Thanksgiving’s over, but giving thanks is always appropriate. In fact, gratitude is often counted among the character qualities of successful people—successful in life, that is, not necessarily business. In 2004 Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, now considered the seminal work on human virtue from a scientific standpoint. The authors isolate 24 universally acknowledged character traits, which can be further narrowed to the seven most critical to life satisfaction and high achievement. One of the seven is gratitude.
Most Americans would agree, at least in theory, that it’s important to count one’s blessings, and individually stating what we’re thankful for around the Thanksgiving table is a ritual repeated every year in households across the nation. Friends, family, health, safe travel, and good food usually top the list. For a day, or part of a day, we make a point of feeling good about these things and may resolve to be more grateful in the future—or at least until the next argument over money or breakdown on the highway or long night in a hospital. Gratitude as it’s practiced in contemporary society is generally lightweight and fleeting, more gloss than gear.
That’s only to be expected when there’s no one to be grateful to. President Obama has been criticized for omitting references to God in his last four Thanksgiving messages, but he’s only conforming to the cultural trend. Gratitude as a character trait reflects more on the person giving thanks than the person thanked. It shows an attractive level of humility and optimism, characteristic of someone who’s pleasant to be around. An Awesome Book of Thanks! a children’s picture book by Dallas Clayton, exuberantly exhorts kids to be happy about all the great stuff they can hear and see and experience—even rough experiences, because “they make us all stronger. They make us all smarter. They make us last longer.” But our awesome God is not a factor in An Awesome Book, or in other popular picture books like Thank You, Thanksgiving. Lacking that center, characters in the books are shown being thankful to the things they are thankful for.
Biblical gratitude, on the other hand, drives the machine. In the Old Testament the word often translated as “thanksgiving” is yadah, the root meaning of which is “to hold out one’s hands.” Lifting the hands, as Jesus did when giving thanks, is melded into the idea of thanksgiving—more than a mere response to God’s goodness, it’s an acknowledgement that He is good—all the time. A Christian’s gratitude to God is reaching out and connecting to that goodness, however difficult that might be. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” wrote Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:18), because God is holding those hands we raise—during the argument, on the highway, and through the night.