“Count your blessings.” “Put a smile on your dial.” “Raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens.” Thanksgiving has always seemed a bit trivial to me, a Hallmark greeting card sentiment next to the lyric poetry of praise.1
Here’s how my (faulty) reasoning goes: Isn’t thanking God for rainbows and puppies a little superficial when I could thank him for big things like salvation? Am I being presumptuous, thanking God for three square meals and more when, not so far away, others go without their daily bread? Shouldn’t my focus be on who God is in himself, not on his gifts to me?
Clearly, I think I’m wiser than God, who leaves me in no doubt that I am to thank him for anything and everything (Eph 5:18-20; 1 Thess 5:16-18). In fact, I’m more foolish than the humblest beast, for even mountains and trees know how to praise their Creator! (Isa 55:12) Stupidity and sin begin at the very point where we refuse to honour and thank the one who made us (Rom 1:21). To be a Christian is to thank the Giver for his gifts. Others should notice we give thanks instead of grumbling!2
Well, I learned my lesson the hard way. Take it from a chronic unthanker: down the end of the path of not-thanking you’ll find the marsh of grumbling, self-pity, discontent, envy, discouragement, misery and fear. This is a lot of bad for a small misstep, but that’s the way of sin. You take a pleasant looking by-path and end up nose-deep in a swamp.3
So I’ve retraced my steps and chosen a new path: the one marked “Thanksgiving”. I’ve been practising thanksgiving as a discipline: in other words, I do it whether I feel like it or not. As soon as woe-is-me thoughts pop into my head – which happens often, as I’m well trained in the art of self-pity – I push them aside with a new thought: “Thank you.”
- Not “I’m so tired! I’m so busy! I’m so overwhelmed!”, but “Thank you, Father, for the strength to obey even when I feel weak”, and “Thank you for tasks for my hands to do”, and “Thank you for the blessings of work and rest”.
- Not “Look at all the things that need doing around the house!”, but “Thank you that we have food and shelter”, and “Thank you for the community you’ve put us in”, and ”Thank you for abundant room for family and hospitality and sharing.”
- Not “Why do I have to make breakfast and school lunches and resolve yet another argument and get the kids’ clothes out and pack their bags and put on a load of washing for the thousandth time when I’m tired and just want to sit down and have a cup of coffee right now!!!”, but “Thank you for this opportunity to serve.”
Thanksgiving isn’t trivial. It’s bigger than roses and song-birds. I suspect that as we get to know Jesus, and travel the path of the cross, our thanksgiving, like our prayers, will grow in size. We’ll thank God not just for small things like healing for a runny nose but for big things like a friend’s growth in Christ.4 But hopefully we never become so super-spiritual, so much wiser than God, that we forget to thank him for the coming of rain and the crunch of an apple (Zech 10:1). We thank the Saviour who rescues us and the Creator who sustains us.5
Thanksgiving is childlike, but it’s not childish. It’s not just for babies and Disney princesses. It’s for times of sorrow, not just when we’re happy (Job 1:21).6 There are moments, even months, when giving thanks feels more like lifting weights than smelling the flowers. When I see my children suffer or face one of those dreary feet-dragging days, thanking God isn’t an easy discipline. It’s tough. It hurts. But it’s good, because God is good, and even the darkest moments come from his loving hands.
What lies along the path of thanksgiving? I can’t tell you much, because I haven’t travelled it for long, but here’s what I’ve found so far: Joy. A new willingness to serve. Trust. Cheerfulness. Eyes lifted from myself to others. Contentment. And did I mention joy?
So next time someone tells me to count my blessings, maybe I’ll do just that. I’ll include all the spiritual blessings I have in Christ (Eph 1:3-14), but I won’t forget the smaller blessings. And then I’ll thank God for them all.
- This, of course, is a false dichotomy. In the Bible, the words “praise” and “thanksgiving” are often used in parallel (1 Chron 16:4, 8-9; 25:3; 29:10-13; Ezra 3:11; Neh 12:24; Ps 7:17; 28:6-7; 35:18; 69:30;105:1; Lk 17:11-19; 1 Cor 14:16). If there’s a distinction between praise and thanksgiving, it’s not that we “thank” God for his gifts and “praise” him for his attributes, but that “thanksgiving” is God-directed and “praise” is usually other-directed: we proclaim God’s glory to those around us. ↩
- It’s all over the New Testament: see Eph 5:4, 18-20; Col 1:11-12; 2:6-7; 3:15-17; 4:2; Phil 4:4-6; 1 Thess 5:16-18; 1 Tim 2:1-2; 4:4-5; cf. Heb 13:15; 1 Pet 2:9; James 5:13; Rev 19:1-9. ↩
- Readers of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress will know where I found my analogy. ↩
- Here’s a brief list of things we’re encouraged to thank God for in the New Testament: food (Mk 6:41; Ac 27:35; Rom 14:6); healing (Lk 17:11-19); salvation (Rom 7:25; 1 Cor 15:57); people coming to know Jesus and growing in him (Rom 1:8, 6:17; 1 Cor 1:4; Eph 1:15-16; Phil 1:3; Col 1:3; 1 Thess 1:2; 2:13; 3:9; 2 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 1:3; Phil 1:4); the opportunity to serve Jesus and make him known (2 Cor 2:14; 1 Tim 1:12); God hearing us when we pray (Jn 11:41); the generosity and prayer of other Christians (Acts 28:15; 2 Cor 9:11-12; Phil 4:10). ↩
- As I wrote this post, I was struck by how Psalms 103 and 104 open and close with the same words: “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” (NIV). Yet one is filled with spiritual blessings, and the other with physical blessings. ↩
- See my post Giving thanks for suffering. ↩