Thanksgiving Isn’t A Feeling

It’s Thanksgiving. In our house this means all the typical things: fried turkey (the only way to do it, guys), copious amounts of other delicious foods, the big parade on TV, followed by all of the football games and some napping. Oh wait, I was describing our pre-children life. Scratch the napping thing. But all the rest of it for sure.

And, from time to time, we’ll do that other typical thing – going around the table to say what we’re thankful for. I was considering this, asking myself what I’m thankful for this year. And well, there’s a lot.

In the broad sense, I have very little to NOT be thankful for. I have family and friends whom I love and who love me. I have four healthy, wonderful children. A great marriage. A great church. All of my needs not just met but exceeded: shelter, food, clothing, a good job.

What strikes me is that while all of this is true, and when asked I can spout all of those things off without hesitation, I sometimes find it hard to be thankful in the little moments, amidst the busyness and hard work of daily life.

When I read or hear about the importance of gratitude, I wholeheartedly agree. I mean, it’s pretty gross that I’m ever NOT grateful, right? Yet, on an average day, when rushing from getting kids ready, to school drop off, to work, back to school, homework, dinner, and so on and so forth, I don’t always feel grateful.

That word – feel – is, I think, the crux of the problem. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that word has slowly permeated our culture over the last several years.

We no longer “think” things. We “feel” them.

  • “I just feel like our country’s going in a bad direction.”
  • “I don’t feel good about my job.”
  • “This just doesn’t feel right.”

This subtle shift is problematic in many ways, but as it relates to thanksgiving (the attitude, not the holiday), in that how grateful we are becomes wrapped up in how we feel.

Which is great when everything is going perfectly. But less so when we have a bad day or become run down by the minutiae of everyday life.

As believers, we know we are called to be thankful. In fact, in Colossians 3:16-17, Paul reminds us to do so three times, ending with saying, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

Really? Everything? Gosh, that’s a lot of pressure.

So then, what do we do about this? When I don’t actually feel grateful, even though I know I ought to be, how do I correct it?

Now I’m not knocking this idea, but it’s become increasingly popular to try to habit ourselves out of our ingratitude. Keep a thankfulness journal. Tweet what you’re thankful for (#thankful). List your thankfulness every day leading up to Thanksgiving on Facebook.

All of these are fine exercises and I do think they can be helpful. But I don’t know that they necessarily offer a solution so much as a discipline. And I think discipline can certainly aid us, but if that’s all it is, an important ingredient is missing from the anti-ingratitude recipe.

The Sunday school answer to this ingratitude problem is, of course, Jesus. Jesus must change us. Jesus must continue to move our hearts toward thankfulness. More specifically, though, I think it’s the repentance that we must live in if we are to follow Jesus rightly which will lead our hearts into gratitude.

We cannot be truly grateful for anything provided to us if we do not see ourselves rightly in relationship to God. Indebted to Him for everything, bringing nothing to the table. When we begin there, we really can begin to see everything else as a gift.

We cannot be truly grateful if we do not see ourselves rightly in relationship to God. Click to Tweet

As I’ve been considering this over the past week, my mind has continually gone back to those rebellious Israelites we read about in the Old Testament. Always being rescued out of certain death, only to whine like a bunch of babies a few days later.

Just read Exodus 15 and take a moment to consider that the people sing this beautiful song of praise and gratitude after God parted a sea to save them, only to “grumble against Moses” three days later. It seems kind of absurd, except that if we have been saved by the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, our grumbling is essentially the same thing.

The people of God continue in this pattern, off and on, until Jesus comes and changes everything. What leads them back into gratitude time and time again? Repentance. God is always saying, “If they would just turn.” He stands ready to restore and fill them.

I think this is true for the people of God now as well, albeit in different way because we have the Holy Spirit working in us to lead us to repentance and thankfulness. When we turn, we are restored, and we are thankful.

The thing with turning and repenting, though, is that it’s not about how we feel. It’s about what we believe and train ourselves to think. I never actually feel like repenting. That requires admitting I’m wrong and I don’t really like how that makes me feel.

So thankfulness, I think, is not the start of something, but the result of something for us as believers. We can’t muster it up in ourselves. Instead, it begins to flow out of hearts that are changed and humble before a saving God.

You may not feel grateful this Thanksgiving day. Don’t give into the temptation to blame everyone around you or wallow in guilt because you don’t feel how you ought to today. Instead look up and remember that it’s not about you. It’s about Him.

As you prepare the food and set the table and encounter the messiness of loving friends and family this Thanksgiving day, I encourage you to look to the saving work of God afresh with humility and repentance. That is where thanksgiving can be found.

I’m married to Josh. He’s a pastor. We live in Tallahassee with our 4 children. They are wild and crazy and we don’t really know what we’re doing there. I spend most of my time managing them but some of my time doing some research at Florida State University. I’m grateful for good books, laughter, the Florida sun, and Netflix (and oxford commas!). But mostly for Jesus. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.