Thanksgiving—Why, When, and How

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On December 21, 1620, a small band of Pilgrims landed on the shore of what is now Massachusetts. It was wintertime, and they had little food and no houses. more than half of the group died in that first terrible winter.

When spring came, they worked the ground and planted gardens, knowing that another winter was ahead. In the fall of that year, 1621, their governor, William Bradford, declared a three-day celebration of prayer and feasting to give thanks to God for carrying them through that first winter and also for the good harvest they had. President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day to be held on November 26, 1789. Then in 1863 President Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day an annual national holiday to be commemorated on the last Thursday in November. That practice continues to this day (except since 1941 it is held on the fourth Thursday in November).

In crude log cabins with dirt floors, and with very few possessions other than the necessities for hunting and working the ground, the Pilgrims found things to be thankful for. From our perspective it does not look like they had much to be thankful for. Could we find anything to be thankful for if we were placed in a similar situation?

In America today, however, the annual Thanksgiving Day holiday has become known for selfishly overindulging in eating, rather than a day of giving thanks to God. America has continued the feasting but not the giving of thanks to God or the time of prayer. Have we let this attitude rub off on us as well? Are we following the world’s method of observing Thanksgiving Day? Where is our focus—on God, or on our own pleasure?

Why should the Christian be thankful? Psalm 50:14 commands us to “offer unto God thanksgiving.” Colossians 3:15 says, “Be ye thankful.” Jesus, our perfect example, said in John 11:41, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” Psalm 95:2 commands us to “come before his presence with thanksgiving.”

Consider with me how God looks at the attitude of unthankfulness in Numbers 11:1-3. Here the children of Israel had journeyed for three days without finding a resting place (Num 10:33). They had begun their trek through the “great and terrible wilderness” (Deu 1:19). They were likely tired, hungry, and thirsty. “And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.” even in the midst of these difficulties, when from our perspective it seems they almost had a “reason” to complain, their attitude was unacceptable to God. Unthankfulness is also in the list of sins in 2Timothy 3:2. If God considers unthankfulness a sin, should not we also?

On the opposite side, let us consider the ten lepers of Luke 17. Although Jesus healed them all, only one returned to give his thanks to the one who cleansed him of his dreadful disease. Jesus’ question, “But where are the nine?” indicates His expectation of thanks for His healing miracle. Just like many of mankind today who are saved from some dramatic mishap, the nine went on their way selfishly forgetting the one to whom they owed their lives. To the one who returned, Jesus gave a spiritual blessing over and above the physical one: “Thy faith hath made thee whole.”

When should we be thankful? The answer is found in Ephesians 5:20, “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are to be thankful always for all things? Is that even possible? Today’s society of instant gratification, having what we want when we want it, militates against a thankful attitude. Unfortunately, this attitude affects our Mennonite churches as well. The multitudes of things we possess have a tendency to make us unthankful. One does not have to look very hard at the advertisements we are constantly bombarded by to see that the world thinks that happiness is to be found in the things we possess. If we are not careful, we can easily become affected by such ads and allow them to make us unthankful for what we don’t have and think we “need.” Are we going to allow the world to tell us what we need? Do we truly understand the difference between a need and a want? We should also be thankful as we prepare to worship according to Psalm 100:4 – “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise.” Thankfulness or the need to be thankful touches every area of our lives all the time.

How can we be more thankful? Like the one leper who returned to Jesus, let us be reminded that all the good things we enjoy come from God. “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (1Ti 6:17). If we understand that all we have came from God and not because of ourselves, it will be instrumental in our quest for greater thankfulness. Perhaps if we had less of this world’s goods, it would help us to be more thankful. Consider again the thankfulness of the Pilgrims in their circumstances, and our thankfulness or lack thereof, in our own circumstances. Do more things equal thankfulness? It seems that more things equal less thankfulness.

There is a direct correlation between happiness and thanksgiving. Have you ever met an unhappy person that is also a thankful person? Along with a thankful attitude will automatically come happiness. It is impossible to have one without the other. Do you wish to be happier? Then strive to be more thankful.

As we approach this Thanksgiving season, let us be thankful to the one who has given us the many rich blessings we enjoy. Let us “celebrate” Thanksgiving in a manner that is pleasing to God and not just as a holiday for our own personal enjoyment. Let us strive to be more thankful every day of the year, and not just on Thanksgiving Day.

~ Morgantown, PA
November 2012