The words and verses are superimposed over photos of flowers and cornucopias, then plastered onto mugs and magnets: Give Thanks! They’re carefully calligraphed across reclaimed-wood wall plaques: Be Thankful! More than that, they’re repeated over and over in our Bibles.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1Thessalonians 5:16-18
As Christians, we’re well aware of the commands for thankfulness, and we can’t finagle the translation of any Greek words to get out of it – Although I sure wish I could some days.
For me, the idea of thankfulness comes with baggage. It can feel invalidating, fake, or saccharine sweet when contrasted with the often painful and bitter reality of my daily life.
Do you ever feel that way, too?
Sometimes I think this might be because I’m understanding thankfulness wrong. Let’s look at a couple misconceptions about thanksgiving that many of us get trapped in, and then we’ll dive into the heart of Biblical thanks.
Thankfulness Does Not Mean Ignoring Pain
This is big. It only takes reading a few Psalms (Psalm 12, 86, 94) to see that even our loudest songs of praise can also be filled with heart-wrenching cries of lament and sorrow. This is important to say because cheerful church cultures can unknowingly wield thankfulness like a weapon, silencing our suffering to avoid the discomfort of grief or doubt.
“How are you?” they ask. “Too blessed to be stressed! God is good!” we respond with a weak laugh, choking our pain down a bit deeper – A dull weight sinking heavy in our bellies where we hope no one will discover the real us, yet desperately hoping they might try.
As we enter our prayers with God we might do the same – Offering up a bright but hollow Christianese version of ourselves, hoping we might appease Him, unsure if He wants to know the real us (hint: He does!).
In the mental health world this is known as Spiritual Bypassing, which means using spiritual words, ideas, or practices to try to skip right past the hard and holy work of facing traumas, woundedness, or even just reality itself.
Spiritual Bypassing is a hollow positivity, and it isn’t true thankfulness. It eventually leaves us lonely, ashamed, and disconnected from God, others, and ourselves. Like the spiritual equivalent of an Instagram filter, we avoid authenticity and connection. This kind of grasping does not equal gratitude. Rather, as you plum the sorrows of your soul and the drama of your days, come to God with all of it.
Thanks-giving is holistic, so thank God for what you are thankful for and cry with Him about the areas that hurt. Bring your whole self and your whole story to the table. God formed you in all of your strength and fragility, and He loves each and every aching bit of you.
Thankfulness is Not Comparison
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector…’” Luke 18:10
As usual, the hyper-religious Pharisee in the parable above gets a few things wrong. And sadly, as usual, he reminds me a lot of myself. The Pharisee is looking at things, at other people, and at himself instead of looking toward God. Basically, he’s comparing.
We might think we’d never fall into this same self-sufficient trap, but how about this: “Eat your dinner and be grateful! There are starving kids who’d love to have what you have!” Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or said) this phrase. I know I have.
But is it thankfulness we are fostering, or comparison? Is it thankfulness we are fostering or smug superiority wrapped up in a spiritual bow? Does it make us thankful for what we have, or thankful that we’re not like those poor starving children?
Like Spiritual Bypassing, this kind of thankfulness is hollow, focusing more on things than on the Giver of All Good Things (James 1:17). This can sometimes be subtle or seem benign, but when we look at someone else’s plate, we’re always at risk of falling into the comparison trap and puffing up our own ego instead of truly thanking God. In the parable, Jesus goes on to describe another person who came to the temple that day. This one, the tax collector, prayed differently, crying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus goes on to applaud this man because of his humility.
Humility is, without question, the rich soil of thanksgiving.
If Biblical thankfulness isn’t Spiritual Bypassing or comparison, what is it? And how do we live it out? Let’s look now at the heart of thankfulness.
Thankfulness is Relational and Responsive
God doesn’t need our compliments, so when He tells us to be thankful, it isn’t to stroke His own heavenly ego or to tack on to our spiritual agenda. What God wants, what He always-and-forever wants, is a continuously connected, intimately loving and redeeming relationship with us (Ephesians 2:4-7).
Thankfulness is part of a reciprocal relationship as we revel in and respond to His movement in our hearts and in the world around us. Just as we become closer to our friends, spouse, or children when we actively look for and call out the things of beauty in them, we will find more intimacy with God when we move away from a to-do list and move into awe and wonder at the God of love, creator of sunsets and the Milky Way.
Although gratitude for gratitude’s sake is a healthy discipline for all, God is calling us to something much bigger and deeper. He’s calling us into relationship with Himself, giving both roots and fruit to our faith.
“Tune my heart to sing Thy grace” is how the hymn-writer puts it. Thankfulness is the grace-singing response to our attunement with God. It baptizes the mundane and bursts up from worldly waters dripping with a heavenly hymn.
So what does that look like in the often bleak and busy reality of our daily lives? For me, It means that as I go throughout my day, I simply (though not always easily) look for the holy of God. Sometimes this comes naturally and other times it’s more like what Hebrews 13:5 calls a “sacrifice of praise.”
When I’m with friends, I belly laugh and marvel at the God who created humor and joy.
His image is carved into each and every person we encounter.
Isn’t He beautiful?
Thank you, God.
On cold, rainy nights when I’m waiting and waiting at a bus stop, wishing I was at home, wishing I wasn’t in pain, wishing desperately that life had worked out differently, I cry to God and thank Him for His presence.
I thank Him for seeing me and for being a God who knows about suffering and aloneness. I may or may not thank God for my chronic pain and the ways He has redeemed it in my life. I’m not always thankful for that. But I can almost always be thankful for the way He meets me in the crushing middle of it, offering His love in both the stillness and the chaos of my suffering.
And later, as I watch my tenth cat youtube video for the night, I ask myself what these videos say about God. Who must He be to have created an animal as over-the-top, facetious, furry and fun as a cat? It might sound silly or trivial, but cats can lead us to thankfulness, too. Even if you’re a dog lover! When we look for God with humble parts, we are sure to find Him (Jeremiah 29:13).
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it like this:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Humbly pay attention.
Look for beauty.
Look for God.
Even in the darkness, you might just find you’re standing on holy ground.
Take off your shoes.
About the Author: Alyssa Zimmerman, like you, is incredibly loved by God. She anxiously offers up her cynicism, fear, and mustard-seed-faith in return. Constantly amazed by grace and relieved by redemption, Alyssa pursues truth, love, justice and Jesus in the midst of disabling chronic pain which has shaped the vast majority of her life and foiled her dreams for college, career, and a family. Instead, Alyssa became a high school dropout, living in poverty and pain, forced to spend most days in bed with an icepack. Nevertheless, she is committed to the great and messy work of therapy and mental health, wishing deep-down healing and wholeness for all.