This Thanksgiving, many Americans are hurting. Though most of us have what we need, millions are either without work or struggling to make ends meet and provide for their families. Even as we thank God for His blessings, we continually pray for God to meet their needs while also seeking ways we can help.
Born in Moments of Hardship and Trial
Our present challenges make 2021 an especially good year to recall that our Thanksgiving traditions were not born in times of great ease and opulence, but in moments of hardship and trial.
Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida, gathered for a thanksgiving celebration way back in 1565 — and this was probably not the earliest such occasion. Most of us are more familiar with the 1621 celebration by Pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. They suffered drought, disease, and death. They had many hard years ahead of them. And yet they paused to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest.
Thanksgiving celebrations continued over the next two hundred years, and some presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations. President Abraham Lincoln made it an official national holiday in 1863, when our country was in the throes of the Civil War. There may have been no darker time in our nation’s history, and yet Lincoln called on Americans to thank God for the blessings He had bestowed upon them. Lincoln’s proclamation began:
The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
Content Whatever the Circumstances
Gratitude has little to do with our circumstances and everything to do with our hearts. Lincoln understood that. So did the Apostle Paul. He told the Philippian Christians,
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).
What is the secret of being content in any and every situation? It’s seeing every event in our lives — whether it brings pleasure or pain — in the light of eternity. To be fully content, we must see everything in light of God’s ultimate gift of salvation. We must see every good thing as a blessing, a gift, and not an entitlement.
Gratitude Transforms How We Receive
This spirit of gratitude transforms how we receive everything else. It allows us to enjoy the obvious gifts, such as the pleasures of a warm house and a healthy family. We won’t reject these pleasures because of a legalistic desire to suffer. But neither will we clutch them greedily.
“A gift should be accepted with such detachment that at any given moment you could return it,” wrote the theologian Tadeusz Dajczer.
This is an astonishing paradox. We are gifted so that, in accepting God’s gifts, we are ready to return them. The gesture of our readiness to return to God a gift we received is a sign that we have not taken possession of it. It is an expression of acknowledgement of the truth that we possess nothing. A gift returned comes back multiplied. Everything is a gift — your body and soul, wife, husband, children, what you have and what you do — everything belongs to the Lord.
Why Then So Discontent?
Many Americans are discontent because they have failed to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, not because they suffer want and hunger. Even in these worsening economic times, most of us have our basic needs met, with some left over. We enjoy freedoms that earlier generations could only imagine. We live twice as long on average as our ancestors did a few hundred years ago. Ordinary people enjoy more food, technology, leisure, and entertainment than the greatest kings and queens in history. Advances in technology happen so fast that our computers and cell phones are obsolete before we figure out how to use them.
Compare our lot to that of those early pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantations. They had all lost loved ones to disease, malnutrition, and exposure to the harsh northeastern winters. They were thankful to have survived. Few of us think to thank God because we have not suffered as many who live in unbearable conditions.
Don’t Forget to Be Thankful
Of course, we should be glad that we live in a nation where we don’t have to worry about mere survival. But if we don’t cultivate a spirit of gratitude, then even the most delightful blessings can cause us to forget to be thankful. This Thanksgiving, let’s ask God to help us develop the practice of being content — to cultivate gratitude — not just for one Thursday in November, but in every situation.
James Robison is The Stream’s founder and publisher. He is founder of LIFE Outreach International and co-host of LIFE Today. He’s the author of many books, including Indivisible (with Jay Richards) and Living Amazed.
Jay Richards, Ph.D., is the Executive Editor of The Stream. He is also the William E. Simon senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute.