Magazine article The Christian Century

Learning to Give Thanks: Gratitude Takes Practice

Magazine article The Christian Century

Learning to Give Thanks: Gratitude Takes Practice

Article excerpt

NO ONE IS born thankful. Thankfulness doesn't come naturally to us, and sometimes it doesn't come at all. Rather, thankfulness is a quality that must be fostered and nurtured. But how? How do we teach our children to be thankful, and how do we lead ourselves in the ways of thankfulness? That question, though seemingly simple, is not easily answered.

We are enjoined in a variety of ways to count our blessings. Survey all that you have. Take stock of all you've been given. There is value in that, to be sure, but such an exercise does not in itself prompt thankfulness, because thankfulness has no direct correlation to abundance. If there were such a correlation, if we were given some abundance, we would be somewhat thankful, and if we were given more abundance, we would be more thankful. But it doesn't work that way, does it?

In fact, every Thanksgiving holiday we confront an irony: the more we have, the less likely we are to thank God. Continuous bounty doesn't always create thankfulness; sometimes it actually seems to stamp out thankfulness.

We live in a time of extraordinary abundance, but that hasn't led us to greater thankfulness. In fact, another defining characteristic of our age is that we live with an extraordinary sense of entitlement. We have much, and for the most part we have concluded that we deserve all that we have and probably more.

Let me put it another way: Who is tempted to claim that he is a self-made man or she is a self-made woman? Is it the person who has few of the world's goods and has known little of earthly success? Or the person who has been given much, owns much?

I once heard of a man who consistently boasted that he was a self-made man until an exasperated friend finally declared, "Well, sir, that relieves the Lord of a terrific responsibility."

Such an attitude also deprives the Lord of thanks. True thanksgiving begins with humility, the humility to recognize that we did not create ourselves, that everything we are and everything we have is a gift.

On The Simpsons, when Bart is asked to offer thanks at a family meal, he says, "Dear God, we bought all of this stuff with our own money, so thanks for nothing."

Bart Simpson's prayer summarizes the reigning sentiments of our age. Often the more we have, the more likely we are to say, "Thanks for nothing." After all, the implications of thanksgiving are greater when we have much. The stakes are that much higher. There is more to protect. Those of us who have much and desire more feel the need to isolate ourselves from the realization that ultimately we really own nothing, that everything is from God and is God's. So those of us who have substantial abundance fence in our accumulated goods and tell ourselves that everything we have is earned or deserved.

No, abundance doesn't necessarily lead to thankfulness. The very magnitude of what we have can numb us. I learned when my oldest child, Alanna, was very young that a visit to a toy store can be overwhelming for a young child. Not understanding money, she assumed that she could have anything she wanted. So she bounced about like a ball in a pinball machine, wanting this and that so frantically that she didn't pause long enough to want anything very much at all. There were so many toys in the store that she couldn't begin to appreciate any one toy.

We adults can be similarly numbed when we're bombarded by bounty. Give a person one square meal a day, and he or she will find time and reason to give thanks. But give a person an opulent feast every night, and it won't be long before he or she begins to quibble over whether the meal really deserves that three-star rating. Isn't this the way with us? We can have so many blessings that we fail to note any of them.

The apostle Paul's urging to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:18) is a reminder not just to those who are experiencing hardship, where blessings are few. …

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