Recently, I re-visited a small piece I wrote around Thanksgiving 2013 on what I was learning about thankfulness. I had recently graduated from college, gotten engaged, and started my first full-time job. Yet, as I came to Thanksgiving, I was struck by how much I struggled with giving thanks throughout the year. It was an odd and frustrating revelation, because had you outlined my life on paper, you would have wondered why being thankful was a struggle.
As I re-read the piece a few days ago, I realized it was worth revisiting the lessons and considering what they mean for my life now. A lot has changed since I wrote that piece. I’ve married, moved twice, established myself in a new city and started a new job. There have been seasons when thankfulness has been easy, and seasons when thankfulness has been hard. But what I learned four years ago remains the same, and I’ve learned two more key lessons since then.
Thankfulness is an attitude not dependent on circumstances, good or bad.
Like many Christian kids, I was taught that thankfulness isn’t about one’s life situation; it’s about knowing God and trusting His character and work. Most of the time, I heard that truth shared in the context of tragedy and hardship.
In 2013, I realized that seasons of blessing don’t automatically mean a thankful heart. And in 2017, I’m learning that same lesson. In 2013, I struggled with discontent because my blessings had not come in the order or fashion I’d hoped they would. In 2017, I’m struggling with thankfulness because my focus too easily shifts from the Giver to the gift.
“He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Too easily, my sight quickly shifts from delighting in God to only delighting in everything else. The good gifts are distorted, and I wind up feeling inadequate.
Regardless of my situation, I am faced with a choice: Will my happiness be grounded in my life or in the Giver of life? In seasons of goodness and sweetness, I’m reminded that I need to keep my eyes on my loving Father who cares for me and knows me.
Thankfulness must be cultivated.
“We live toward what we want,” wrote James K.A. Smith. I want to live a life of thankfulness, and I can live toward that life by cultivating thankfulness habits. Along those lines, it’s easy to let habits of thankfulness fall by the wayside in seasons of plenty. Yet it’s in those seasons when it’s an opportune time to practice robust thankfulness habits.
Thankfulness journals are a popular thankfulness habit that many find constructive. My thankfulness habits are less structured. I’m striving to look for and document the beauty and blessings around me through my camera on my phone, and respond in a simple prayer of thanksgiving when I clearly see a gift in my life.
Finally, I’ve learned two new thankfulness lessons in the past few years:
Thankfulness gives way to humility.
“Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow,” wrote Michael Ramsey. Pride is a continual struggle in my life, and thankfulness has been a sweet antidote.
The more I cultivate thankfulness, the more naturally humility comes because I see myself and God rightly. As I give thanks, I’m reminded that all of life is a gift, whether that’s my new set of dishes, a friendship or my job. And I have no grounds to boast in the gifts I’ve been given. Even tasks that I accomplish through hard work are ultimately a gift from God because my hard work does not entitle me to success. The more deeply I understand that everything is a gift, the more room there is for humility to bear fruit.
Thankfulness makes me more human.
Recently, my pastor explained that the fundamental reality of all life is that we are creatures indebted to our Creator and that all of life is a gift. Consequently, we are never more human than when we are giving thanks.
A lightbulb went off in my head as soon as he explained that idea. As I’ve sought to cultivate thanksgiving in my life, the more I’ve learned of what it means to be human and live in a restored relationship with God.
I’m designed to live in joyful gratitude for what God has done, is doing and will do in my life and our world. When I resent or fight His work, I’m not living as I was made to live. When I accept what He’s doing and respond in thanksgiving, I flourish as I live as I was made to live.
Thankfulness begets joy. As I’ve sought to live in thankfulness the past four years, I’ve noticed a deep joy and peace take root in my heart. Thankfulness orients me rightly to my Creator and loving Father and keeps my eyes fixed on Him, and in His presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).