If there were ever a year to forgo giving thanks, it would be 2020. This year has been—by many standards—awful for large swaths of the population. The COVID-19 outbreaks at the beginning of the year quickly led to a pandemic, prompting lockdowns across the globe. The economy plunged, leading to financial ruin for millions of people. Businesses shuttered and breadwinners lost their jobs. Financial difficulty combined with the psychological effects of social distancing caused depression and suicidal thoughts to skyrocket. It was the start of a miserable year.
But societal strife was just beginning. The problems of the pandemic hadn’t reached fruition when protests over George Floyd’s death sparked riots and looting, plunging the country into a bitter racial divide. Add a contentious presidential election to the mix to make this year one that everyone wants to forget.
This year has been a disaster. What is there to be thankful for?
The Pilgrims didn’t have it much better. It was exactly 400 years ago that they set sail for America in search of a better life, but they began their journey by enduring a 65-day nightmare on the stormy sea. They landed in Plymouth only to face the next ordeal: a brutal New England winter. Of the 102 men, women, and children, half of all the Pilgrims died from exposure, famine, and sickness.
The Pilgrims’ first year in America was a disaster. What was there to be thankful for?
When times are tough, it’s tempting to downplay giving thanks. It seems to us there’s less to be thankful for, after all. But that attitude presumes our gratitude is dependent on how we feel about what we’ve been given. That is neither biblical nor healthy.
Gratitude isn’t an emotion that’s dependent on how much we’re enjoying our immediate circumstances. It’s a virtue we should cultivate based on the truth that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). No matter how bad 2020 gets, we should give thanks for at least three reasons.
First, we’re commanded to be thankful. Whether it’s the Pilgrims in 1620 or we in 2020, we’re to give thanks to God, even if we’re dealing with difficulty. Paul writes, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18). Despite half of their friends and family perishing in the past year, the Pilgrims knew giving thanks wasn’t optional. They did, however, have a good harvest and were able to give thanks for it, though they knew their earthly fortunes could change yet again.
In addition to being commanded to give thanks, giving God our gratitude is all that we can give him. Our works are nothing more than “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). John Milton makes this point in his poetic work Paradise Regain’d. He writes:
Of whom what could he less expect
Then glory and benediction, that is thanks,
The slightest, easiest, readiest recompence
From them who could return him nothing else.
We can’t offer God anything that will satisfy him. All we have to offer is our thanks. We can give him that. In fact, we should.
Second, being thankful is for our good. God doesn’t need our gratitude. We need to cultivate gratitude. David writes, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord” (Psalm 92:1). This is not just because God is good, but also because it is good for us. Being grateful changes our attitude and lifts our spirit. During a year like this, we could use the help.
In his book Happiness Is a Serious Problem, Dennis Prager writes, “There’s a ‘secret to happiness’—and it is gratitude. All happy people are grateful, and ungrateful people cannot be happy…. Become grateful and you will become a much happier person.” I acknowledge there’s a difference between happiness and joy, and that Scripture promises the latter, but I think the point still stands. Develop an attitude of gratefulness, and it will change your outlook towards life, even in the midst of a difficult year.
Third, we have good reason to be thankful. God is good. He loves us. He cares for us. He created the planets and stars, the oceans and mountains, the plants and the animals. God made them for our enjoyment and provision. Plus, he’s secured a way to pardon us from our moral failures through his son, Jesus. We have much to be thankful for already.
There’s more, though. We can be thankful for the future he guarantees us. The Pilgrims knew that no matter how dire their circumstances might become, what was promised them was a heavenly harvest that no earthly circumstance could steal. For this same reason, the author of Hebrews was grateful and wrote, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28). Nothing can jeopardize our heavenly home. Nothing can separate us from God’s secure hands (Rom. 8:38–39).
At Stand to Reason, our desire is to nurture gratitude. No matter how bad our circumstances, we know God is good. He is sovereign, and nothing in 2020 can change that. That’s why we’re not canceling Thanksgiving this year.