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Thanksgiving messages always seem to sound like such a scolding: we ought to give thanks.

Think about all the things you have and all of the other people who have nothing. 

There, now: give thanks.

Don’t concentrate on what is missing; be grateful for what you have.

There, now: give thanks.

Ungrateful people are losers.

There, now: give thanks.

The problem: Guilt is a terrible motivation for giving thanks. When I read Bible passages instructing me to give thanks, it can sound the same way:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

On my grumpy days, I feel like talking back to the Scripture, “Don’t tell me to be happy! Do you think I could put it on from the outside?” (Here’s a happy-coat, why don’t you put it on?) And yet, giving thanks is the will of God. So if it’s the will of God, shouldn’t I simply try harder, be obedient, and say thank you?

For example, frequently we teach children to say please and thank you as a matter of courtesy—as a way of teaching them how to get along in society. It’s the price they must pay to get their milk and cookies. We’re more concerned with the outward performance of good manners than we are with true gratitude. 

As we approach Thanksgiving in the United States this year, I’m beginning to discover there’s a difference between giving thanks and having a thankful heart. I’m also beginning to discover that the Father cares more about thankfulness that flows from the inside out than obedience we wear like a cheap suit.

Paul’s words in Thessalonians have something to teach us about the will of God: does the Father want outward compliance or a heart capable of expressing his will and doing it naturally? Of course, it’s always better to obey than not to obey, but I think he’s after more than mere obedience—he knows thankfulness is the best thing for us. He knows that when our hearts respond with prayers of joy and gratitude to the situations of life, we are responding out of Christlessness and not simply parroting the company line.

Rather than hearing thankfulness as a command, perhaps we can hear it as an invitation:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:15-16)

God is not honored when we tell him what we think he wants to hear—even though we don’t believe it. He knows better. He is honored (and we are healthiest) when our hearts and minds flow naturally with his. In this season, we do well to recognize that included in the flow is a heart-condition called thankfulness.



Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His newest book is Deeper Grace, a guide to the connection between grace and spiritual maturity. Ray currently lives in central Kentucky, coaching and consulting church leaders. You can visit his blog at Students of Jesus.

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Edwin Crozier

commented on Nov 22, 2013

This is an absolutely great point. And I know you are dealing with one side of a problem. That being, folks who think offering a token prayer of saying "Thank you" are doing what God said. On the other hand, it's been my experience that more and more people think that just having a grateful heart is enough and they don't actually say thank you. There is a difference between being thankful and giving thanks. I think we must always make sure that folks understand that yes, giving thanks must proceed from being thankful. Otherwise it is not giving thanks. But God really does ask us to give thanks. BTW: I know this article tacitly includes that when it talks about our hearts responding in prayers. I just like to say it plainly. I guess this is important to me because I've heard this increasing idea among the younger generation ridiculing the idea of giving thanks before a meal. It starts by saying, "God isn't so nearly concerned with giving thanks as He is with our thankful hearts." Then they usually go on to make snarky comments about the older, legalistic generation who thinks we are eating and drinking death if we didn't bow our head and close our eyes before taking a bite. I know all the legalism that some can go through. However, in I Timothy 4:3-4 Paul says everything is to be received with thanksgiving. And lest we think that is just some kind of attitude of thankfulness, he goes on to say the meal is made holy by God's word and prayer. God wants thanksgiving that proceeds from thankful hearts. It is not either/or but both/and.

Karl Frank

commented on Nov 22, 2013

What I attempt to accomplish EVER Monday is to go to my Heavenly Father, in prayer, with NOTHING but words of thanksgiving for the bountiful blessings in my life. Granted, sometimes the situations of life are pressing, but just remember what Jesus did for you and for me, and I feel thankfulness will flow in ones prayer, whether Sunday, Monday or any time in honest adoration of our Heavenly Father and His Son.

Charles Waters

commented on Nov 22, 2013

The statement about Thanksgiving messages sounding like a scolding is so true. I had to stop and say "whoa is me." Actually, I have been trying to convey the importance of having a thankful heart in the messages I've been preaching as we approach Thanksgiving day. You are right, God is not honored when we only say what we are supposed to say and it isn't coming from the heart. A few years ago the Lord pointed out that when I read 1 Thes. 5:18, I was reading "In everything give thanks" but I was thinking, "For everything give thanks..." The truth is, I am not thankful for "everything" but I can still be thankful "in" everything. That may seem insignificant to some but it has helped me to see that although I may not be able to give thanks "for" every situation, I can still give thanks "in" every situation. Matthew Henry gave a good illustration of this. After being robbed he wrote: "Let me be thankful, first, because he never robbed me before; second, because although he took my purse, he did not take my life; third, because although he took all I possessed, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed." Thank you for reminding us that thankfulness is from the heart.

Edwin Crozier

commented on Nov 22, 2013

Thank you for including this illustration about Matthew Henry. I was actually telling someone about this the other day, but couldn't remember where I had read it and couldn't remember exactly what he prayed.

Jolee Fanton

commented on Nov 22, 2013

Karl is right. i want to impliment the one day of the week to be thankful. I thank THE LORD daily for providing, but its become rote. jolee fanton

Jerry Chiasson

commented on Dec 18, 2013

I'm thinking of the cross".the gift the God gave on Christmas and I opened it..so thankfull

Rachel Duart

commented on Nov 21, 2015

A few years ago my youngsters and I were living in a homeless shelter courtesy of an abusive husband. I couldn't sleep and began writing all the things I was grateful for at 12:30 am, sitting on the hard floor because the only thing in the room was a bed my two sons and I shared. I got up to go use the communal bathroom and couldn't understand why I was so stiff and sore. I was shocked when I read the clock. 6:30 am. I had been writing furiously! I was so grateful to be alive headed my list. I was so grateful for the church God led me to. I have been blessed beyond comprehension since that Thanksgiving 2012. Nobody EVER has to "remind" me to be grateful! Amen!

Scott Hollingsworth

commented on Nov 22, 2015

thank you for sharing Rachel- what a blessing to hear of the thankfulness to God in your testimony.

William Henderson

commented on Nov 22, 2015

Hey Ray, Edwin has added an excellent point without contradicting your very good point. I would like to do the same. I think the problem with folks who are not thankful is a heart problem. If this is the case, all the positive preaching in the world cannot help. Heart problems often require conviction and repentance. I think you are addressing people who do not have a heart problem and therefore just need instruction. On the other hand, those who fall into those "last days" people who are "lovers of their own selves...unthankful" (2 Tim. 3:1-2) do need the conviction of the holy spirit that leads to true repentance. These people don't just need a change of perspective, they (we) need to allow God to show us our guilt and bring the sweet grace of repentance. It is hard speaking to a church crowd on Thanksgiving. What might be a guilt trip for one may be the key to deliverance and freedom to another. Well, again, your point is appreciated and I hope you don't mind my chiming in with another perspective. Happy Thanksgiving.

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