What Is Thankfulness?

What Is Thankfulness? February 13, 2020

This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

I mentally review my day before I sleep and give thanks for God’s goodness, name woundedness, and ask forgiveness for when I did wrong.  But I’ve noticed that my thanksgiving has become a little rote. It’s like when you go around the table at the Thanksgiving meal and everybody says what they’re thankful for.  There’s the nod to being thankful for family. But then everyone’s minds wander inevitably to stuff: thanks for warm beds and warm showers, thanks for the car, thanks for the job, thanks for the TV and the so on and so forth and yada, yada, yada.  

Once, when we had just moved and our home was spilling out of boxes on the living room floor, the neighbor girl came over and stood in the door.  “Wow,” she said. “Can I look at your…stuff?” We’ve got stuff, and oh it sure is nice stuff. I am indeed thankful for our stuff. But is that really all thankfulness turns out to be, what Diana Butler Bass calls a “list of the benefits of being a middle class white person” (Grateful, p.61)?  If that’s all thankfulness is, I suspect I would fail Job’s test: would I still be thankful to God if you took away privilege and comfort and family and stuff?  Maybe I “fear God for nought” (Job 1:9 KJV).

We see a different version of thankfulness when the psalmist sings: “this is the day that the LORD has made” (Psalm 118:24).  It seems to me that part of what this means is that this day, this splotch on eternity’s canvas, was made by God–emphasis on the this.  That doesn’t mean that God willed everything that can happen in this day.  We live in a universe filled with the impossible reality of human choice and the wild and shaggy unpredictable eventualities of nature.  But the givenness of this day calls for something like awe on our part. Here we are in this time and place–us and not others, now and not then, here and not anywhere else.  This day is a gift that is ours to receive.

And not only receive, but “rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).  That’s the sometimes harder part, and it assumes a posture of gratitude–Paul’s “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  I suppose you could be grateful without believing in God, but where it gets interesting for me is future-forward gratitude that gives thanks for what is to come.  That sort of gratitude requires reference to God–and a particular conception of God as the one who is good and just and worthy of our trust and deepest confidence.  God has given us this day to rejoice and be glad in, and he holds all future days in his capable hands.

All of which is to say that giving thanks in and for this day means something more than just showing gratitude for the good stuff that comes our way.  It’s about receiving the beautiful gratuitousness of being alive. It’s about waking up to signs of God’s presence. And above all, we can receive the day as a space to become ourselves in Christ.  That’s reason enough for anyone to give thanks.

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