Recovering the source of Christian gratitude
By Josh Smith
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving. Ever since the Pilgrims came across the Atlantic Ocean to set up the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, Thanksgiving has been observed in some way or another in America. But, over the past four centuries, the meaning, reason, and interpretation of Thanksgiving have shifted and changed.
The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving alongside the Wampanoag, a Native American people. Their reason for celebration was their successful harvest. But, what was the object of their gratitude? Edward Winslow, one of the colonizers present at the first Thanksgiving feast, said this:
“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, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” (1)
The Pilgrims were devout in their relationship with God, and at this first Thanksgiving, they gave thanks to him for his goodness in providing for their needs. This mindset of giving thanks to God persisted for 150 years after the first Thanksgiving, too.
The first time Thanksgiving was celebrated as a national holiday was in 1789. President George Washington, in his proclamation to the American people, said:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor – and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….” (2)
In recent times, however, Thanksgiving has morphed into something else entirely. To many today, thanksgiving is an attitude rather than an acclamation. It’s something we think rather than someone we praise. It focuses on the gift rather than the giver.
Oprah once said this somewhere: “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”
Others have reduced thanksgiving to a pragmatic way of feeling better about yourself and increasing positive thinking: “When you have an attitude of gratitude you feel more abundant, are more grateful, are more productive and feel happier.” (3)
Thanksgiving is not mindfulness, appreciation, or some abstract, ethereal thought. As Christians, we must not fall prey to these ideas. Rather, thanksgiving is a concrete expression of gratefulness to the provisional, good, loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing, powerful, and present creator and sustainer of the universe.
Thanksgiving requires a giver and a gift. We don’t thank the roasted turkey for being seasoned to perfection; we thank the cook who labored over it. We don’t thank the sweet potato casserole for its perfectly proportioned marshmallow to vegetable ratio; we thank the baker for the mound of magnificence on our plates.
As Christians, we must recover the source of our thankfulness. God could have created us to only eat dog food. Instead, there is a seemingly endless buffet of options we are able to enjoy. God gives us the ability to work to either cultivate or buy our food and the wisdom to make casseroles. We thank God – the giver – for his glorious gifts.
More than just the food, God gives us family and friends to give thanks with. God gives us the gracious commands to love, encourage, and care for one another. God has given us the church to learn, grow, and serve in.
Most importantly, though, God has given us his son. Through Jesus, our past sins, mistakes, and failures are removed. Through Jesus, we are made righteous, holy, and blameless. In Christ, we grow, love, and are sanctified. Through faith in Christ, we are enabled to understand, desire, and minister God’s word.
Finally, God has given us the promise that one day, all the difficulties, worries, and agonies of this world will be done away with. Sin will be destroyed. Death will be put to death. Sorrow will be cast aside. When the appointed time comes, we will come face to face with the ultimate object of our thanksgiving: the enthroned and eternally exalted King Jesus.
True thanksgiving is not some vague, abstract concept. True thanksgiving is the real, faithful, and concrete Christ who loved us and gave himself for us.
This Thanksgiving season, don’t just think of three things you are grateful for. Don’t just have everyone at the feasting table write one thing they’re grateful for on a slip of paper.
Rather, spend time giving thanks to someone. Give thanks to God for all that he’s given. God is the source of every good and perfect thing. This Thanksgiving, spend intentional time with your family in prayer to God, thanking him for all the gifts he has given you. He is the reason for it all.
“Let the whole earth shout triumphantly to the Lord!
Serve the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God.
He made us, and we are his —
his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and bless his name.
For the Lord is good, and his faithful love endures forever;
his faithfulness, through all generations.”
Winslow, Edward. Mourts Relation. As cited on https://www.pilgrimhall.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_ 1621.pdf.
Go to https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources-2/article/thanksgiving-proclamation-of- 1789/ for the entire proclamation.
Pettit, Mark. “5 Ways to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude” on Thrive Global. https://thriveglobal.com/stories /5-ways-to-cultivate-an-attitude-of-gratitude/.