Going Deeper with Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is upon us! It’s one of my favorite holidays: having a prolonged vacation, being with loved ones, and, of course, eating some great food. But like other holidays, it’s easy to lose sight of the real reason we celebrate it. There’s something more to Thanksgiving than just hanging out with family, eating a LOT of food and watching six hours of football.

I realized this many years ago and since then I’ve been on a “pilgrimage” to discover what Thanksgiving means and how it relates to life and spirituality. (By the way, I didn’t intend to make that a pun; though I find it kind of funny that the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World led them to establishing the tradition of Thanksgiving, of which I’m now a pilgrim trying to understand what it means in the first place!) 

My first step was to make a list of everything I am thankful for. I would think of things from “being able to take a hot shower every morning” to “my relationship with God through Jesus Christ” and everything in between. This was a good first move and I found that when I started listing things down, it profoundly affected my attitude and outlook on life. It’s harder to complain when you start thinking about the things that you appreciate.

However, I noticed that this spiritual exercise became less effective over the years. It’s a great “soup starter” but I yearned for something deeper, something more meaningful. While it opened the “breadth” of what I’m thankful for, I sensed that it lacked the “depth.” I found that just listing the things I’m thankful often devolved into another obligatory, religious thing that I could check off on my spiritual “to-do” list. My soul knew there was something more to it.

The Apostle Paul’s words rang in my ears: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Those words not only convicted me, they actually haunted me, because I sensed I was missing the mark. Then it dawned on me that I was only looking at this verse as a command, as another “prescriptive” thing to do so that I could be a good Christian. But the Spirit helped me to see that this passage is not just a “prescription” but also a “description.” Paul was also describing what the deeper life in Christ looks like.

In other words, the end-game of Thanksgiving is not just to be able to come up with an infinite list of what I ought to be thankful for, but to become a person who has “a grateful heart.” A grateful heart inspires the powerful actions of becoming more gracious and generous; the type of person who exudes goodness and grace to others because there is a fountain of gratitude constantly gushing from within.

This has really turned things around for me to a larger, wider and deeper life in Jesus. And while I am still very much at the beginning stages of seeing my heart transformed into “grateful,” there are some key practices and mindsets that have helped me to go deeper with my thanksgiving:

1. Slow down and see the gifts that are right in front of me, right now. I think being busy and preoccupied are one of the reasons why it’s hard to be thankful. We’re so focused on what’s coming up (the future) that we can’t be present to our present. I’ve often written in WholeLifeWorship about the need for creating rhythms of solitude, silence and stillness to counteract the frenetic culture that we’re immersed in. This also helps with going deeper in giving thanks. I find it so helpful to take a quick time out to activity, push pause to my busy-ness and reflect on what is given to me right now. When I do this, God’s Spirit brings to mind those blessings of life that are right in front of my eyes. I remember one day I saw a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower in my backyard and I thought, “What a gift of wonder!” Another time, God brought to my mind certain friends and a deep sense of appreciation. But none of this would have happened if I had not slowed down and made myself open to seeing things in a new light.

2. Become more self-aware to the negative effects of my attitude of “entitlement.” Theologian Richard Rohr says that the one single thing that prevents us from truly experiencing gratitude and living into the thankful life is entitlement. The enemy uses the attitude of entitlement (of feeling that I deserve more, of being dissatisfied with the gifts that God has given) to block me from entering the Kingdom portal of true gratitude. Entitlement wants to entrap me in things like greed, jealousy, envy, covetousness, grumbling, stinginess, and self-centeredness. Jesus said that the way to eternal life involves me to consciously “die” to such things and to follow Him. So, the way to go deeper with thanksgiving involves my proactive dying to my sense of entitlement.

3. Take faith-filled steps of action toward generosity and serving others. This is something that people who have gone on a mission trip to a Third World country or an impoverished area learn: when they serve others and are generous to people in need, God opens up reservoirs of thankfulness and appreciation inside of us that we were not aware of. Often the first words out of their mouths are, “I went to go bless others, but I was the one who was really blessed!” Recently, God has moved in Letty’s and my heart to set apart more of our income specifically to help people who are in need. This helps us to eliminate some of the entitlement in our hearts and opens the door to a greater sense of thankfulness to God.

So, as we approach another Thanksgiving holiday, I’d love for you to share what helps you to go deeper in nurturing a grateful heart? If you’re on Facebook, please make a comment on this post. If you’re receiving this from WholeLifeWorship.com, you can make a comment there. 

May you have a blessed Thanksgiving with family and loved ones! And may God lead us into a deeper understanding and experience of nurturing a truly grateful heart.

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