One of my favorite childhood Thanksgiving traditions was the making of “thankful turkeys” with my family. We would list things we were grateful for on paper shaped feathers and then glue them to a cutout of a turkey. As a kid, it was easy to tape feather after feather onto my turkey: family, school, friends, candy corn, Thanksgiving Day rolls, etc.

Recently, I’ve wondered why it feels harder as an adult to list my “feathers of gratitude” than it did as a kid. After all, I’ve experienced more years of God’s presence and faithfulness in my life, and I know Scripture better now than I did back then. However, more years of life have also brought more trials.

Though I trust God’s sanctification of me is ongoing, gratitude is one area where it seems like the older I get, the more my natural bent is to grumble rather than give thanks—much like the Israelites grumbled after God delivered them from slavery (Ex. 15:24, 16:2, 17:3). I too am quick to forget God’s provision in my life. But Scripture is filled with calls to give thanks to God (read almost any of the Psalms or Paul’s letters and you’ll find the words “thanks” or “thanksgiving” scattered across them). 1 Thessalonians 5:18 even includes giving thanks as part of “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Why is this such an important command, and what should we be thankful for?

Gratitude for the Good Gifts

One truth I’ve experienced in my own life is the act of giving thanks helps us look past our circumstances to the realities of what God has done and the gifts He has given us that cannot be changed or taken away. In addition to the greatest gift of redemption through His Son, He gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us and declare Truth to us (John 16:13). We are not alone in this life; in our best moments or our hardest moments, God is with us through His Spirit dwelling in us. The Spirit intercedes for us as we pray, which is another gift we always possess. Does it not move you to gratitude when you consider that the Creator and Sustainer of this universe allows us access to communicate with Him? He invites us to call Him “Father,” and run to Him whenever we want. I remember as a kid going to my father’s workplace and seeing his door shut, but running through it anyway because I knew he would welcome me with a smile as I jumped into his lap. I had unique access because I was his child. God invites us to come to Him with that same type of access because He has adopted us as His children. We give thanks for the good gift of being in relationship with our Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Gratitude for the Hard

Trials are one of the most obvious things that keep us from gratitude. How do I give thanks for a stressful work situation? Why should I give thanks when my church hasn’t provided the community I expected? How can I thank God for this new cancer diagnosis in my family? How can I be grateful when my child is walking away from the faith? These are real and hard questions. And while I don’t presume to understand all these difficult realities, we must remember that even the difficult things we face are not outside of His knowledge and oversight. Scripture reminds us that God is often doing something in these circumstances for His glory or for our good that we might not understand.

I think of l Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused, and then thrown into prison, yet God raised him up to assist in saving God’s people. He later declared to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Or consider the account of the man born blind in John 9. When asked whose sin caused his blindness, Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Or think of Jesus Himself—falsely accused, sorely mistreated, nailed to a cross to die a death He didn’t deserve. Yet in Acts 2 Peter declares, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (vv.23-24). Even the crucifixion of Jesus was not outside of God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge,” as God used this death to accomplish the redemption of His people.

While giving thanks for difficult circumstances won’t change the reality of them, as we engage with God about them, He infuses our hearts and minds with His peace as we dwell on who He is and how He acts. I think that’s what Paul means when he follows his call for the Philippians to pray “with thanksgiving” by saying, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

So, what will your “feathers of gratitude” include this year? Maybe things like “family and Thanksgiving Day rolls” are still on your list, but what can you add as you recall the reality of God’s work in this world and the gifts He’s given you? Perhaps the Holy Spirit, prayer, and peace amidst trials will make the list.

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

Kristen Thompson

Kristen is a dependent and needy follower of Jesus who clings to His grace more and more every day. She spent 9 years on staff with Reformed University Fellowship at Texas A&M and Washington University in St. Louis before transitioning to her current role of Administrative Assistant for the RUF Campus Staff Department. She and her husband, Alex, recently moved to Boston where they are enjoying exploring a new city with their 2-year-old son, Ward. Kristen has a Masters in Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary and will always be an avid Mississippi State fan as she completed her undergrad there with a degree in Sports Communication.