It’s that time of year that we hear about thankfulness. Here in the US we’re all about autumn leaves, turkeys, and signs saying “Give Thanks.” As a Christian, especially an anxious Christian, I know God says to be thankful on more than one food-filled day in November.
Yes, He says to be thankful always. But why? What are the benefits of being thankful? And how can we pull it off in the midst of hard days?
I want to suggest we were made to give thanks, and that’s why there are benefits to being thankful. Also, God tells us to be thankful, meaning He’s given us means to do it, even when we don’t feel it.
First, the benefits of being thankful
Let’s start with the simple stuff. What ARE the benefits of being thankful? Well, a Harvard study from 2011 puts it this way:
“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” (Harvard, 2011)https://uoflhealth.org/articles/being-thankful-benefits-your-health/
I went through a whole bunch of secular websites, and they agreed and added a few more specific benefits of being thankful. They include improved sleep, reduced aggression, more and better relationships, improved physical health including lower blood pressure and improved immune system, improved/reduced stress responses, and greater happiness. There are others, but they all fit pretty well into these categories.
So, our minds, bodies, and souls improve when we practice gratitude and thankfulness.
How can gratefulness change so much?
The secular sites all had their opinions, but I think the truth is that we were made to be thankful. I was raised on the Westminster shorter catechism, which is a book of Christian basics from the mid-1600s, and question one says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Glorify Him. One online thesaurus says glorifying includes blessing and giving thanks for. We cannot glorify someone if we are not thankful for his existence.
We were made, then, to look outside ourselves and focus on God and be thankful and joyful and grateful and happy about his existence, and then we are to enjoy that existence forever.
I was never made to spend all my time inside my head. Ask anyone with anxiety or depression, and they’ll agree—our heads can be super messed up and not benefit us at all. A great way to change focus is to look out, and a positive way to look out is looking for reasons to be thankful.
What does God say?
Usually I put my Bible verses, if I include them, at the end of my posts, but today I’m going to share a few here at the front end. The benefits of being thankful are many, but I think it will have more impact if we let the Words of the God who made us to be thankful tell us how to use that thankfulness.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Psalm 107:1
David and the other Psalmists do this a lot. They thank God for a specific character trait or action. They thank him for a victory, for his righteousness, for his deeds. Here are a couple more:
I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. Psalm 9:1 At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. Psalm 119:62
Now let’s hit the New Testament.
From Paul and John…
Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. Eph. 5:4
Thanksgiving is a way of communicating with others. We are to do it out loud, and it takes the place of some of the nonsense we verbalize throughout our days.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6
We don’t just ask God for things. Instead, we couch those requests in terms of thankfulness. Why? I think there are two reasons. First, sometimes listing my struggles to God overwhelms me. But talk to Him about how I know these struggles are for my good, how I trust His protection through all of it, how I am thankful to know I have not stepped outside his care? By reframing my requests in thankful terms, I am less likely to be overwhelmed by them.
Also, we give thanks when we ask because we trust Him who answers. David did this constantly in the Psalms, asked God for something and then praised and thanked him before God ever answered. We ask, and we thank God because we trust His answers, whatever they are.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17
The Message ends this verse saying we are to give God thanks every step of the way. Each step we take, each thing we do or say, is done with thought of Christ and with thankfulness to God. Without God we couldn’t do any of it.
...Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:18-20
This verse is rough, but it also gives answers for my next question. It says to give thanks for everything. Everything. Let that sink it. I admit I do not give thanks for everything. I have no idea how to pull that off. It feels impossible. But never fear…
However, we’re going to hold that until we look at one more verse, and then we’ll get to the two big questions: Why is this so hard, and how can I do it?
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” Revelation 7:11-13
Yep, when we give thanks to God, we join in a heavenly chorus doing the same thing. We sing with angels, with the creatures around the throne, with the elders and the multitudes in white robes. We can do on earth what is done in heaven.
Why is this hard?
I already said I’m not sure how to be thankful for everything. How about you? And part of putting that command into action is knowing what’s holding us back.
Strangely, I wrote about this very thing in one of my fiction books. A group of teens was studying thankfulness in youth group, and the leader asked this exact question. The big answer was that it’s hard to complain while giving thanks. If I am thankful for something, I can’t whine about it. And when life is rough, I want to whine. I want to feel sorry for myself. I want to be angry. And I can’t do that and give thanks, too.
Another answer was that we compare what we have to what others have. If I am thankful for what I have, I can’t envy what someone else has. And sometimes I choose envy.
And yet another is simply forgetfulness and mindset. It takes time to see everything through a lens of gratitude, and I haven’t practiced it.
So gratitude, while something I am made to do, doesn’t come naturally, not in a broken world. What can I do to cultivate it?
If you look back at the verses, you’ll see we already answered that question, or rather God did. First, it is hard to be thankful in the midst of crisis. I don’t want to discount that or make this sound simple. But David gives us some hints.
First, if you can’t find something in your personal life for which to give thanks, focus on God. Give thanks for His character, for things He’s done in the past, for the promises He has yet to fulfill. Sometimes it’s best to take the focus off self completely until you can see more clearly God’s view of things.
Second, give preemptive thanks. Ask for help and then give thanks for the answer before the answer comes. David does it in many psalms. He points out that enemies are at his door and the situation feels helpless. Then he sings praise, thanks God, and heads out to the field hoping for the best. God blessed that, too. David died as the king, his nation never fully defeated by enemies, although he did lose a few battles along the way. We can trust God, so we can always give thanks for what He will do.
Finally, do it out loud. Publicly. Both David and Paul mention thanksgiving verbally. Paul says to do it instead of telling coarse jokes or speaking nonsense. David, of course, sings his praise and thanksgiving, accompanied with instruments and sometimes done in the midst of the assemblies. Don’t keep it to yourself. What we say can solidify what we think.
The next answer to the question of how to give thanks in everything is in the Ephesians verse. We can’t do it. Heave a sigh of relief, because it’s hard and you’re not expected to do it alone. No, Paul says it’s related to being filled with the Spirit. I’ve been studying the fruit of the Spirit with some family members, and we don’t always remember that none of that fruit happens outside of the Spirit. That can be a full post—or series of posts—on its own, so let’s just spend a short time suggesting how to live filled with the Spirit.
- Know the Bible. The Spirit brings to mind what God has said, so it helps to know what God has said. The more you know your Bible, the easier it is to let the Spirit speak to you.
- Deal with sin. Sin puts a barrier between us and God. Take care of that regularly.
- Obey. Jesus says this more than once, that the way to remain in Him is to obey His words. This ties right back in to knowing the Bible. We can’t obey what we don’t know.
Maybe this year instead of just eating turkey or visiting with family for Thanksgiving, you can begin a journey to live with more gratitude. Memorize some verses about giving thanks. Determine what holds you back, and repent if it turns out to be sin. If it turns out to be laziness, put some new rhythms in place, like journaling gratitude or memorizing Scripture or adding thanksgiving to your quiet time.
Then make a plan to be thankful and live it out. The goal is a full mindset change. We want to become who God made us to be, people who glorify Him and give thanks for His character and His plans and His gifts. We want to live in His Spirit and obey on a regular basis.
As we look at the benefits of being thankful, we see that being thankful is a big step to that end.
Just for fun, I took all the verses in this post and turned them into a single page of printable verse cards. Print them on cardstock and keep them close if you need a little reminder to give thanks for all things.
Thoughts? Questions? I’d love to chat. Just comment below.