Some of us may not feel like entering into a season of thanksgiving and celebration, where all the happy people feel at home. Terrorist attacks, the in-your-face horrors of Planned Parenthood’s gruesomeness, plane crashes—all cause our stomachs to churn. Or, maybe you know suffering that won’t be televised, gaining the empathy of an entire nation—the loved one that struggles with relentless addiction, a terminal illness, a broken relationship, a good desire unfulfilled.
A friend of mine recently shared an article by Arthur C. Brooks, where he recalls a question his wife’s family posed during one of their first Thanksgivings: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”
It’s a question that many of us grapple with. It feels insincere to slap a smile on our faces, laugh with friends, and stuff our bellies with good food while feeling sad, empty and disappointed in our spirits. As Christians, we may especially wrestle with it, knowing that gratitude is demanded of us—and rightly so (Heb. 12:28-29). So, how do we deal with this?
Brooks has an interesting answer, even if solely from a psychological perspective: “Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.”
Rebelling against the negative impulses? Acting right even when we don’t feel like it? This advice, though without any biblical reference, makes me realize just how wise our God is.
Scripture often commands us to act differently than we feel and links it with being changed. We are to be transformed in our thinking (Rom. 12:1-2) and find joy in the midst of seemingly upside down things. For example, we’re called to rejoice in trials (Jam. 1:2; Rom. 5:3) and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18). Really, Lord? All? Sometimes it seems like too heavy of a load to bear.
Brooks goes on to explore a purely physiological reason some of us may have an easier time with this. You know, those friends who see the glass half full. All. The. Time.
Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.
Again, the wisdom of God is on display. I know some of those “mutants,” and even though I sometimes roll my eyes, I wish I could be more like them. God knows how we are knit together—where we excel and where the fall has severely affected us (Ps. 103:14; 139:13). He is acquainted with our sorrows and our suffering (Isa. 53:3; Heb. 4:15).
So God, in his mercy and wisdom, has given us the means by which we can actually be changed on the inside and express genuine gratitude. He puts a new spirit within us (Ezk. 36:26) so that we become obedient from the heart (Rom. 6:17). And he does this through his precious Son (Gal. 4:4-6).
Our earthly circumstances may not be much to look at or give thanks for. In fact, they may make us want to look away. On the other hand, our circumstances may be great. We will experience a constant flux of one or the other throughout our lives. So, ultimately, it’s not our circumstances that ought to motivate our sincere thanksgiving. The Lord, who is sovereign over each ebb and flow, should.
We’re called to rejoice in him—the one who takes our good, bad, happy, sad and everything-in-between circumstances and uses them for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Phil. 4:4; Rom. 8:28). He is the unshakable ground for our thanksgiving and gratitude. He is the one who is thoroughly good and always does right, even when we cannot see or comprehend (Ps. 119:68). And his Spirit is the one who enables us to be grateful toward our Creator even when Satan schemes against us, the world is falling apart, and our flesh fights back.
As Brooks quotes, Stoic philosopher Epictetus is onto something, though he may not have realized just how right he was. “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.” We Christians have so much. We have Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). We have a share in Jesus’s inheritance—one that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading (1 Pet. 1:4). We have a hundred-fold gain of whatever we’ve lost for his sake (Matt. 19:27-30). Ultimately, we have the very opposite of anything we ever deserved. We actually get what Jesus deserves. And, on top of that, we get him—the only one who can satisfy us with his steadfast love (Ps. 90:14).
So, choosing gratitude this holiday season will be a conscious belief issue for many of us—myself chief among them. Does the reality of what the Father has given us in Christ meet us in the day-to-day? Do we believe in his goodness? Do we grumble about what we don’t have, instead of giving thanks for what we do have? Are we choosing ingratitude (Rom. 1:21)? Do we want him, even if we have nothing else?
I need help to apply Brooks’ advice. “This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional “authenticity” that holds you back from your bliss.” As a Christian, how much more should I seek to put this into practice?
I’m not sure what “rebellion” looks like for you this holiday season. Maybe there’s no rebellion involved because you’re enjoying a season on cloud nine. But, some of you may stare at your gratitude list for a good 10 minutes before writing anything down. Or, maybe your thanksgiving is a true sacrifice offered through bottles and bottles of tears (Heb. 13:15). As a friend commented just the other afternoon, “Sometimes, all you can muster is, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief’” (Mark 9:24).
Let’s ask the Lord to help us rebel against unbelief—not just during the holidays but all throughout the year. It is right to give thanks to our God (Ps. 92:1). He is so worthy. And though we may not see it now, our perfect, eternal holiday of celebration is just around the corner.