The real Thanksgiving: being grateful of everything


Paul Farley

Subdeacon, St. Andrew Orthodox Church

Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate roasted, smoked (or deep-fried!) turkey as much as the next guy. And, of course, it’s a very good thing to set a day aside for being grateful for all the good things in our lives. In the Old Testament, God’s people continually sang songs of praise and thanksgiving: Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms!

It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, O Most High! Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him and bless His name!

Gratitude continued to be emphasized in the New Testament Church: “be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ ….” (Ephesians 5:18-20). Indeed, from the earliest days, Holy Communion has been known as the “Eucharist,” from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.”

As the famed preacher and writer John Chrysostom (347-407) explains, eucharistic celebrations “are the remembrance of many benefits, and they signify the culmination of God’s Providence towards us, and in every way cause us to be thankful to Him.”

Basil the Great (330-379), reminds us of some of the most obvious gifts from God that we tend to take for granted:

He brought us from non-being into being; He dignified us with reason; He provided us with crafts to help sustain our lives; He causes food to spring up from the earth; He has given us cattle to serve us. For our sake there is rain, for our sake there is the sun; the hills and plains have been adorned for our benefit, affording us refuge from the peaks of the mountains. For our sake rivers flow; for our sake fountains gush forth; the sea is made calm for our trading; riches come from mines and delights from everywhere, and the whole of creation is offered as a gift to us, on account of the rich and abundant Grace of our Benefactor towards us.

Indeed, the early Christians strove to be grateful for everything, knowing that they had nothing “except what is given from heaven” (John 3.27). And that’s even before we get to the promise of eternal life—for which God sacrificed His only Son (John 3:16).

At the same time, they also understood that the Scriptures tell us to, “in every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). That is, a Christian should thank God for everything, even the “bad” things. This kind of gratitude is rooted in a firm conviction regarding God’s divine character, that “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). (Of course, this was every bit as true in the Old Testament as in the New; it was the Prophet Job who said, “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”).

John Chrysostom asks, “What then? Are we to give thanks for everything that befalls us?” And he answers his own question, saying, yes—even if it is illness, or poverty, or any other trouble in which we find ourselves. As a more recent saint, Ambrose of Optina (1812-1891), taught simply, “we must begin with thanksgiving for everything. The beginning of joy is to be content with your situation.”

This kind of thankfulness only comes with trusting, really trusting, in God. To the world, such trust might seem impossible, or maybe even a bit crazy. And I have to admit that it’s a real struggle to always do this in my own life. I’m inspired by a longtime friend who has been battling incurable cancer for over a year. The disease has spread throughout his body, and in recent months a malignant tumor has grown on his spinal cord, resulting in excruciating, debilitating pain in his back and legs.

Following a lengthy and difficult surgery to remove much (but not all) of the tumor, I received a note: “I was able to walk today. And I can now sit and lie pain-free for the first time in over six weeks. Ahhh… to give thanks for the little things in life! Glory to God for all things!”

John Chrysostom says that “nothing is holier than that tongue, which in evils gives thanks to God; truly in no respect does it fall short of that of martyrs; both are alike crowned, …. If then one bear his griefs, and give thanks, he has gained a crown of martyrdom.” I’ve seen it, and I believe it’s true.

This Thanksgiving Day, let’s all try to take a few minutes to be grateful for everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: for His mercy endureth forever!


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