As we approach Thanksgiving, our thoughts turn to giving thanks for all the good things the Lord has done and provided, especially since the beginning of the year. At the same time, we know that gratitude is a virtue that we should continually pursue as followers of Christ. In what follows, we’ll consider several ways we can grow in the often-neglected virtue of gratitude and make it part of our daily lives.
Called to Give Thanks
Before we start, it’s important to recall how much the giving of thanks is emphasized in Scripture. The Psalms encourage God’s people to “come before him with thanksgiving” and to “give thanks to him and praise his name” (Ps. 95:2; 100:4). Jesus gave thanks for God’s provision when he fed the multitudes and at the last supper (Luke 9:16; Matt. 26:26-27). Paul regularly expressed gratitude to God (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:57; 2 Cor. 2:14), and instructed believers to give thanks in all circumstances, as well as in our prayers (1 Thess. 5:18; Phil. 4:6). The book of Revelation gives a preview of both angels and humans giving thanks to God in heaven (Rev. 7:12).
All of this suggests that thanksgiving should be a way of life for God’s people. Yet, gratitude is a spiritual habit that is developed over time, and often doesn’t come naturally. Below, we’ll consider three ways that we can grow in and practice thankfulness.
Gratitude grows from the root of humility. Humility flows from the recognition that all we are and have are gifts from God—our existence, the universe we live in, every good thing we enjoy, our salvation, to name a few. When we recognize that these are gifts and not something we’re entitled to, the natural response is gratitude. It’s notable that the opposite of humility, pride, was the root cause of the rebellion of Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve (Ezek. 28:12-17; Gen. 3). Pride blinds us to God’s goodness and our dependence on him.
When we recognize that these are gifts and not something we’re entitled to, the natural response is gratitude.
The book of Proverbs equates humility with “the fear of the Lord”—that is, a proper respect for God’s authority and sovereignty—and adds that humility’s wages “are riches and honor and life” (Prov. 22:4). Similarly, James observes that “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6; Prov. 3:34). God wants us to acknowledge his authority, and rewards those who do. Reflecting on God’s status as Creator and ours as fortunate recipients of his good gifts helps us cultivate an attitude of humble thanksgiving.
Remember God’s Blessings
Ingratitude often stems from forgetfulness—of who God is, as we just saw, or what he has done for us. As Bernard of Clairvaux observed, “Ingratitude is a searing wind which dries up the springs of pity, the dew of mercy, the streams of grace.” Yet, we can reawaken our sense of thankfulness to God by remembering some of the amazingly gracious things he has done for us, especially in relation to salvation. Meditating on the following points, to which many more could be added, can remind us of the multitude of ways God has blessed us—even when we experience life’s trials. We can give thanks for/that:
- God’s goodness and mercy (Ps. 106:1; 107:1; 136:1–3)
- The nearness of God’s presence (Ps. 139:8)
- The supply of our physical needs (Phil. 4:19)
- Jesus’ sacrifice to reconcile us with God (1 Peter 3:18)
- Victory over death and the grave (1 Cor. 15:20-22)
- Deliverance from indwelling sin (Rom. 7:23-25)
- Being more than conquers (Rom. 8:37)
- We are God’s workmanship (Eph. 2:10)
- The very hairs of our head are numbered (Luke 12:7).1
What else would you add to this list?
Appreciate the Ordinary
As we navigate the challenges of everyday life, it’s easy to take the ordinary for granted. But our daily path is strewn with God’s mundane blessings—the rising and setting of the sun, the stars, a gentle breeze, a friend’s laughter. As the English poet William Blake expressed it,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Through the prophet Zechariah, the Lord warned the people of Judah not to “despise the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10). Although the disciples tried to shoo them away, Jesus took time to bless small children (Matt. 19:13-14), and commended servants who had been faithful “with a few things” (Matt. 25:21). He took the time to admire the beauty of a flower, declaring that “not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Matt. 6:29). As pastor and author Joshua Kang helpfully notes,
When we experience God’s grace, our perspective is changed, and we are able to recognize the good in the ordinary. We see the good side of the people we meet, and the light in the midst of darkness. We learn to appreciate any kind of person and any circumstance, often being impressed and touched by nearly everything around us. When that happens, we notice God’s love in every situation. We become grateful for everything we enjoy, seeing how undeserving we are.
To grow in the depth of your gratitude toward God, make it a habit to pay attention to the commonplace, and recognize God’s fingerprints on the everyday blessings in your life.
Giving Thanks in Community
Like other elements of spiritual growth, church is one of the best places to practice, model, and teach gratitude. Below are a few suggestions for ways church leaders can emphasize this biblical virtue.3
- As appropriate, incorporate the vocabulary of gratitude into prayers, preaching, and worship. All three naturally lend themselves to expressing thanks to God, and can model the importance of giving thanks.
- Preach a sermon or teach a lesson on one of the many psalms that emphasize thanksgiving, or on Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers in which only one returned to give thanks (Luke 17:11-19).
- As a warm-up activity for church meetings or small-group gatherings, ask each person to share something they’re thankful for.
- Children’s classes can create a “gratitude tree” and pin leaves to it that share something each child is thankful for.
- During services and meetings, help create a culture of gratitude by publicly thanking those who contribute and serve in various ways.
- Share videos of church members giving their testimonies and thanking God for how he has transformed their lives.
- Encourage members to keep a gratitude journal, or to incorporate things they’re grateful for into their prayer or Bible study journals—especially answered prayers.
Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, Beliefnet, and other sites.