February 2011 - Vol. 47

Giving Thanks 

by Jon Wilson

The United States celebrates Thanksgiving Day each November. This national holiday is rooted in American history, which dates back to 1620 when one of the first groups of English settlers, a Christian congregation called the Pilgrims, established a colony in Virginia. In thanksgiving for surviving the harsh conditions of the first few months, the Pilgrims held a festive meal with their native Indian friends.  This annual tradition of giving thanks, which was officially established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, today feels more like an observance of American civil religion than an occasion for giving thanks to God for his blessings to us. Nevertheless, in Word of Life, our community, we dedicated one of our gatherings last November to reflect on the importance of thanksgiving in the life of a Christian. Here I offer some of the thoughts that I shared with the community at that time.

The gospel of Luke tells a story about a group of men who were healed by Jesus, and most of whom forgot to say thank you. This is Luke 17:11-19:

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance  and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
It is helpful to recognize that all the lepers were healed and their healing wasn’t contingent on their gratitude. Their healing was not a test to determine how they would respond once they were healed. God gives good gifts to all men and women, and the Lord Jesus had given freely to all ten. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says, that his Father in heaven “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Sometimes we can talk as if we will ”lose our blessings” if we fail to be thankful, but this story does not bear that out. The nine fellows who forgot to give thanks did not get leprosy again. 

However, we will certainly be missing something if we are not thankful people. Take a look at the leper who returned to Jesus. All the lepers had the day of their lives, being healed from such a terrible disease. But in fact, this leper had an even better day. Not only was he healed, but he also began a personal relationship with Jesus. And the same goes for us. When we receive God’s blessings with a shrug, or even without notice, we only get the blessings. We miss the greater good of being drawn into God’s presence. When we return to God to give him thanks, God’s gifts serve the much higher purpose of bringing us more fully into relationship with him, of helping us to better understand his goodness and grace.

Not taking anything for granted
So why do we fail to be thankful? I  learn a lot about myself by being around young children, es-pecially my own. Kids have not learned to mask their faults and weaknesses, and they often remind me of what is in my own heart. I am regularly amazed at how profoundly self-absorbed children can be and unfortunately we adults are not far behind! One reason that we fail to be thankful is that we often don’t even notice God’s blessings. The lepers in the story may well have been too busy enjoying their blessings. In fact, they were just doing what Jesus told them to do: going to the priests . So, too, can our blessings distract us from the giver.

I spent a few years in an African-American church in Detroit. I always appreciated black Christians’ tendency to speak thanks for the most basic blessings: “I’m thankful that God woke me up this morning, for the air that I breathe, the roof over my head.” These were heartfelt thanks from people who had learned not to take anything for granted, people who often didn’t have much to start with. This is a good reminder that we always have things to be thankful for, if we just take the time to notice them.

Entitlement mentality
We can also fall into an entitlement mentality in our relationship with God. It is interesting to note who it was who returned to thank Jesus for his healing: the Samaritan, the foreigner in the Jews’ eyes, the one with the least right to expect to be healed. As Christians, we probably wouldn’t voice it, but we can begin to think that God owes us a good life. We feel like we work hard for him, we give up a lot for him, the least he can do is give us some basic blessings. Of course, if we remind ourselves of what Scripture tells us we deserve (namely nothing – all is grace), we can see this is problematic.

On the other hand, if we cultivate a proper understanding of our place before God, and we take on a spirit of thanksgiving, we will reap some concrete benefits. First, we will grow in humility, since being grateful to God reminds us that we are not the ones making it all happen. We are creatures dependent on our Creator. This is a very healthy realization. Second, when we take time to enumerate all the things God has done for us, we grow in contentment. It grounds us in the present, and short-circuits our human restlessness for more, more, more. Third, and most importantly, being thankful returns us to the one who has given us so much. That way the concrete things in our lives lead us back to Jesus, and serve to strengthen our relationship with him.

A gift from God
Thanksgiving is a gift from God and we miss out on a great part of our relationship with him when we forget about gratitude. Whether you have an annual Thanksgiving holiday or not, reflect on the place of thanksgiving in your life. Begin to make this a more regular part of your prayers, your thoughts, and your conversations. Let us truly be a people marked by thanksgiving!

[Jon Wilson is a coordinator of Word of Life, a community of the Sword of the Spirit, and a member of Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He and his wife, Melody and their five children live in Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA.] 

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