This kind of thing has happened many times in my life. I show up at a simple gathering among friends. Out of the blue, one of the friends says, “I saw this in a store the other day and thought you’d like it. Here!” Never have I had a gift to give in return. So I say what most of us say, “Oh, no, I can’t accept this. It’s too much! . . . But I don’t have anything for you.” And then I scramble to think of ways I could pay back this kindness. I say “Thank you,” but a bit of guilt dulls my thankfulness. Does this happen to you too?
Apparently, I’m not very good at receiving good gifts. Is that a problem? I didn’t used to think so. Don’t humble people focus on serving and not being served? Isn’t it better to give than to receive? Yes, that’s all true! But, I’ve realized my struggle to cheerfully stand on the receiving end of relationships points to a deeper problem in me—oddly, one brought into brighter light by the Thanksgiving holiday.
Giving Thanks Requires Cheerful Receiving
Here’s a big truth: It’s impossible to be thankful if you’re gift averse. If I don’t know how to cheerfully receive from God and people, I won’t be able to cheerfully give thanks with the rich gladness God envisions in Scripture. Let me say it again another way: the degree to which we cheerfully receive determines the degree to which we can give thanks. We will only learn to give thanks after we’ve learned to receive. Like turkey and stuffing, you can’t have one without the other.
Think about this simple truth repeated through the Psalms:
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.Psalm 107:1 ESV
The good gift of God’s steadfast love makes the psalmist’s gratitude possible. But, listen, it’s not simply the goodness of God which feeds his thankful heart, but it’s actually his cheerful receiving of the good gift of God’s love.
Think about another verse, this time driven a little deeper and from the Gospel of Luke:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”Luke 7:47
Jesus forgave a woman who had lived a rough, sinful life. Overwhelmed with gladness, she anointed Jesus’s feet with kisses and expensive oil. Jesus explained the shocking scene, connecting her enormous gratitude to the enormous grace she received. And the opposite rings just as true. A person who receives little forgiveness, shows little gratitude.
Thanksgiving Comes from A Heart Made Glad by Good Gifts
Add this up and it means thanksgiving springs from a heart made glad by good gifts. I think, then, if we want to grow our thankfulness this November 25th (and every other day of the year), we need to grow our gladness in God and his unending goodness to us. We need to make a concerted effort to become people who are happy to receive blessings from his hand and from the other hands he uses in our lives.
Imagine this scenario: On an evening walk, you run into your elderly neighbor Ms. Mary, who lives three doors down. She tells you how she’s looking forward to her grandson’s birthday party tomorrow. And then she says, “You know what, dear! When you have some time later, I want you to email me your birthdate and a few of your favorite things. I’m serious, dear. I want to bless you on your birthday.” What do you do? If you’re like me, you ease back into your walk and tell Mary she’s too sweet, and you hope the party’s a blast. But you don’t email her. You tell yourself, maybe you will if she brings it up again, but then you avoid her house on your next evening walk.
Does Mary have genuine interest in making me glad on my birthday? Yes, for sure! Do I have genuine gratitude for Mary’s kindness? No, not really.
Why? Because I’m unwilling to receive the fruit of her kindness to me.
Why do I not just open my hands to Mary’s gift and my heart to this small gladness?
Because I’m still struggling to appreciate how my gladness in receiving good gifts glorifies the God who gives them (even through Ms. Mary).
Thankfulness: The Good Pursuit of Gladness
The more we grow to appreciate the connection between our gladness and God’s glory, the more we will grow to cheerfully receive good gifts. And the more we learn to cheerfully receive good gifts, the more we will grow in giving thanks for God’s enduring love for us in Christ. Rather than deflect good gifts and juke the givers of them, we can ask God to work in us a godly gratitude for good things eagerly and gladly received.
I believe God has prepared in our Thanksgiving holiday an occasion to reconsider the connection between gladness and gratitude, of receiving and giving thanks.
Why are we thankful on this day? What makes giving thanks possible and meaningful? It’s the gladness which comes from cheerfully receiving God’s good gifts. We give thanks because we have received so much good from him. He is good and his steadfast love endures forever.