real sense, when we express such feelings, we express a degree of discontentment that we must embrace that keeps us from becoming too complacent and comfortable about ourselves, the world, and the delay of God’s justice. Doing so causes us to see life in realistic terms, and not in sappy clichés. No matter how thankful we are, we must always be discontent with the evil and injustice that remains in our world.
So we face a struggle in our Christian living between following the command to give thanks in all things on the one hand, and the reality that there are issues, events and people that challenge our thankful attitudes on the other.
As I have thought about the command to give thanks, I have come to think of thanksgiving as more than simply an attitude, and certainly more than the expressions we offer on a particular day of the year. It seems better, theologically at least, to view thanksgiving as a way of living, perhaps even as a virtue.
To think of thanksgiving as a way of living is to carry out one’s life with a deep sense of God’s presence regardless of the circumstances. No matter what I may face, or what others are facing, I can have an abiding sense of contentment in the midst of discontentment. I am not speaking about a kind of faith that some express in which we talk about our struggles by using platitudes such as, “God will work everything out.” These kinds of statements are not only banal, they are somewhat false. God does not always work everything out for us, and to suggest that God can or will is presumptuous on our part.
What I am talking about is the realization of God’s indwelling and empowering presence that offers to us hope in the midst of joy and pain. It is an inward transformation of our lives to the extent that regardless of the situations we and others face in life, we can, at the same time, be both discontent at what is happening in this life, and content that God’s quiet, but powerful presence is moving creation to God’s glorious redemption.
The realization of God’s abiding presence in our lives means that in the ebb and flow of life, during the good times and the bad times, in moments of contentment and in moments of discontentment, we find hope that can elicit from us thanksgiving even as we call out to God in anguish, anger and protest.
But there is something more we must consider if we are to move from merely voicing expressions of thanksgiving to living out the virtue of thanksgiving as a way of life.
To express true thankfulness to God for what we have, we must do so through tangible acts of love and service to those around us. Expressing thanks to God and to others is a way of living that is articulated through real and radical acts of gratitude, service and love. True thanksgiving is sharing in the blessings God has given us through our participation in God’s work by sharing the blessings of God with those around us.
In most cases, those who claim to be thankful merely mouth words of thanksgiving about what they have. These expressions are good and necessary for any of us to truly be thankful. But these are not enough. To be thankful is to reevaluate all that we have not only in light of God’s grace upon us, but in light of God’s call for us to love our neighbors. True thanksgiving is not simply voicing how thankful we are. Authentic thanksgiving it is a way of life that is expressed in our sharing, even our giving away, that for which we are thankful.