Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.—1 Thessalonians 5:18
…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.—Ephesians 5:20
Last month I spent two weeks in India, and then flew back home in time for Thanksgiving. I went from seeing extreme examples of poverty to the Denver airport, where a cheeseburger is 16 dollars. One day I was eating rice and missing toilet paper, and the next I was sleeping in my own comfortable bed in my own warm house, well-fed and surrounded by loved ones.
And then came our Thanksgiving feast. A couple of my kids were sick, so we didn’t have anyone else over, but it was still a time of being reminded just how blessed we are. The fire was warm, and the food was delicious and plentiful. I was reminded once again that my life is really, really good.
So of course, it’s tempting to write an article about how thankful I am for all of these blessings, especially in light of all the poverty and need I’ve seen recently. And I am thankful. But I think it would be a mistake to do that and tell myself I was honoring the Thanksgiving holiday by doing so. In fact, I would be missing the point entirely. Because if Thanksgiving is about having plenty of food and material comforts, then what do poor people have to be thankful for? Is the holiday just a reminder of what they don’t have? Is it only for certain privileged people to enjoy?
The Bible has a lot to say about thankfulness. But almost none of it is about thanking God for money and stuff. A few times it reminds us that God is the source of all the good things in our lives, and of course we should thank and praise Him for that. Most of the time, however, it’s talking about gratitude for unseen things. We thank God for creating us, and giving us not only bodies but souls—for the gift of life itself. We thank Him for the peace and joy He can give us in any circumstance. We thank Him for the comfort and companionship of His Spirit. We thank Him for forgiveness, for His incredible, undeserved love, for His compassion and kindness despite our sin. Above all, we thank Him for the gift of His Son, for Christ’s life and death and resurrection that makes it possible for us to become His children. We thank Him for a thousand spiritual blessings that the world can’t see, doesn’t understand, and can never take away.
The thing about all of these spiritual blessings is that they are available to anyone, regardless of how much or how little money they have. Our culture has made Thanksgiving into a holiday that is all about external things. We are thankful for health and comfort, for family, for material blessings. Of course we are. But what if someone doesn’t have those things? What if their health is failing? What if their family is broken? What do we do when life isn’t that great? The answer comes when we remember Christ. When we remember that He created us, loves us, died for us, and rose for us, we have a reason to give thanks. Because He is with us now and we will be with Him forever, we can always be grateful.
The same thing has happened with Christmas, by the way. Our world has made Christmas another holiday that celebrates material things. If you have the money to buy everyone you love nice gifts, then it’s a good Christmas. If you can gather your family around the perfect Christmas tree and serve them a delicious meal, it’s a good Christmas. But what if you’ve recently lost your job? What if you’ve recently lost a loved one? Is Christmas ruined? It certainly won’t look like a Hallmark movie. But if Christmas isn’t about material things, then there’s hope. If Christmas is about things that this world can never take away, then Christmas can be for everyone.
The truth is that Christmas is the perfect holiday for someone who is lonely, or grieving, or desperate, or stressed out, because it’s not supposed to be a celebration of material blessings. It’s not a competition to see who can have the perfect postcard life. It’s a time to remember that when we were lost in sin, God looked on us with love and pity and came near. It’s a time to celebrate that He took on flesh, and he knows what it’s like to be hungry. He knows what physical pain feels like, and heartache too. In the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs, He was “bending low to be among us.” Jesus’ life wasn’t much like a Hallmark movie. It was like my life, and your life. He experienced human life so that we could experience His life, which means that at this time of year we all have a reason to celebrate, wherever we live, whatever we’re going through, and however much or little we have.