"A thankful heart is one of the primary identifying characteristics of a believer. It stands in stark contrast to pride, selfishness, and worry. And it helps fortify the believer's trust in the Lord and reliance of His provision, even in the toughest times. No matter how choppy the seas become, a believer's heart is buoyed by constant praise and gratefulness to the Lord."
--John MacArthur, American pastor, teacher, speaker, author.
I have a love/hate relationship with Thanksgiving. I love the opportunity to take a break from the ordinary pace and routine of life to focus on my family and my friends, and even on the food. I love to watch the football games and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I love to go shopping on Black Friday, and I even love the built in reminder to press pause for a day and articulate my gratitude for the many blessings in my life. It’s actually this last part that creates the conflict for me. The whole thanks part of Thanksgiving sometimes feels contrived or forced, stirring up in me an acknowledgment that something may not be quite right in my life.
It’s very easy to think of giving thanks as something we do, and therefore it is easy to compartmentalize gratitude as having its proper time and place.I often wonder if I am even capable of true gratitude. Can I really be thankful for what I have when I do not know what it means to be without? Most in our community have always known plenty. A warm and safe home, food to eat, clothes to wear and people to love us. These have been a given. So, I often wonder if I am capable of understanding how blessed I am? Do I really know how fortunate I have been?
I wonder, can we be grateful when we are not content? Do I know how to be truly grateful during times of discomfort? Most often we are grateful when we feel content. I am thankful for my family because I am content with the love and relationships I experience. I am thankful for my friends because I am content with the richness they bring to my life. I am thankful for my job because I am content with the challenges and rewards I receive, and I am thankful for my children because I am content with the joy they bring to my life. Having everything we need can be a bit dangerous. As humans, our longing is always for more. I can easily convince myself that I am entitled to anything if I just work hard enough. When I feel entitled, contentment becomes my challenge. It’s easy to start thinking irrationally about what I might deserve (although it seems very rational in the moment).
I deserve everything I have because I work hard and sacrifice my time, energy, and resources
I deserve a good job because I’ve paid my dues
I deserve good kids because I have parented them deliberately and lovingly.
I deserve a nice car and a nice house because I’ve been careful with my earnings.
I deserve a nice vacation because I go above and beyond in my work and home life.
I deserve to be free of inconvenience at the hand of others because I work hard to keep my life organized
I deserve to be treated kindly, because most of the time I’m a pretty nice person
That’s a lot of “I deserves”.
Is my contentment dependent on having what I think I deserve? What happens when I don’t get what I think I deserve? What happens when life isn’t fair? Why do they have a bigger house? Why did they get another new car? Why don’t they seem to struggle with money? Why did God allow my loved one to be hurt, get sick or become estranged from me? Even if I don’t say these things, I sometimes think them.
What I have discovered is it often seems like contentment comes before gratitude. If I am content, I can give thanks. When I am satisfied and happy with what I have, I will give thanks to the Lord. When I think it all seems fair, then I feel good, thanking the Lord and telling Him, he did a good job. The problem is this…. Life isn't always fair and I actually don’t deserve anything, let alone what I think I deserve. I am not always satisfied and happy with what I have. I look around and envy, jealousy, disappointment, anger and discontent can take over in an instant.
And what I realize is, sometimes, I have it all backwards. God does not call us to be thankful when we are content — that would be situational and would certainly change from day to day and from hour to hour. I don’t actually deserve anything at all. I am a sinner and it is only by the Grace of God that I have been saved and given this blessed life to live. We are called to first cultivate authentic gratitude and thanksgiving as a discipline of the heart and only then will we really understand what contentment means.
There is perhaps, no greater example of this outside of Jesus himself, than the apostle Paul…
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will
for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Paul knew what it was to be in want, and to be in need and yet he triumphantly claimed that he had learned the secret to being content. He was rooted in Christ and his life was dedicated to the glory of Jesus and the spreading of the Gospel. It didn’t matter to Paul what he deserved, what mattered is what God deserved. Paul knew deeply and fully that Christ had willingly given His life for his salvation undeservedly! And it is for this reason - and this reason alone - Paul lived a life of deep and authentic thanksgiving. He received the gift of contentment. Thanksgiving should be the essence of who we are as Christians. It should be at our very core. They will know we are Christians by our love. They will know we are Christians by our thankfulness.
Don’t put the cart before the horse. This year, let us not wait to be thankful until we feel that someone or something, or even God, deserves our gratitude. Let’s be thankful first and always, knowing that all we have is undeserved, yet Christ loves us completely. Let’s allow a spirit of gratitude to transform us. Let’s allow thanksgiving and praise to be our buoys, and you know what….contentment will follow.
Andrea Bergstrom, Interim Head of School and Grammar School Principal