Thanksgiving has come and gone and we now find ourselves fully immersed in the lead-up to Christmas. However, one of the things Thanksgiving turkeys are known for is their encore appearances as leftovers. It is in this spirit of culinary sequels from the fridge that I would like to spend some post-Thanksgiving time thinking on being thankful.
Thankfulness or gratitude is an idea that often crosses our mind (to a greater or lesser degree) on a daily basis as we pray before each meal. Other times we encounter it as part of Sunday worship. Yet other times we are grateful when we are blessed in a particular way or when a specific crisis is averted. Regardless of the context, we typically think about thankfulness and gratitude as a feeling. We feel thankful. With this heuristic in place, we judge our degree of thankfulness based on the feeling of being thankful and seek to produce that feeling when we think we ought to be thankful. There is a difference, however, between feeling thankful and being thankful.
To feel thankful is a feeling and, by definition, is something that is temporary. It is therefore impossible that we should feel thankful all of the time: this feeling will come and go as it replaces and is replaced by other feelings woven throughout our lives such as happiness, sadness, anger, cheerfulness, and so on. Our feeling thankful will also be affected by things such as how tired we are, where our attention is focused, and a whole host of other factors beyond the other feelings coming and going from our consciousness. The sum of the matter is that our feeling of thankfulness ultimately comes up short as a means by which to evaluate whether we are living our lives with gratitude or not: it is too vague and volatile a thing. For example, we may become especially adept at producing this feeling of gratitude by our own efforts at the times we deem appropriate. Yet, in spite of our feeling the right way at the right time, we may not possess the least bit of genuine gratitude.
This begs the question: what is gratitude? What is thankfulness? From the above we can glean that it is not a feeling as we often suppose at first glance. The feeling stems from something else and is an echo or footprint of that something else. When we attempt to artificially produce this feeling, we are no closer to gratitude than an artist attempting to convey the idea of a cat by drawing only its tracks. We may be very good at drawing paw prints, but that doesn’t mean we know what a cat is. Nonetheless, we can learn some things about a cat by its footprints and the same holds true with gratitude.
Gratitude invariably shifts us out of the center of attention and instead focuses on something outside ourselves. It goes against the grain of the self-made man or woman that is idolized by our culture and instead acknowledges the fact that, while we exercise agency and stewardship in our lives, we did not create ourselves. From here, it is not difficult to see that gratitude is a very close relative of humility and has a large chunk of the same DNA. As such, being thankful means that we are necessarily humble. Being thankful, just like being humble, translates into action and how we live our lives. It seeps into our attitudes and dispositions.
Rather than a feeling, gratitude is what we might call an attitude of the heart: something that is near the core of our being and that affects everything which proceeds from our heart, be it word, thought, or deed. It is not something that we turn on and off at will. Of course, there are times when it closer to the forefront of our minds than others, but this does not affect its presence and influence in us. As we grow in our relationship with God, gratitude becomes a stronger influence in our lives. This is because we come to rely on God more fully and keep Him in mind in all we do. Gratitude is a natural outcome of growing intimacy with God. It proceeds from an increasingly God-centered view of the world and of ourselves.
Gratitude is a topic that is worth thinking on and digesting as we move into the Christmas season and Advent. With reminders of Christ’s first coming so readily before our eyes and minds, it is a fitting time to consider our response to the love that God shows us. Do we take it for granted or do we respond with thankfulness?