The national holiday of Thanksgiving—celebrated in November in the United States and in October in Canada—is a perfect opportunity to think about gratitude.
It can remind us and our families about the importance of being grateful—for the Lord as the source of life, and for one another—all year long.
But thanksgiving as an attitude or a way of life didn’t originate in the New World. In fact, thanksgiving was a key element in the lives of the early Christians. The Greek word for thanksgiving, eucharisteo, is used more than sixty times in the New Testament as a response to the incredible generosity of Jesus, who poured his life out on the cross. Whenever the members of the early church pondered Jesus at Calvary, they responded by proclaiming their gratitude to him.
When Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, he revealed the heart of a Son who was deeply grateful to his Father. He was thankful for his Father’s abiding presence and everlasting love. He was thankful that his Father had sent him to save humanity and had strengthened him throughout his earthly journey so that he could accomplish his mission.
We can express our thanksgiving to our heavenly Father as well. It only takes a moment of reflection to become overwhelmed by all that God, in his mercy, has done for us: for Jesus’ death and resurrection, which has had a very personal impact on our lives; for the Holy Spirit, and for the Church; for God’s continual presence in our lives, even when we lose sight of him; and for the abundance of gifts we receive from him each day, many of which we often take for granted. Acknowledging the generosity of our God is the Christian’s basic outlook on life. Whatever our circumstances, thanksgiving is the fundamental response of a disciple of Jesus.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road. Of course, instilling a grateful attitude in our families is another challenge. As my wife and I have discovered in raising our five children, personalities differ. Some children express their thanks quite readily, while others keep their thankfulness so locked up that expressions of gratitude rarely escape. In addition, each child goes through stages—at times, complaining a lot, but at other times being more appreciative and thankful.
As with adults, even children who are generally grateful for God’s blessings can lose sight of them—especially in a society where wealth is evident and where children can easily mistake “wants” for “needs.” For example, kids often compare what they own to what their friends possess—new and expensive toys, nice cars, or big allowances. When we focus on what we lack, we can easily forget how abundantly God has cared for us.
We are raising disciples of Jesus, and being thankful is part of the life of every disciple. How can we teach our children to be thankful for material and spiritual blessings, for relationships with friends and family members, and for the capacity to think, learn, and achieve in their lives? We can instill a sense of gratitude in them in two ways: by continually expressing gratitude ourselves; and by reminding our children of the many blessings that God has so graciously showered on us.
Model It, Teach It. Our own grateful attitude can be infectious. We can express gratitude for simple things like a beautiful day or even for the rain that nourishes the earth. We can tell our children how thankful we are that God has given them to us. We can thank our kids when they perform a chore cheerfully or show generosity to a sibling. When we pray together as a family, our children will hear us expressing our praise and gratitude to the Lord.
Our continual expressions of gratitude may seem like they are falling on deaf ears, but they do, at some level, shape the minds and hearts of our children.
Without endless lecturing, we can also point out to our children how much God has blessed them. For example, from time to time we can remind them that God gave them loving parents (and even when parents are separated or divorced, children often still have two parents who really love them). We can also remind them of the gift of their siblings—and the special gifts that each brother or sister bring to the family, whether it be generosity, compassion, diligence, cheerfulness, or humor. Gently, and sometimes privately with each child, we can point out these traits in their brothers and sisters.
One game we use in our family to encourage gratitude for one another is called the “Compliment Game.” It works like this: Taking turns around the table, each person has to compliment one of the other family members at the table. Younger kids might say, “My older sister Denise is nice.” Older children can be a little more specific: “Jack helped me when I was struggling with my homework.” The comments should be sincere, but they don’t have to be particularly insightful. You are simply encouraging your children to be grateful for each other. In our family, when we reach a certain number of compliments (twenty-five or fifty), then everyone gets ice cream!
You can also use this game to express thanks to God. Again, taking turns around the table, each person names one thing for which they are grateful to God. They might say: “I’m grateful that God has forgiven my sins” or “I’m grateful that Jesus loves me.” or “I’m grateful that Jesus helped Uncle Bob during his illness.” Dessert is also our reward after we go around the table several times!
Whether or not you are celebrating Thanksgiving this month, how about writing God a letter of gratitude? Tell him all the blessings for which you are grateful. Keep this letter handy and refer back to it all year so that you won’t forget how much God has done—and is doing—for you. Ask the Lord in prayer to give you a grateful heart, and pray over the many Scripture passages that speak about thanksgiving.
I can’t end this article without a little gratitude on my part! I am grateful for my wife, Jeanne, and for my five children. I am grateful for all of the special gifts God has given to each of them. I trust that as my children get older, they will use these gifts to please the Lord and to reach out to other people who need help.
I am most grateful to Jesus, who has done everything for me. He has graciously touched my life, guided me, and given me wonderful friends to accompany me on this journey. God has been so gracious to me that if he didn’t do one more thing for me, he would have already done enough!
Jeff Smith is president of The Word Among Us.