I was thinking about this week that we’re about to engage in, this week of Thanksgiving, of giving thanks to the Lord for His goodness, for what He has done, and for who He is. Even though Thanksgiving is a national holiday, the practice and promise of Thanksgiving is biblical to its core. Psalm 95 urges us to “sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” All throughout Scripture, God urges us to praise His name for His good works, whether through good times or struggles.
I have often said that cultivating gratefulness is a discipline, and that gratefulness is the gateway to holiness. But, what does that mean? Why does stewarding hearts of thanksgiving actually make us holier, happier people? To understand that question, I think we have to go back to the very beginning.
It’s often said that the original sin was pride, but I think it was actually ingratitude. God gave us everything we needed to be complete, happy, and fulfilled, all in Him. We understood the world as it really was, how He made it to be. We had an accurate sense of reality; we saw the truth.
But it wasn’t enough for us. We weren’t grateful for what God gave; everything was not enough. We wanted more. And, so, when the serpent led Eve to the tree, all that was needed to take the first humans down the path to perdition was to simply suggest that God had not meant what He said. If she was truly confused about God’s words, she could have easily clarified with Adam. Adam could have clarified with God, who he walked with in the cool of the morning. But they didn’t question, didn’t clarify. Not really. Because their ingratitude, their belief that there should be more to life than what they had, had already convinced them. They just wanted what they wanted, and were willing to rationalize to get it. They were willing to believe that God wasn’t good, and that something better awaited them if they ate from the tree.
Even though the serpent promised that if they ate from the tree, it would open their eyes, their eyes were already opened. They already saw life as it truly was. Now, bellies full and hearts empty, they were actually blinded, embracing a lie. They adopted a series of catastrophically-vacuous presuppositions about the world. They bought into the deception that God is not good; that they, rather than God, defined their own happiness and who they were; and that there was something more for them than what God provides.
And, when you think about it, all the sin, all the distortion, all the brokenness, all the pain, all the crippling destruction of this world, for all of us, emanates from these few lies. All from hearts of ungratefulness.
Thanksgiving is a gateway to holiness because it is an act of restoration, of returning us to what we once were: contented children of God. We reflect on what we have been given, beginning with the obvious things, such as family, work, health, a country where we can be free to worship God, then moving on to the not-so-obvious, like trials that make us more holy, and difficult people in our lives who refine us and form us to be more generous, patient, and more Christ-like. We realize that God is always good, even in the hard; that happiness is defined by the peace and intimacy I have with and in Him, not what’s going on around me, and that He gives me immeasurably more than all I could have hoped or imagined, that I don’t need or really even want those things that are not of Him.
He transforms my spirit from warring against itself into one of peace, as that of the psalmist, who says:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 131: 1-2
Even though the first sin was ungratefulness, pride came hot on its heels. After all, if God and all His goodness was not enough and something more was required, then who was going to give it to me? I will, right? And, if I do, then I must be like God. That’s pride in its ultimate form, and even before us, pride borne from ingratitude was Satan’s downfall:
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;[c]
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
We’re just as prideful. Every day, when we try to make ourselves happy, be in control of our lives, and define ourselves by our own standards, we take up the place only God holds, and we effectively declare: “I will make myself like the Most High.”
We need to cultivate a heart of Thanksgiving to mortify the flesh, to kill the pride inside us. How many times in my life have I acknowledged that salvation is a free gift, only to turn around and try to pay God back for it by being involved in some ministry, giving to something, saying that I’m doing it out of gratitude and because I serve a generous God, but in reality, just trying to check a box, to pay the bill, to earn my passage into the household of Heaven?
One of the things I’m deeply grateful for this past year is an overwhelmingly generous gift by a school grandfather. As I’ve written about before, I have a group of four friends who are also heads of school in other cities, and who are some of my best friends. This school grandfather came to my house one Saturday last spring and said he wanted to encourage me. He said he had arranged for my friends and me to go to New York City for a weekend to have dinner in a great restaurant and attend the Billy Joel concert in Madison Square Garden, all as a gift from him.
Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. It was one of the kindest gestures anyone had ever done for me. And, yet, the even better gift he gave me was teaching me to receive it. Because I struggled in the weeks following about receiving something so elaborate, so lavish. My mind went immediately to “How do I thank him? How do I pay him back?” I became convicted that these were sinful responses, my pride refusing to acknowledge the gift for the beautiful act of kindness that it was. Christ impressed upon me that, “this is an earthly metaphor for the much greater grace I have given you. Learn to receive it.” Simply accepting and being grateful helped me put my pride to death, at least in the moment, and be a good receiver of God’s blessings through this wonderful man.
John Wesley spoke the words of all our hearts: “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.” The gift of grace is infinitely challenging in that it requires nothing of us, and yet requires everything. It costs nothing, but requires us to admit we are bankrupt, that we bring nothing of spiritual value to the table. Receiving grace requires our absolute surrender. It the gift of life that entails dying to all that we were, most of all our pride.
Thanksgiving is so critical because it gives me the opportunity to look in the eyes of the Giver of Life, the Father of Lights, from whom every good and perfect gift comes, and thank Him for His grace, goodness, mercy, and love for me. It reminds to praise God from whom all blessings flow, that in Him I live and move and have my being, and I live in complete and total dependence on Him. Then, maybe, just maybe, He can use me to be of some good to myself and others.
Thanksgiving kills the twin demons of ingratitude and pride within me, the ancient enemies of my soul that destroy my peace and deceive me into thinking what is toxic is healthy and evil, good. I pray you’ll use this week to reflect, repent, and let the lover of your soul restore you.