Many Christians understand the need for thankfulness, but have never thought through the clues the Bible gives us that we can be thankful and yet not thankful in the way God desires us to be.
Take, for example, that famous Pharisee in Jesus’ parable – the one whose prayer extolled his own virtue and religious deeds while rejoicing that he was not a sinner like others. Jesus did not say that the man simply bragged about his spiritual life to God – he said he thanked God for it: “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Clearly, the Pharisee’s thanksgiving was really only an extension or proclamation of his own self-satisfaction.
So it is possible to give thanks to God and yet to miss the point of true thankfulness because of what it is that we appreciate. Consider some of the ways we can make this mistake in our own lives in terms of the things for which we give thanks.
Do we give mainly give thanks for our physical things – such as our family, our friends, our health?
Do we mainly give thanks for our physical things – such as our job, our relationships, our environment?
Do we mainly give thanks for our physical things – our country, our home, our possessions?
Put the other way, how much of our thanksgiving is not for our physical things but for things such as the healing, guidance and help received by others? That is the opposite of the Pharisee’s prayer.
How much of our gratitude is expressed not for physical things, but for the spiritual gifts with which we and others have been blessed?
How much of our appreciation is expressed to God not for things, but for actions and qualities – for love and truth, for patience and strength, for all such good things whether experienced directly from God or in our interactions with others?
Finally, how much of our thankfulness is expressed along with praise of God? The Pharisee’s thanks were tied to praise of himself, and it is possible for our own thanks to sometimes focus on our successes and accomplishments. These are valid things to give thanks for, but they are things that may only be a short way from personal pride. The Book of Psalms constantly reminds us of the connection between thanksgiving and praise, and where the focus of that praise should be: “I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30). “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name” (Psalm 100:4).
Many scriptures show us that we should be thankful for all things (Ephesians 5:20) and in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), but if we mainly give thanks for our things and our circumstances, we may have missed an important aspect of true thanksgiving. While we may not be as far from real gratitude as the Pharisee in Christ’s parable, it is often profitable to think about what does move us to give thanks. What we are grateful for can often be a window into our soul. It’s a window we should all look through occasionally.