Thanksgiving as a Way of Life
Another Thanksgiving is upon us. But it’s amazing how ungrateful people can be these days. One comedian quipped, “My grandfather tried to warn everyone that the Titanic was going to sink. Besides not believing him, they also expelled him from the movie theater!”
Ingratitude runs deep in the human race. But as Christians we are called to be thankful–even thankful in adverse circumstances. Martin Luther once said, “Unthankfulness is theft.” And “For what God gives I thank indeed. What He withholds I do not need.”
Christian writer Richard Dinwiddie once wrote, “Thanksgiving encompasses the whole of the Christian life…There are at least 140 references in Scripture to thanksgiving.”
We have to train our minds to actively give thanks because we have the natural proclivity to complain and murmur rather than praise and thank. The great Christian novelist from 19th century Russia, Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said of man: “If he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.” This comes from “Notes from Underground.”
Complaining is a mixture of ingratitude, lack of faith, and lack of memory. And that ingratitude negatively affects our quality of life. To combat the complaining spirit, my grandchildren like to use this phrase (usually on each other): “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
As Americans, I think it’s great that we have the tradition of an annual holiday of giving thanks to God. (Not that everyone spends Thanksgiving that way–but that’s the purpose of it.)
The Pilgrims set the trajectory for Thanksgiving celebrations in America with their harvest celebration in the fall of 1621. Our Thanksgiving tradition goes back to them.
If anyone had a reason to complain, it should easily have been them.
The Pilgrims began as a separatist congregation in England when it was illegal to have services apart from the Church of England. Eventually they were able to migrate to Holland where at least they experienced tolerance. And eventually they came to America where they could worship Jesus in the purity of the Gospel. None of these steps were easy.
The first winter they were in the New World, half their number died. When their meager harvest was gathered in about October 1621, they celebrated for 3 days of thanks-giving and food and fellowship with about 90 Indians that joined them. These were their new friends with whom they had made a long-lasting peace treaty and from whom they purchased the land. Above all, the Pilgrims thanked God that, despite one obstacle after another, God in His providence allowed them to come so they could worship Him.
Fast forward to today, and we learn from modern science that being thankful is good for you. It changes you.
For example, here’s one headline: “Neuroscience Reveals: Gratitude Literally Rewires Your Brain to be Happier.” The article notes: “When you say, ‘thank you,’ do you really mean it or is it just politeness to which you give little attention? Neuroscientists have found that if you really feel it when you say it, you’ll be happier and healthier. The regular practice of expressing gratitude is not a New Age fad; it’s a facet of the human condition that reaps true benefits to those who mean it.”
For a radio segment, I once spoke with Dr. Joannie DeBrito, a licensed mental health therapist and a contributor to Focus on the Family, about giving thanks. She told our listeners: “Gratitude is something that, as science has shown, rewires your brain and allows you to actually feel better. We find that as people express gratitude, there’s dopamine. Dopamine is that feel-good chemical that releases in your brain to make you want to do more of whatever you’re doing before you do something that makes you feel good from the dopamine.”
She says a gambler might get that release of dopamine, “And that’s kind of what keeps them in that addictive cycle. But the opposite is true. There can be good things that happen with that dopamine release. So, as people express gratitude, there is more dopamine release. So it makes them want to continue to express gratitude. Gratitude is like the gift that keeps on giving.”
In a 2017 article from Berkley.edu, entitled, “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain: New research is starting to explore how gratitude works to improve our mental health,” Joshua Brown and Joel Wong observe: “Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.”
In short, Thanksgiving should be reminder for us to give thanks regularly. How nice to have an annual reminder of what could be a daily practice.
Dr. Jerry Newcombe is the executive director of Providence Forum, a division of D. James Kennedy Ministries, where Jerry also serves as senior producer and an on-air contributor. He has written/co-written 33 books, including (with D. James Kennedy), What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? and (with Dr. Peter Lillback), George Washington’s Sacred Fire.