Thanksgiving is definitely biblical. Psalm 100:4 exhorts us to “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise; Give thanks to Him; bless His name!” And Paul commands us in 1 Thessalonians 5:8, “In everything give thanks!” But in light of life’s circumstances we don’t always feel thankful. How do we go about cultivating a spirit of thankfulness in our own lives and in our families? As we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, here are a few suggestions that might help you cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving.
First, acknowledge the sovereignty of God.
Some people give thanks that things are not worse. If they have an automobile accident, they give thanks that they were not hurt. If they were hurt, they give thanks that they were not killed. I suggest that instead of giving thanks that things are not worse, we give thanks knowing that the present circumstances are God’s will. Romans 8:28 reminds us, “God causes all things to work together for good, to those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.” You can give thanks for difficult circumstances when you know that God is sovereign over the difficult experiences in your life.
Second, appreciate everyday things.
Sometimes we look at adverse circumstances and we feel that we don’t have much to be thankful for. I believe we have much to be thankful for if we consider the everyday things. Have you ever thanked God that you can taste food? My wife has a friend who cannot taste anything. She eats for nourishment, but does not enjoy the flavor. Have you thanked God recently for your eyesight? Have you thanked God recently that you have a warm, cozy bed to sleep in at night? Many people in this world do not enjoy such comfort. Almost every day I thank God that I have the strength and ability to run. I realize that many people have bodies that are not capable of running a mile. The ability to run or participate in exercise is a gift from the Lord. And I thank Him for it.
Third, maintain a proper perspective.
There are two ways you can look at a cup. You can say, “It is half full.” Or you can say, “It is half empty.” You can focus on what you have to be thankful for. Or you can focus on what you don’t have. Thankfulness is not dependent upon what you have. It depends upon your perspective toward what you have. On my last visit in the Philippines, I was invited to the home of two students, a couple from Sri Lanka. They lived in a one room apartment. They shared a bathroom and kitchen with four other families. They had very little of this world’s goods. But as Christians, they did not complain about their poverty. Instead, they focused on the opportunities God was giving them to minister and serve Him. They were a blessing to be with.
Fourth, recognize that God has given us what we don’t deserve.
A spirit of thankfulness is cultivated in the hearts of Christians when we realize, like the Samaritan leper who was healed by the Jewish Messiah (Luke 17:12-19), that God has given us what we don’t deserve. While we deserved His wrath, He has shown us His grace. “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psa. 103:10). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). And beyond all that, God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)! Truly, we Christians ought to be a thankful people. Thanksgiving should be more than an autumn holiday. It should be the daily expression of greatly blessed people!
An Exemplary Expression of Thankfulness
Martin Rinkart was a pastor in 17th century Germany. He served during the entirety of the Thirty Years’ War in his hometown of Eilenberg. During this time, he saw and experienced incredible human suffering. The town of Eilenberg became greatly overcrowded and was subject of the ravages of invading armies which left death and destruction in their wake. Waves of famine and pestilence often swept across the city as well. In 1637, a severe plague struck the city, claiming some 8,000 lives.
At the height of this plague, Rinkart was the only pastor in sufficient health to minister to the people. He often performed 40 to 50 burials per day. It is recorded that during the Thirty Years’ War, Pastor Rinkart officiated at 4,480 burials. He buried friends, relatives, and even his wife. But he had learned to be thankful—even in the midst of his trials.
It was in the midst of this intense human tragedy that Pastor Rinkart penned the words to a hymn which is so appropriate for the Thanksgiving season, serving as an exemplary expression of Christian thankfulness. The words of this hymn, “Now thank we all our God,” are printed below.
1. Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
2. O may this bounteous God through all of life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us.
And keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next.
3. All praise and thanks to God, the Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reigns with them in highest heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).