On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Officially established as an annual observance by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the day has become a major holiday—marked by family, feasting, football, and a televised parade featuring giant helium balloons. Sadly, the practice of thanksgiving is often momentary and superficial, if it even happens at all.
But, for Christians, thanksgiving is not merely incidental. It is central to our life.
In one of the most familiar passages in Scripture, the apostle Paul exhorts us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). It couldn’t be any clearer: thanksgiving is always God’s will for us.
The Bible calls us to give thanks at all times (Ps. 34:1), in all places (Ps. 48:10), and from one generation to the next (Ps. 79:13). Thanksgiving will also be the work of eternity—where we will join the heavenly company in an unceasing hymn of thanksgiving (Rev. 4:8-11, 11:16-18, 19:6-8).
Biblical thanksgiving is not merely false cheer slapped on the surface of otherwise bad circumstances. Biblical thanksgiving is our acknowledgment that God is accomplishing his eternal purposes, even when we cannot clearly see what he is doing. We “give thanks in all circumstances” because we trust that those very circumstances come from the powerful and gracious hand of our covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.
By contrast, the Bible strongly warns us against ingratitude. In Romans 1, we read a sober description of the ungodly: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (v. 21). Thanksgiving is central to the Christian life; ingratitude is entirely contrary to it.
Unexpected and unwelcome circumstances—a job loss, a fractured bone, a bruised relationship—often leave us feeling uncertain, frantically wondering what we should do next. But our steps are not as unclear as we often assume. God’s will for us in all circumstances is thanksgiving. Without hesitation, we can thank him for his sovereign care and gracious purpose in all the details of our lives, accepting from his hand even the difficulties of the present moment.
And we can use even the minor frustrations of our day as opportunities to practice giving thanks to God. Rain on your picnic? Give thanks to the God who sends the clouds to water the earth (Job 5:10). Traffic on your commute? Give thanks to the God who establishes your way (Prov. 16:9). Sinus headache on your day off? Give thanks to the God who made you and takes cares of you (Ps. 139:1-6).
In every moment of an ordinary day, God presents us with manifold opportunities—big and small—to develop the holy habit of thanksgiving.
What’s more, in the act of giving thanks, we will find contentment for whatever happens next. In his book, Thanksgiving, David Pao writes: “When thanksgiving is understood as establishing the fact that God is a powerful and faithful God who can and will fulfill his promises, thanksgiving becomes the basis for trusting God in the face of an uncertain future.”
What recent, unexpected event has left you feeling shaken? When you encounter such circumstances, do you ever find yourself anxiously wondering what you should do next? The answer may be simpler than you imagined.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Megan Hill’s new book Contentment: Seeing God’s Goodness (P&R, 2018), a 31-day devotional for Christians seeking to cultivate contentment.