Thanksgiving may be the last religious holiday still widely celebrated for its true meaning. While our post-Christian culture has all but divorced Christmas from the Incarnation and Easter from the Resurrection, this last holdout—this simple ritual of gratitude—is still hanging on.
In fact, I would dare say gratitude is making a comeback, and not just in the church. Everywhere you look, secular academics and self-help gurus are researching, writing, and publishing books about the psychological and societal benefits of thankfulness. This 2011 New York Times piece refers to Thanksgiving as “the most psychologically correct holiday of the year.” Oprah Winfrey herself, America’s high priestess of secular positivity, keeps a gratitude journal and recommends the practice, saying that thankfulness “changes your personal vibration.” Many Americans are getting on board, trying to stop their complaining and start counting their blessings—or, as this Buzzfeed article puts it, their “privileges.”
Whether you think in terms of blessings or privileges, I think we can all agree that gratitude is healthy. It’s undeniable that cultivating a mindset of “wanting what you have”—what an older generation would have called contentment—will greatly enrich your life and increase your happiness. And it’s an excellent antidote to the insatiable materialism that infects so many of us.
Gratitude Is Not Enough
But mere contentment—an appreciation for the things one has—isn’t enough. Because while gratitude is certainly a good place to start, feeling thankful isn’t quite the same thing as thanksgiving. Thanksgiving differs from gratitude in this respect: it requires an object. There must be a Giver to whom we give thanks, and whom we acknowledge as the source of our gifts. Unless we can bring ourselves to offer true thanksgiving to the Giver, our happiness rests on shaky ground.
Let’s be brutally honest about life for a moment. Yes, it is full of blessings—breathtakingly so. Most of the time we don’t even see the beauty all around us. Just go outside on some clear night and spend 15 minutes looking at the full moon. Put down your phone and take a long look at your child’s miraculous toes or perfect ears. Take a sip of your morning coffee and consider what an unnecessarily lavish gift the sense of taste is. There are gifts and joys, glimpses of God’s abundant goodness, everywhere, if we stop to look. Life is truly beautiful.
Yet life is also terribly tragic. The same creation that God authoritatively declared “good” He later declared cursed, and the goodness and the curse have been fighting it out ever since on the battleground of our daily lives. Very few of us will escape without some deep sorrow to wrench our gut or break our heart.
No, I’m not talking about petty annoyances like a delayed flight or our name getting spelled wrong on a Starbucks drink. I’m talking about the fact that the people we love can be instantly torn from us by cancer or car wrecks. Nature’s awesomeness can be rendered an irresistible terror when an earthquake strikes or a tsunami rages. Even for those of us who avoid such calamities, our children will grow up and leave us. Our bodies will grow old and break down.
Eventually, every single item on our “list of blessings”—even life itself—will be stripped away. Even though we know this is the natural order of things, there is still a sadness in it that all the positive thinking in the world can’t quite erase.
You see, we were meant to live forever. That was God’s original design for humanity. And even now, after millennia of living under the curse that sin brought upon us, we still long for immortality. It’s too simple to say that death is a natural part of life, and we should just count our blessings and be grateful for the time we have. Our stubborn souls will keep on craving the eternal. We know there’s something wrong about death because we were made for eternity, and we innately long for something lasting.
We Need Thanksgiving
That’s where thanksgiving—old-fashioned, Christian thanksgiving—can help us. While gratitude based on temporal things will eventually fail us, thanksgiving is an act of communion with the eternal God. As such, it anchors us to something that will last forever.
The Bible declares that God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting: the one thing we can never lose. “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:10) It gets better: because of that love, He sent His Son to die and rise again, breaking the curse of sin and restoring our hope of eternal life.
Now, we can look at the beauties and joys of life not simply as blessings which we will eventually lose, but rather as glimpses of the joy and beauty which, through Christ, can never be taken from us. And we can offer thanks, turning our gaze from the gift itself to rest upon the goodness of the Giver.
This is what that small, bedraggled band of Puritans understood on the first American Thanksgiving nearly 400 years ago. They certainly were no strangers to sorrow. Persecuted for their faith and driven from their native country, they had survived a hellish sea voyage only to arrive in New England just in time for a brutal winter. Gov. William Bradford described what followed: “In two or three months’ time half of their company died, partly owing to the severity of the winter . . . and the want of houses and other comforts; partly to scurvy and other diseases, which their long voyage and their incommodious quarters had brought upon them. Of all the hundred odd persons, scarcely fifty remained, and sometimes two or three persons died in a day.”
Yet just months later, this is how survivor Edward Winslow described the celebration now known as the first Thanksgiving: “. . . for three days we entertained and feasted. . . . And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.” (Emphasis added.)
A Mere Harvest Festival Thanksgiving Ain’t
It’s true that the residents of Plymouth Plantation were rejoicing in a good harvest. But if that had been their primary source of joy, it would have been a poor recompense for the immense suffering they had just been through—not to mention all that was yet to come. They knew full well that blessings can be fleeting. “So uncertain are the mutable things of this unstable world!” Bradford later wrote. “And yet men set their hearts upon them, though they daily see their vanity.”
No, the thing that sustained these men and women was not the harvest itself. It was the unchanging, never-ending goodness of God, of which the harvest was just one small manifestation.
So this Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for the blessings that fill my daily life: husband, children, home, health, and freedom, recognizing that each day I have these things is an undeserved gift. But more than all this, I thank God for the one thing I can never lose: Himself, His love, and the salvation for which Christ paid such a dear price. I thank Him that a day is coming when the goodness will fully overcome the curse, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes.
Yes, life is good. Life is beautiful. But the love of God “is better than life.” (Psalm 63:3) I’m thankful.