A couple of years ago, late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked a group of kids what they were thankful for. Predictably, their answers were both hilarious and heartwarming. “Sushi and garbanzo beans,” said one girl. “Plants, because plants give us air,” said another boy. Kids have a way of appreciating everyday things that adults might take for granted!
Of course, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be limited to one day in early October or in late November. Most of us know that, and yet genuine gratitude can often be a difficult habit for kids and adults alike to cultivate year-round. We find it much easier to complain about traffic than to be thankful that we have a car to drive and a job to commute to. Or, rather than being content with what we have, we chase the next experience or covet the newest item on the market.
Gratitude is a quality of the Christian life brought about by the Holy Spirit. As we grow in Christ, it should become a knee-jerk response to what God is doing in our lives. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful,” Paul tells the Colossians—Christ's peace and thankfulness are linked.
So how can we cultivate a habit of gratitude that flows out of the peace of Christ?
Recently, the advice column in our local newspaper featured several letters—usually from grandparents—who were disappointed after giving gifts to their grandchildren only to find that they never received a thank-you note or any expression of thanks. Unfortunately, adults are often no better. We take for granted that our pantries are full of food, that we sleep on a comfortable bed, and that we drive safely to and from steady work each day. Interestingly, being grateful is often presented as a command to us in the bible. Gratitude is not necessarily connected to our feelings. Rather, it is a habit to be developed. We may not always feel grateful, but we can cultivate the habit to express thanks to God. Even on bad days, there are things for which we can give thanks, and giving thanks helps put the rest in perspective. A pantry full of food, the pleasure of sleeping in on a Saturday morning, hearing a good report from the doctor’s office—these blessings are worth noting with private or public thanksgiving. Practicing the habit of expressing gratitude will almost always have the happy effect of creating deeper feelings of thankfulness.
The screen-saver on my computer is set to play a slideshow of all the photos stored on my computer hard drive. And since I take tons of photos, I can watch hours of photos pass by without seeing a duplicate. I have photos of everything from family vacations, to pictures of myself horsing around with our kids, to snapshots of my wife and me. Many of these photos call to mind a memory, and I’ve learned to give thanks mentally for each of those memories. I’ve learned over time that gratitude is a learned reaction—but as I’ve deliberately expressed thankfulness, I’ve found myself feeling more grateful.
Your cues for gratitude might be different—a song that reminds you of someone you love, or a moment in your daily routine that gives brings you joy. Make your gratitude visible so that others catch it. Use these occasions to express gratitude to God, and encourage your children to do the same. On occasion, my kids will recall a family memory, and I will sometimes respond by saying, “I’m really thankful for that trip.” Recently, I’ve noticed my children echoing similar words. A grateful heart is contagious.
Gratitude is not an end in itself. That means that when God blesses us with good gifts, they are given to us for the good of others. Our gratitude, in other words, is meant to flow into our service and mission. Psalm 67:6-7 expresses this so well: “The land yields its harvest; God, our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.” The Psalmist understood well that God’s blessings are to lead the nations to recognize and worship God. How does that happen? When we intentionally find ways to turn our gratitude into mission. Your family might consider adopting a child overseas, or committing to a micro-finance loan for a family in an underdeveloped country. Perhaps you will collect food for your local food pantry, or you will invite an underprivileged family in your community into your home for Thanksgiving. When you are grateful to God, find a way to channel that gratitude into mission!
To acknowledge your thankfulness—to God, or to others—is to recognize that you are dependent upon them. I can’t, by myself, produce the food that made it to my table today; I am indebted to grocery store clerks, truck drivers, production workers, and farmers. I can’t make it on my own in my profession—I am deeply indebted to God who allowed me to be born in the time and place when I was born, and to give me the skills and health to do my work each day. Vulnerability is difficult in a world that champions the spirit of the individual! But true gratitude springs from the hearts of those who see how God himself became vulnerable for our sake, simply because He loved us. Let us too be deeply grateful to God—all year long.