When Thankfulness Is Hard

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Most often, I am truly thankful when I am not trying to be. There’s a sensation of gratitude overflowing in the soul when an unexpected blessing comes my way or when I happen to avoid an accident by some providential circumstance.

But when set occasions for thankfulness come around, such as the Eucharist or this holiday we call Thanksgiving, I find it difficult to replicate sincere gratitude which comes unexpectedly. Sure, I can always afford a few moments to say the prayer before devouring an inordinate amount of food on Thanksgiving. But deep down, I am painfully aware that this is not the same thankfulness that brings tears to my eyes after moments of crisis. It feels artificial, wrong even. Aware as I am of the fact that I am privileged beyond belief, there is no pain in my heart for those who are not. Tragically, I simply accept it as the reality and carry on, offering my lip service as though it is the best I have.

But this is not enough.

This is merely Cain’s offering, and we should strive to be like Abel, offering the best of ourselves to God. We are human beings endowed with spiritual faculties, not just lips. We were made for thanksgiving, as we are instructed in the holy Scriptures to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).

As Christians, we ought to approach this American holiday not as an occasion to be proud of the relative prosperity we enjoy in this country but as a call to aspire to the state of humility, love, and thanksgiving which Christ intends for us to exist in perpetually.

So what do we do when we find ourselves stuck in this thanklessness? How can we get ourselves out? Perhaps what makes this state of thanklessness so frustrating is exactly the point: we cannot get ourselves out. There is no thanksgiving without love, and love is a gift. We do not “think” love into existence whenever we happen to have a need for it. In order to be thankful, we must accept the gift of love from Christ who is Love. If our hearts are closed to this gift, we will have nothing to offer God when we attempt to give thanks.

This realization highlights two important details about thanksgiving. The first is that thanksgiving is not merely gratitude for the opportunity to consume large quantities of material possessions. St. Basil the Great reminds us that our material excess does not belong to us at all:

The bread you are holding back belongs to the hungry; the coat you guard in your locked storage-boxes belongs to the naked; the shoes wasting away in your closet belong to those who have no shoes. The silver you hide in safekeeping belongs to the needy one.

Should we find ourselves in a state of material abundance, it is important that we understand God’s gift of love is revealed in part through His provision for our needs, and with excess comes the responsibility and the opportunity to participate fully in His gift of love through giving. Mercy is itself an active part of thanksgiving.

The second detail is that in contemplating Christ’s gift of love for us, we understand that like love, thanksgiving has both a subject and an object. Almost every religion values gratitude in some way. Even secular self-help literature tells us of the psychological benefits of practicing gratitude in meditation. This is not a bad thing per se, but I wonder: just who are we to be thankful to? We cannot be thankful for without someone to be thankful to. As Christians, we do not offer up our thanksgiving to some impersonal abstraction of causality, but to a person, Christ.

So let’s remember when we come to the table this Thanksgiving and bow our heads to pray: thanksgiving is not a mere obligation but a perpetual state of being to which we have been called, made possible by love of our Christ our God, who has brought us out of non-being into existence and provides for our needs so that we may continue to exist, always commending ourselves and our whole life to Him.


Hello! I’m Daniel Bishop, and I’m an Orthodox Christian and a contributing blogger for OCF. I study English at the University of Dallas, and I’m involved with youth and young adult ministries in my parish, my OCF chapter, and my local pan-Orthodox community. I enjoy studying classical languages and literature, playing music, traveling, rock climbing, and chanting. Feel free to contact me at dbishop@udallas.edu if you have any questions or comments.

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