Thanksgiving comes the same Thursday year after year after year, and yet, for many, this Thanksgiving may feel strangely mistimed, inconvenient, perhaps even inappropriate.
Typically, Thanksgiving is meant to be a climax of gratitude after another long year of blessings (though not without their accompanying trials), a welcomed time to stop, gather, reflect, and give thanks. The last eleven months, however, have certainly tried to upend much of what we look forward to each November. The politics of the last year have left many of us divided, troubled, and exhausted. The pandemic of the last year has left many of us nervous around and isolated from one another. How many of us can even gather like we would have? The instabilities and uncertainties of the last year have left us more anxious, irritable, and prone to grumble.
Grumbling, that antithesis of gratitude, chokes the song of thankful hearts. As unusual and uncomfortable as this celebration may feel right now, perhaps 2020 is the perfect year for Thanksgiving, at least for those who belong to Christ. Perhaps God is exposing our misplaced groaning and shortening patience. Perhaps God is digging the wells of our gratitude deeper than any year before. Perhaps God means to unleash a sunrise of Godward gratefulness on a dark, desperate, and fearful world.
Lessons in Unusual Gratitude
If we want a guide for gratitude, the apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians is as dense with thanksgiving as any he penned. Despite what he was suffering personally in prison, and despite the false teaching that was endangering the young church in Colossae, and despite his inability to go and teach them face-to-face — despite real reasons to be angry, fearful, and despairing — he remained thankful. “We always thank God,” he begins (Colossians 1:3). With great motivation to grumble, he opens and punctuates his letter instead with profound gratitude (Colossians 1:12; 2:7; 3:15–17; 4:2), each chapter capturing another dimension of healthy, God-glorifying gratitude.
Gratitude Is Not Natural
The first insight into gratitude may be the most essential, especially in a year like ours. The apostle prays for the church that,
. . . you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:9–12)
Giving thanks to the Father is not normal or natural. Paul prays for it. Disappointment, anxiety, and grumbling are the normal, natural, earthly responses to circumstances like ours. If gratitude toward God blossoms in the soil of hardship and distress, then God has made it grow. That means if we feel thankful again this year, we thank him all the more. And if gratitude feels tough this year, even impossible — like it may for some, even in the church — then we plead with him to fill our dim eyes and ears and hearts with the inheritance waiting for the saints in light.
Gratitude Guards Our Minds
Gratitude not only wells up in us, by the grace of God, but it also becomes a wall of spiritual protection around us. “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,” Paul writes, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6–7). To walk in Christ is not only to be thankful, but to abound in thanksgiving — to increase, to overflow, to excel in thanksgiving. Next verse:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
This is the central burden of the whole letter: to confront and warn against the false teaching that was endangering the church (Colossians 2:16–18). Part of guarding against false philosophy and empty deceit, it seems, is to be grateful. Why else would Paul fill this letter, in particular, with calls to surprising, abounding, supernatural gratitude?
False teaching is as rampant and dangerous today as it was then (and all the more available through our screens). How many of us have been subtly captured by a false or distorted worldview, especially in the tumultuous and confusing events of these months? How many have lowered our defenses and surrendered to human philosophies and deceptions? One strategy for guarding our minds and souls against error is to relentlessly give thanks to God.
Gratitude Touches Everything
As Paul nears the end of his letter, he emphatically stresses the vital and spiritual importance of gratitude. Notice how he repeats himself:
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15–17)
You can hear him driving home the theme: Let peace rule in your hearts with thankfulness. Let praise rise up from your mouths with thankfulness. Let all you say and do — think about that — give off the aroma of thankfulness. Whatever you do — even in a global pandemic, even amidst political upheaval, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health — do it in the name of Jesus, with thankfulness to God.
Let this Thanksgiving Day be an opportunity to renew the pervasiveness of your thankfulness to God. No matter what we suffer, or how deeply we suffer, or how long we’re forced to wait for healing and deliverance, if God has made us his in Christ and promised us himself forever, we have reasons — endless reasons — to be thankful.
Gratitude Requires Vigilance
The last note on thanksgiving may be the most sobering. “Continue steadfastly in prayer,” Paul writes, “being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). Faithfulness to Christ, especially in the midst of trials of various kinds, is not easy or passive. It requires perseverance, watchfulness, and prayer. Those who coast inevitably coast away from Christ — either because Satan snatches them away (Luke 8:12), or suffering drives them away (Luke 8:13), or cares and pleasures draw them away (Luke 8:14). So, Paul says, pray continually and watch vigilantly and be thankful.
We may think of thankfulness as an affection that springs up naturally when God provides for us, or protects us from harm or temptation, or answers our prayers. But thankfulness, like prayer, is a spiritual discipline — a habit of grace that requires effort and intentionality. As you navigate the fallen world around you, a world in bondage to corruption, pray persistently with watchfulness and abounding gratitude. Fight to see God, the church, the world, and yourself — clearly and truly — through eyes of thankfulness.
What If Next Year Is Worse?
Gratitude is not for fair-weather hearts. Real gratitude weathers even the fiercest storms and coldest winds. We may lose sight that this epistle, and its waves and waves of gratitude, was written from the danger, isolation, and injustice of prison.
Most of us have known very little of the pain and uncertainty Paul was experiencing, and yet how many of us have grumbled more and thanked less? Gratitude that dissolves and dissipates in the valley may not have been real gratitude on the mountaintop. Perhaps it was simply contentment in our comfort and security. But those who are grateful in the valley are those whose hearts were set on God before the valley. And if next year is worse than this one, if the valley dips deeper and darker, then we’ll still have plenty of reasons to thank God.
What may be even more surprising than Paul’s gratitude in prison, though, is how he turns his suffering into a harvest. “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word,” — in prison! — “to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison — that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3–4). He is pleading with God to open doors behind closed doors. Even behind locked doors. He received trials as unique opportunities to tell people about Jesus. Gratitude has that kind of an effect on a person.
So, how will you pray for the remaining weeks of this challenging year? What doors might God yet open for the gospel in the inconveniences, the cancellations, the restrictions, the interruptions, the disappointments? If we do all we do with thankfulness, we’ll be far more likely to recognize the doors as he opens them.