By Dr. Jerry Rankin
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite seasons of the year. Unlike other holidays, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hassle and activity involved. It is a down time after a busy fall when school and work accelerate the pace of life. Now most schools are dismissed for the week, but for others it is a long holiday weekend of gathering with family, feasting and enjoying a refreshing chill in the air.
For many it means heading to the woods for hunting while others look forward to attending the big game climaxing the football season, or hitting the malls to launch the Christmas shopping frenzy. Others, like me, will become couch potatoes indulging in the constant diet of televised NFL and college games. A few churches still have a special Thanksgiving Service in which traditional hymns sung only at this time of the year evoke images of pilgrims worshipping God and thanking Him for another harvest, but mostly it is for time with family.
But what about giving thanks? Will it be any more than a generic blessing, perhaps a little longer than usual, pronounced by the family patriarch before consuming the turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie? My family always had a tradition of reading Psalm 100 before the Thanksgiving meal. It was an appropriate reminder: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and praise His name” (Ps. 100:4). I’m not sure if it was selected because of the inclusion of the actual word “thanksgiving” or if it was intended to adjust our demeanor for entering into the presence of God each day.
Do we use this day, or the extended holiday respite, to contemplate God’s blessings and embrace a humbling attitude of gratitude? I’m afraid recounting our blessings at Thanksgiving often reflects the attitude of the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus in Luke 18:9-14; he was grateful he was not like that sinful tax collector. As we think of our health and prosperity, significant life events in the past year of a new baby, a marriage or graduation we are thankful. In giving thanks we, in a subtle way, acknowledge that God had something to do with the blessings we enjoy.
If all we enjoy including the abundance of food and cozy, comfortable homes and loving family that surrounds us is truly from God, should it not humble us and remind us of our unworthiness. In expressing our thankfulness we need to me careful lest there is a certain pride and smugness that we are not like the homeless with a “work for food” sign getting a warm meal in a shelter somewhere. As we enjoy family and luxuriate in our abundance, we dare spoil the ambience by reflecting on those who are lonely, the many who have lost jobs or the impoverished around the world that never know what a full stomach feels like.
The Pharisee was most thankful that he was not like the tax collector, sinners and others. Is that why we give thanks…that we are not like those who haven’t been blessed as we have. Yes, we should be grateful for all that we have; after all, God has truly been good to us. But those that are most blessed are those with grateful hearts in spite of financial setbacks, a year of adversity, or grieving the loss of a loved one. Is our thanks contingent on what we have or does it reflect our confidence and trust in the One to whom we give thanks?
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there is no fruit on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will triumph in the Lord; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). That is real thanksgiving!
If we thank God only for what we have it is a shallow attitude of gratitude indeed. But in our lack, our suffering, or our loneliness, we thank God for who He is, for His grace, His faithfulness and our confidence He will provide for our needs, it is thanksgiving, indeed!
Dr. Jerry Rankin served as president of the International Mission Board from June 1993 to July 2010 and blogs at The Rankin File.