Recently asked to list what he was thankful for on a turkey crafted from construction paper, my kindergartner wrote “Disney.” It’s a reference to a long-planned Orlando vacation our family is taking soon. The trip has been at the forefront of my son’s mind. Like the turkey declaration, every other thing that comes out of his mouth these days has something to do with our imminent trip.
It’s no surprise that a six year old would be thankful for a trip to Disneyworld. Kids don’t require much deliberation when considering what they’re thankful for. We grown-ups have to spend a little more time thinking about it. Perhaps that’s because, as adults, we don’t tend to think of ourselves as indebted. We pay our own bills. We provide our own means. We earn and purchase our own toys. So what’s there to be thankful for? If anything, somebody should be thanking us, right?
Perhaps we would have less trouble listing those things for which we are grateful if Christmas came before Thanksgiving instead of the other way around. Christmas reminds us how much we have to be thankful for, but a full month after we sit down to give thanks.
Fundamentally, being thankful means setting aside your pride and acknowledging the contribution of another. When I say “thank you,” I am saying that I could not do X without you. That’s a radical confession in our modern, self-centered culture, one which I imagine we don’t always mean, or at least temper with unspoken qualifications. I could have done X, but I appreciate you doing it for me this time. Maybe I’ll do something similar for you to square things up later.
The Christmas story presents an entirely different order of gratitude. The advent and work of Jesus Christ provided something which its beneficiaries could never obtain on their own, and can never pay back. It reminds us that we owe thanks for everything that we have, even those things which we earned for ourselves, because our very capacity to earn was gifted.
Yielding to that idea can be tough. Our culture is one of rugged independence and stubborn individualism. Those tendencies have merit to a point. But if there’s a purpose to Thanksgiving beyond its holiday traditions, it’s taking the time to reflect upon how independent we’re not. God provides even our capacity to provide for ourselves. Our mealtime prayers pay lip service to that idea. But our thinking doesn’t always follow suit.
Thinking ahead to Christmas should be especially effective for getting believers in the mindset for Thanksgiving, because the Gospel presents the most radical cause for giving thanks. Anyone who believes in any kind of god might be thankful for existence. But the Christ provided more than that. He provided a means for salvation from sin, a resurrection from death to life, and title to sit with him in heavenly places. Christians spend their lifetimes struggling to comprehend the magnitude of these gifts. But one thing that should become clear is that we have no reason to boast.
Boasting is the antithesis to gratitude. Boasting presents the self as worthy of praise. A boastful attitude precludes thankfulness. Indeed, a boastful man finds the prospect of gratitude offensive. If we find ourselves unable to immediately list off those things for which we are grateful, as easily as a child might, it may be because we suffer from a boastful heart.
In this culture, such an attitude is understandable. It’s encouraged by the daily influences in our lives. We need to advocate for ourselves, to sell ourselves, to advertise our value to the world. We do so in competition with everyone around us, scrambling to lay claim to the things we want. That’s how this world works and, to some extent, we can’t get away from its requisite mindset. That’s why Thanksgiving can be so jarring. The holiday season starts with this abrupt call to be thankful in a world where we’re typically not.
Today, I’m thankful for the reminders God has placed in my life to remain thankful. It’s a bit meta. But that’s his style. He provided all and keeps providing and never plans to stop. His well of provision proves infinite, and so too should our gratitude.