Cultivating a Thankful Heart

One reader writes: “Every year Thanksgiving seems to come and go. I'm embarrassed to admit that the only thing about it that I look forward to is a few more days off work, a long weekend and a big meal. I think that Thanksgiving should be more than that. Am I missing something? Is there a way out of this rut? How can I make Thanksgiving more meaningful?”

What kinds of memories come to your mind when you think about the Thanksgiving season? How do you usually spend the four-day Thanksgiving weekend? Special times with family and friends and too much good food? Thanksgiving is a time for all of that, and more. It can also be a time for giving thanks for our family and friends and the countless ways that God has blessed us.

Think back over the last two or three Thanksgiving seasons. How much time did you actually spend thanking God for His goodness to you, thanking your husband or wife, your son or your daughter for who they are, for what they have meant in your life and for specific things they have done for you? How much time did you spend giving thanks?

If your answer was “not much” don't feel too bad. I've asked hundreds of people the same question. Over 90% have given the same response. I'm sad to admit that's the same answer I gave.

The main reason most of us aren’t more thankful is that our sinful human nature tends to focus on what we don't have rather than be grateful for what we do have. Enough is never enough. As soon as we get the new house, the new car, the new clothes or the new whatever the thrill is gone. Our attention shifts to something else. A “need” that consumed our entire focus last week is now only a distant memory.

One the greatest sources of discouragement and depression is the lack of a thankful heart. In Luke 17 we read how Jesus healed the 10 lepers. These guys were social outcasts. They had few friends and no hope. Yet after being healed of this deadly disease only one of the ten came back to thank Jesus.

One of the marks of a mature Christian is the presence of a thankful heart. The discipline of thankfulness draws us closer to God, renews our perspective, increases our energy and brings us joy.

You don't believe me? See for yourself. For the next 10 minutes think of everything you don't have, everything you wish you had, all the ways you wish you were different. Complete the sentence “If only . . . ” ten times. If only I was taller (or shorter), thinner (or heavier), younger (or older).

When the 10 minutes are up ask yourself, “How do I feel?” Are you encouraged? Do you feel more strength and energy? Are you motivated to jump back into life? I know what your answers are. No, no and no.

Now, for the next 10 minutes think of all that God has done for you. Think of the beautiful Arkansas fall we’ve enjoyed. Get your Bible out and read Psalm 103. Count your blessings. Name them one by one. Write them down and look at them. Think of your health, friends and family. Complete the sentence “Dear God, I thank you for . . .” ten times.

Now ask yourself, “How do I feel?” Do you notice any difference? Are you encouraged? Do you feel more strength and energy? Are you more motivated to jump back into life? See . . . it works! Only 10 minutes of thanksgiving can change the course of an entire day.

Several years ago a man expressed his appreciation for life in his unusual and generous will. After instructing his executor to pay his debts, provide for his family, and distribute the remainder of his assets to the church and other ministries, the man spoke about the debts he could never repay. He said,

“I feel indebted to my mother, for the pain and sacrifice of bringing me into this world, for comforting me when I was hurt, for encouraging me when I faltered, for forgiving me when I was disobedient, for loving me always and forever. To my father for setting a pattern of faith, integrity, of modesty and sobriety, of self-control and inner calm, of love and affection beyond anything I have ever known in my life. To my wife, for making a house a home, and for giving me, without a doubt, a companionship and affection beyond anything price could compare to. To my children, for their love and faith. To my teachers for their patience and encouragement. To my employers, for the opportunity for useful work. To my friends, for knowing my faults, but loving me still. To writers of good books, for sharing their thoughts and experiences, to martyrs on 10,000 battlefields of mind and body, to give me religious and political freedom, to my fellow workers for making what easy that could have been difficult. To my God, for imparting to me the knowledge of good and evil, for His assurance of forgiveness in Christ, and for His eternal promises.”

What debts do you owe to God, your parents, your spouse, your children, your friends, your employers, that you think you can never repay? Maybe you can't pay them back but there is something you can give to them. You can thank them. You can bless them with your sincere appreciation. You can honor them by taking the time to communicate your gratitude.

Thanksgiving can be just another holiday. Or we can use it as a yearly reminder of the importance of giving thanks. We can use it as a marker of the degree to which we have allowed God to help us become grateful men and women. We can cultivate the daily discipline of gratitude and thanksgiving to God and those we love.

This Thanksgiving you can be like the nine lepers who were healed by Christ and just walked away. Or you can be like the one leper who came back, looked in the eyes of Christ and thanked Him. Which are you going to be?

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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