"When one is thirsty one quenches one’s thirsty by drinking, not by reading books which treat this condition.” ----Pierre de Caussade
I’ve always thought of thankfulness as a perfunctory virtue for old people and holidays. It was something adult mothers started to develop once they had children. By the time they had grandchildren their thankfulness was on full display. For some men, they expressed their thankfulness around July 4th when talking about their grandfather who served in World War II.
Around Thanksgiving I would hear people say at the family dinner “We should all be thankful for the blessings we have, especially ____________.” This was said by a Baby Boomer or someone of the Greatest Generation. Maybe this was a virtue felt by those who survived the Great Depression and their children. I didn’t get it.
Was there any reason for a person under the age of 30 to develop thankfulness or express it? For a long time, I did not think so. This is partially because I thought people did it out of some weird traditional duty. It all seemed like a public performance. I did not think it was something to be learned. There were methods for becoming mentally tough or developing a work ethic. To become mentally tough you made yourself do hard things. I’d never heard anyone about talk about learning thankfulness.
Furthermore, I had seen people misuse the word. My understanding of “being thankful” also was a method (typically a rote verbal response) whenever faced with a bad situation or bad news. For instance, if I lost my wallet, I might hear from someone (typically an older adult) “Well, at least you can be thankful that you were able to cancel your debit card before someone took money from your account.” Yes, you are correct, I was able to cancel my debit card, but this method of “encouragement” didn’t make me feel any better. Thankfulness seemed like a way of making people feel guilty, a “consolation virtue,” if they were having a really bad day.
In fact, I used “thankfulness” in this way after a tragic event. In 2007 my brother and his girlfriend died in a car accident. I had to drive over to his girlfriend’s (Suzanne) house to give her family some of her belongings that were in my brother’s car. It was only about 48 hours after Suzanne and Daniel had passed away. I remember being sort of in shock when I saw her parents and her sister after walking into their house, standing there in their kitchen. I did not know what to say, even though I was grieving myself. I searched my mind for something to say. I remember saying “Well, since they both died, at least they won’t have to miss one another and live life without each other.” They stood there and nodded, after I said that. But I immediately regretted saying that. I wish I would have never said it. I’m sure they understood that I was possibly talking out of my mind since my own brother had just died. They may have excused this comment. But still, “the spirit of thankfulness” can sometimes come off as grasping for something nice to say, when you should not say anything at all.
But is that what thankfulness is? A goofy, sentimental feeling of parents when they see their children and awkward forced optimism for those grieving?
That’s how I saw thankfulness up until about 6 years ago. Two events forced me to change my mind about the meaning and practice of thankfulness. Philippians 4:6-7 became my most “go-to” Bible verse in 2011 while I was in graduate school. Paul writes:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This passage basically got me through balancing work with finish my master’s degree. The idea of presenting my requests to God has profoundly affected my prayer life. However, it includes the word “thankfulness” as a part of verse 6. I could not just ignore or skip over the word. I needed to find out why it was placed here, in this verse that I thought about daily for about a year. Did I have to pray with thanksgiving?
Praying to God with a list of things that I am anxious about------that’s exciting and liberating. But how do you do it with “thanksgiving?” Asking this question set me on a path to answer why and how the New Testament talks about thanksgiving.
An Action Towards Thankfulness
My 2nd year of graduate school, I was meeting with my pastor Bill Goans from Greensboro. Bill and I met on Tuesday mornings. One morning he explained that he had been making big list of things he was thankful for. He handed me a book and said: “Don’t judge this book by its cover. It looks like a book for women, but don’t worry about that. This book is changing the way I think. You should read it Nathan.” The book cover had a woman in a white grandma dress leaning towards the camera holding a bird’s nest full of blue eggs. You could not see her face, but it was certainly not a book that I would ever pick up unless someone handed it to me. Hipster Christian women would certainly get this book: “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Right Where You” by Anne Voskamp. Because Bill told me to do it, I got a copy of the book.
Ann Voskamp trains her mind to transform what is happening in front of her and attribute these small things to God. After breaking down a phrase in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus says, she discovers the following:
“In the original language, “he gave thanks” reads “eucharisteo”. . .The root word of eucharisteo is charis, meaning “grace.” Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks. He gook the bread and knew it to be gift and gave thanks . . .Eucharisiteo, thanksgiving, envelops the Greek word for grace, charis. But it also holds its derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning “joy.”
From Voskamp’s breakdown of “he gave thanks” in Luke 22:19, she is inspired to keep a list of specific things that she sees in the world which are “gifts” from God. Like Jesus, she points out that recognizing that God has given a gift brings joy. Her list starts with simple things:
1. Morning shadows across the floor.
2. Jam piled high on the toast.
3. Cry of a blue jay from high in the spruce.
Her list points out very small things that she sees as direct gifts from God. This realization marked a significant change in the way Voskamp connected with God.
Voskamp says “If our fall was the non-eucharisteo, the ingratitude, then salvation must be intimately related to the giving of thanks.” Part of fall of man was the lack of gratitude that Adam and Eve had in the garden. Maybe gratitude is a way for me to re-connecting with God?
Did I believe, as a Christian, that God reached down into North Carolina life and intervened to make miracles happen on a regular basis? Yea. Did I believe that his hand was often invisible and I could not see Him working? Yea I do.
These was all intellectual facts that I knew, but partially understood. All of this was information stored in my brain. This took a new meaning when I started a list of “gifts” as Voskamp suggested in her book. I started to start my own list of gifts that I saw God giving me in 2012:
1. Trip to Grayson Highlands with Wes
2. The ability of stories to unite people (storytelling time with UNCG guys)
3. The friends of my friends who are extremely kind to me even though I do not know them.
Writing these specific things down, helped to develop a personal, internal gratefulness that I communicate directly with God. This is a private thing that only I knew about. Therefore, it was something that shaped my attitude daily towards God. I was telling God about the specific things that I have experienced, random-run ins with people I saw as I walked across campus at UNCG and meaningful conversations I had with family members.
Thankfulness is no longer this perfunctory, overly sentimental duty that I must do or hear being suggested to me. I believe I had to do something about it in order for me to understand thankfulness. Pierre de Caussade said “When one is thirsty one quenches one’s thirsty by drinking, not by reading books which treat this condition.” Yes, I heard people telling me about this for years.
But until I intentionally wrote down prayers to God, I did not understand it. Christians (like me) sometimes need to experience the verse in the Bible rather than simply skim over it. I had never tried it out. I began to understand the purpose of this when I started practicing what I "knew."
Six years later, I still practice this method of writing down what I am thankful for. It is now enjoyable to thanking God for what has happened to me that day. For the summer of 2017, here a few things I’ve written down:
6. I saw a shooting star at my parents’ house streak across the sky on my brother’s birthday at 10pm.
7. Days when I swim in the ocean and play volleyball with community college students and I feel like I have fully lived. And get paid to do it.
8. Working hard with a group of friends to complete a project of moving a friend from one workplace to another. Yet it is fun the entire time.
9. To have friends who want to sit around after working an unpack the definition of “cool” for 30 minutes.
I highly recommend grabbing a notebook or opening a Word document and writing down the "gifts" in your life. Apparently the words "with thanksgiving" were intentionally placed in Philippians 4. Yes, you might feel like this is a habit for grandmothers and 40 year old women attempting to become optimistic. I'd say you were wrong. This is for people in their 20's and 30's to practice. When we are directly being thankful to God privately, it takes away any "forced thankfulness" that we might feel obligated to express in a public situation at Thanksgiving. More importantly, it builds my relationship with God because I note his intervention into my life(a shooting star on my brother's birthday). This builds hope in a bleak world.