THANKSGIVING: Should you 'thank' your way to thankfulness?

NASHVILLE (BP) -- I was 33 years old before I drank my first cup of coffee. Until then, my morning beverages waffled between Diet Pepsi and the very occasional glass of water. But I had a dream of someday sitting on the back porch with my wife, who loves coffee, on a cold winter morning and enjoying a cup of joe together. So I started drinking coffee.

It was terrible. And then, after a few weeks, it was still terrible.

I kept drinking it though, and in time I not only began to tolerate the taste, I actually began to enjoy it. I suppose you could say, then, that I drank my way into drinking coffee.

I'm wondering, though, if the same principle can be applied to other areas of our lives besides consumption of caffeinated beverages. Like gratitude, for example.

This is a real question because many of us might not be feeling particularly thankful this week. Perhaps your year has been filled with more loss than gain, more tears than laughter, more struggle than triumph.

You know there are indeed many things for which you should be thankful, but you're not seeing -- or feeling -- any of them. Can you, then, thank your way into a spirit of gratitude, or is doing so disingenuous and fake?

To answer that question, at least in part, there are a couple of things that might be helpful to remember:

1. True gratitude is rooted not in circumstance but in the character of God.

When we think about giving thanks, our minds drift most often to what's happening or not happening in our lives. But there is a deeper, more lasting kind of gratitude that can only be experienced when it's rooted in God's character. This is what the psalmist reminds us in the refrain that echoes through Psalm 136 -- we should give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His love endures forever.

Those who have truly experienced the loving character of God are those who believe in the most full evidence of that character -- those who have looked and believed on the cross of Jesus, where God's character is on full display. For that reason, the basis of true gratitude is an authentic experience of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Without that, no amount of thanking God for safety, prosperity, health or anything else will make us experience true gratitude.

2. While gratitude is a condition of the heart, the act of giving thanks is a command to be practiced.

If we are firmly rooted and established in the love of God through Christ, then giving thanks is not an issue of emotion as much as it is an issue of obedience.

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" says the apostle (Philippians 4:4). This is not a suggestion; it's not a helpful hint for happiness. This is a command. Similar commands can be found throughout the Bible, each one telling us, not suggesting to us, that we give thanks.

For the Christian, then, thanksgiving becomes a discipline to practice on those days and during those seasons when we don't feel particularly grateful for anything that's happening at the present. When we choose to obey the command not just once but over and over again, we will find that our souls will be lifted and our emotions will follow.

So can you thank your way into thankfulness? Yes, I believe you can, but only if the foundation for that thankfulness is the cross. Without that, thankfulness will always ring a little hollow and feel a little shallow. Like a rock who keeps telling itself that it's made of flesh, our hearts do not have the ability to change themselves. But having been altered by Jesus, we can speak to those same hearts, and our practice of thankfulness awakens the condition of gratitude born in us through the cross.

Michael Kelley is director of groups ministry for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of "Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God" and "Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life." He is on Twitter at @_michaelkelley and online at michaelkelley.co, where this article first appeared.
Download Story