(The piece below was published in the current issue of American in Britain, a magazine for the American expat community. The series on Romans continues next week)
The calendar tells me that this is the season to be thankful. Kids are back in school, the air is a bit crisper, and the leaves are clogging up the drains near our flat. That can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is coming. ‘Tis the season to be thankful.
So much has happened in the last year or so. The economy (in a stunning understatement) has struggled, conflicts around the world have dragged on with tragic losses, and we’ve seen the ways that partisanship in both Britain and America can stifle progress across a wide range of issues.
Sometimes it’s hard to feel thankful.
First off, before I write anything else about this, let me be very clear. Being thankful doesn’t mean we close our eyes to the problems around us that need solving. Being thankful doesn’t mean that we fail to hear the cries for help and mercy in our midst and around the world. I say that because too many people equate faith with a lack of awareness or realism. Too many people will assume that to believe in a God with a plan, or a world with a purpose, is to be ignorant somehow of what is really happening around us.
I don’t think that’s true.
Challenging times make it difficult to experience the joy that springs from feeling thankful, but rejecting thankfulness altogether isn’t exactly a helpful response. Challenging times, more than any other, remind us that thankfulness is a discipline and not a feeling. Uh-oh. I know I’ve said a bad word there, so since it’s out of the bag already I’ll say it again.
Thankfulness is a discipline.
Thankfulness is a discipline that takes practice to fully enjoy. It’s not dependent upon a feeling that blows through us whenever it wants to, like some Romantic inspiration, only to go away until it magically reappears. Thankfulness is something that we practice—something we train ourselves to do as a regular part of healthy, hopeful living. In other words, thankfulness is our responsibility to learn and to develop and to share.
John Calvin may be the least popular theologian of the Protestant Reformation, but 2009 is the 500th anniversary of his birth and so I’ve been reading more of his writing. He wrote:
“The contemplation of God’s goodness in his creation will lead us to thankfulness and trust.”
Now that statement has one major leap of faith in it—the belief that God’s goodness is something we can see around us. It’s a leap of faith, I know, but I believe it to be true. Say what you will about the bad news we hear every day—on balance this life still offers far more beauty and wonder than anything on the other side of the ledger. As much as it might pain us to say it, Calvin is 100% right here. When we allow ourselves to think—to contemplate—on the parts of our lives we know to be good, the end result is thankfulness and trust.
Calvin’s point is that thankfulness is the product of knowing—or struggling to believe—that God loves the world and everything in it. Calvin would boldly say that faith like that makes it possible for us to live through our times of struggle:
“Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge.”
What are you thankful for this season?
As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, with all the food and fellowship (and sports) that it represents, how can we discipline ourselves to think about God’s goodness in our lives? Believing that takes practice—it requires us to take some big and small steps of faith to connect the blessings in our lives to their source. It takes practice, but it makes all the difference in the way that we approach every single day.
My prayer for you—and for me—this season is that our awareness of God will lead to gratitude of mind, patience in adversity, and as much freedom from worry about the future as we can muster.
From our church to all of you, may God bless you with a tangible sense of gratitude during this holiday season.