Just about every culture has a time for celebrating the harvest and thanking God for another year’s provision. In the United States, Thanksgiving goes back to the early colonial times. Even though most of us are not farmers, millions of people still take time to show gratitude to God for providing for our needs.
There is a curious thing about this annual holiday, however: It has become easy to confuse “thanksgiving” with comparing. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear people say something like, “I am thankful for all I have because there are many people who do not have it as good.” Or, “I am thankful that I have a job, because there are a lot of people who are unemployed.”
While statements like these seem like expressions of gratitude, they also seem a little bit like saying we are thankful that we are not like THOSE folks. I wonder: When did the observance of Thanksgiving Day become a game of comparisons.
Being thankful should not be about seeing how much better off we are than some other people. Instead, it should be about willingness to be content and happy with who we are and whatever state we find ourselves – not compared to someone else.
This day should be about being grateful for the small things that make life worth living. Not only material things, but also things like health (or having peace and hope in the midst of poor health); friends and family that we love; and the abilities and innate gifts that we possess that we can use for the benefit of others. Looking down on someone less fortunate than us – or looking up to people we consider more fortunate than we are – is never healthy.
Thankfulness should look a lot more like contentment than searching to find somebody that in some way appears less fortunate than we are. The apostle Paul stated it this way: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:11-12).
I realize “contentment” is considered a dirty word in some circles. After all, should we not always be striving for more? Not necessarily. Jesus told His followers, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
On the other hand, contentment should not be confused with complacency. Other words for contentment are happiness, or peace of mind. It has to do with knowing yourself, having an honest appraisal of who you are and what you can do, and knowing that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing.
For some people this is a hard statement, but it is essential nonetheless. We should accept who we are and where we are, be happy to be alive, and show gratitude for every breath we take. More than anything, Thanksgiving should be the time of year when we pause to give special thanks to God for being alive and having the ability to love and care for one other.
Jim Mathis is the owner of a photography studio in Overland Park, Kansas, specializing in executive, commercial and theatrical portraits, and operates a school of photography. Jim is the author of High Performance Cameras for Ordinary People, a book on digital photography. He formerly was a coffee shop manager and executive director of CBMC in Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri.
1. What does “Thanksgiving” mean to you?
2. Being honest, when you take time to be thankful – whether on Thanksgiving Day or at any other time – what kinds of things are you most grateful for?
3. Have you ever thought about Thanksgiving Day being, as Mr. Mathis suggests, a “game of comparisons”? Even if it is, what is wrong with that? Explain your answer.
4. How do you respond to the idea that true thanksgiving requires a willingness to be content with ourselves and the circumstances surrounding us, good or bad?
If you would like to look at or discuss other portions of the Bible that relate to this topic, consider the following brief sampling of passages:
Psalm 30:11-12, 75:1, 92:1-5, 100:1-5; Philippians 1:3-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, 5:16-18