Authentic Gratitude: The True Significance of Thanksgiving

When I was a little boy, I wasn’t sure that Thanksgiving counted as a real holiday.

I mean, obviously, Christmas is a holiday. There’s an abundance of Christmas music and countless Christmas traditions. There’s the giving and receiving of presents. You bring a live tree into your house, for crying out loud. Of course Christmas is a holiday.

Easter is also a holiday; no doubt about that. There’s painting eggs and then hunting for them. There’s a big fluffy bunny as a mascot. There are baskets full of candy. Easter is definitely a holiday.

Even some of the smaller holidays still counted as holidays in my mind. Independence Day? It’s got explosions and barbeques. Halloween? Costumes, and plenty of candy. Groundhog Day? It’s got a cute fluffy mascot, and major significance for the weather! Every one of these special days, it seemed to me, was a major event. But Thanksgiving didn’t quite seem to fit in.

Growing up, I generally thought of Thanksgiving as merely a necessary precursor to the Christmas season. After Thanksgiving, it was permissible to put up a tree and begin listening to Christmas music. But Thanksgiving didn’t carry much significance on its own. I didn’t get any presents on Thanksgiving. I didn’t get a whole bunch of candy, and there wasn’t any special Thanksgiving music. Thanksgiving was just the day that we went to Grandma’s house and ate unusually large amounts of food. Not that I had anything against eating lots of food, but it didn’t really seem all that special. I knew it was supposed to be a special day to be thankful for stuff… but honestly that just seemed pretty vague. A special day to be particularly thankful? OK, that’s great, I guess. But it didn’t seem like a big deal. Sure, I’m thankful… now what?

This year, it has really hit me how little we tend to appreciate the significance of Thanksgiving. In fact, I think many of us really miss the mark when it comes to understanding thankfulness in general. Gratitude is an incredibly meaningful and powerful thing, but we tend to minimize it a lot. We throw around “thanks” like nobody’s business, but how often do we actually mean anything by it? When we thank somebody for something, how genuine are we actually being? How frequently do you actually put any thought into your thank-you?

As I have considered this, it has occurred to me that the whole concept of gratitude is often misconstrued and misunderstood. What does it really mean to be thankful? It’s a tougher question than you would think. How would you define gratitude? Does it simply mean acknowleding something good, in a bland count-your-blessings sort of way? “Look, I have a roof over my head. This is good.” Is that what it is to be truly thankful? I don’t think so. I think there’s more to it than that. Is it just a statement of appreciation? Does “thank you” mean the same as “I appreciate that?” In some cases it can, I suppose. But most of the time, I think gratitude is supposed to carry more weight. What does it really mean to be genuinely thankful?

In order to answer this question, we must first answer a different one. When we are thankful, who are we thanking? When we feel gratitude for the blessings in our lives, is there an object for that gratitude? Are we simply thanking our “lucky stars?” Sometimes, we thank a specific person for a specific deed. We are thankful to John for holding open the door, or to Susan for picking up some groceries. But what about gratitude that isn’t directed toward a specific person?

From a Christian perspective, all gratitude should, in fact, be directed to a specific individual: God. As a Christian, we ought to thank God constantly for all that He has done for us. Every good thing in our lives finds its source in God. James 1:17 states this very explicitly:

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17a)

God is the source of everything good in our lives; everything we have to be thankful for is from Him. When we express gratitude, it shouldn’t be a vague acknowledgement of good fortune; it should be directed specifically toward God as the source of goodness.

Considering this, then, we ought to view gratitude in a different light. It is not simply an acknowledgement of the goodness of a thing, nor is it a vague sense of appreciation for your blessings. Gratitude is a statement, directed toward a specific individual. Whether you are thanking another person for something they have done, or thanking God for His goodness toward you, to give thanks is to make a declaration. The final question, then, is simple: what is gratitude a declaration of? What message is carried in a simple thank-you?

At the heart of it, I believe gratitude is a deeply meaningful idea. Giving thanks is a constant theme throughout Scripture, and is clearly meant to be a defining element of a Christian lifestyle. Take a look at some of the key verses that discuss gratitude:

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.” (1 Chronicles 16:34)

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” (Psalm 100:4)

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)

Verses like these make it clear that “thank-you” is more than a polite companion to “please.” For the Christian, it ought to be a way of life. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 is striking in its command to be thankful “in all circumstances.” We nearly always think of gratitude as being directly tied to pleasant circumstances; something good happens, so we give thanks. But this is not the model of thanksgiving presented in Scripture. Regardless of our current earthly circumstances, we have been richly blessed “with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3)

Considering all that we can learn about gratitude from Scripture, the true meaning of the concept finally begins to take shape. It is a vital and powerful thing that ought to define our lives in a big way. It should not be dictated by our circumstances, but should transcend the good and bad we wrestle with every day. It should be directed to the giver of every good gift, God alone. It is a statement and a declaration; and ultimately, I believe that it is a statement of love.

Considering all the Scripture tells us about gratitude, it seems clear to me that giving thanks is really an expression of love. When we say “thank you,” it should as if we are saying, “Oh, that reminds me: I love you.” In fact, those phrases ought to be interchangeable. When someone helps you carry a heavy load, a sincere thank-you should be the same as looking them in the eye and saying, “Oh, by the way- I love you.” To thank another person should not be merely a matter of protocol; it should be a sincerely-felt declaration of love. Thanksgiving is really a form of expressing love- real, heartfelt, honest love.

No matter who we’re thanking or what we’re thankful for, our gratitude should ultimately be directed toward God. In everything that we face, good or bad, we ought to be reminded of the goodness and love of God, and we ought to respond in love. That’s what thanksgiving (the concept) is all about; and by extension, that’s what Thanksgiving (the Thursday in November) is all about, too.

Knowing that, we should never let Thanksgiving fall by the wayside as some second-rate holiday. This year, let Thanksgiving be a time to show your family and friends how much you love them. Let it be a time to reflect on how loved you are by your Father in heaven. And let it be a time to declare to God that no matter what your circumstances, you will never cease to have thanksgiving on your lips, because His love can be seen in the darkness and the light. That’s what authentic gratitude is all about, and that’s why Thanksgiving is, without a doubt, a real holiday.




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