The importance of being thankful

Friends in America told us: ‘Thanksgiving is almost better than Christmas – we gather the family together, enjoy wonderful food and play games, but we don’t have to buy any presents’.

I’ll always prefer Christmas because it celebrates Christ’s birth, but during our years in the US Alison and I also enjoyed Thanksgiving. It happens on the fourth Thursday of November each year. Many will fly or make long car trips to be with family.

Since our family was 4000 miles away, friends Jim and Barb invited us to join them. Actually, not just them – all their family. Almost 40 sat down each year at joined-up tables to eat an enormous meal. The main dish was turkey (not usually eaten at Christmas). The family made sure to give thanks for the blessings they enjoyed.

We brought the tradition back to the UK with us. Towards the end of each November, we’ve gathered family who live near us, cooked a turkey, enjoyed eating and playing some games, all the time giving thanks for each other and much more.

But I know many people find it hard to be thankful. They might be completely alone, or out of work, or sick, or facing problems they can’t solve. Life for them is hard; they don’t feel thankful.

But it is possible to be thankful, even when life is tough.

Here’s a big statement that’ll affect everything I write in this blog: Thanksgiving is an attitude of mind, not of circumstances.

Now, I am not saying that circumstances don’t matter. Don’t tell the woman brutally sexually assaulted she should be thankful the attack happened. Or say it to the family whose child was killed by a stray bullet during a drug gangs shootout. Or to those whose home and all their belongings have been destroyed by a tornado, leaving them with nothing but the clothes they wore as they huddled in their basement. These are dreadful tragedies which leave a deep and lasting sense of hurt and loss.

Yet many of the most thankful people I’ve known had gone through very hard times. Some were still struggling. But they had found ways to develop a positive and grateful attitude to life. I first met Sandy when I was unwell and he visited me. He was in his late 60s, a man with a bright, cheery, encouraging personality. I felt so much better after his visit. Only later did I learn he’d recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Until his death Sandy remained grateful for all his life had meant. Pat was like that too. Every joint in her body ached. She could walk unaided across a room, but not the length of her street. She got by with a Zimmer frame – a walker – but eventually needed a wheel chair. Yet when I visited to lift her spirits she lifted my spirits. She was thankful for her home, for her family, for neighbours that helped out, and much more. Pat died when her heart finally gave out, but we never forgot a kind lady who lived life grateful for all she’d had.

And that’s what I mean when I say that thanksgiving is an attitude of mind, not of circumstances.

I believe at least four things make a grateful life possible.

Living without resentment

The Old Testament account of Joseph is one of the greatest examples of letting go of the past and living for the future. Among several sons of Jacob, Joseph was his father’s favourite. His brothers were jealous and planned to kill him, but, at the last moment, chose to make money by selling Joseph to slave-traders. They in turn sold him on in Egypt. He served his master well, but was falsely accused of sexual assault and thrown into jail. But Joseph could interpret dreams, which he did for the Pharaoh. His reward was not only to be released from jail but given the highest post in the land, second only to Pharaoh. Joseph’s wise management saved Egypt from starvation during a long famine. But, back  in Canaan, his family were starving, so his brothers travelled to Egypt to buy grain. They were brought before Joseph. They did not recognise him, and after testing their honesty Joseph gave them grain. Later the brothers came begging forgiveness for how they’d wronged him. From the first moment they came to Egypt, Joseph could have had them executed. After all, they’d almost killed him. Instead they sold him. He was made a slave, falsely accused and put in jail. They had caused Joseph great harm. But he’d been merciful, and now Joseph’s reply to his brothers is astounding: ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good’ (Genesis 50:20). Their evil against him was in the past, and Joseph could see how God had put him in exactly the right place to be found by Pharaoh, made a ruler in Egypt, and save millions of lives.

Joseph was a man who refused to live in the past, forever angered by wrongs done to him. He let go his grievances, forgave his disloyal brothers, and gave thanks for what was good, for what he’d been able to do with his life.

The alternative – never-ending anger – would have put him back in a cell, this time a cell of resentment. Plenty live in that kind of prison today – they’re sad, bitter, discontented – trapped by what once happened to them. It’s a bad place to be.  

Resentment about the past drags us down. Thankfulness for the present lifts us up.

Noticing and valuing the good things

My colleague Bert was notorious for his pessimism. Everything could be going great, but he’d focus on ‘what just might go wrong’ even though there was no sign or likelihood that it would. As someone said: ‘For Bert, every silver lining has a cloud’.

I hear an equivalent to that from fellow golfers. Every time their ball gets a bad bounce and rolls into a bunker, they get angry and moan: ‘Did you see that? It’s not fair. I always get bad bounces.’

Bert was almost always wrong with his pessimism. And the complaining golfers are wrong that they always get bad bounces – they forget all the times their ball got a good bounce, such as glancing off a tree into the middle of the fairway.

It seems that we can’t forget bad events and can’t remember good events. If that’s how our minds are focused, we won’t have much about which to be thankful.

But we don’t have to let the negative dominate our minds. One of the keys to thankfulness is noticing and valuing good things. This week I heard an interview with a coronavirus patient in hospital who said: ‘You don’t value your health until you lose it’. That’s often true, but it doesn’t have to be like that. With a little thought, we can value our health while it’s good and be grateful for what that lets us do. Similarly we can value our families, or that we have enough money to live on. Or be grateful for our job, our friends, our homes, our safety, and so on.

As a child I was trained very firmly about how to cross a road: Stop – look right – look left – look right again – then, if nothing is coming in either direction, walk across, but don’t run! (Adjust that guidance if you live in a country where driving on the right is normal!) That was simple advice compared to today’s more sophisticated instructions.[1] But my mind absorbed that  ‘right / left / right’ formula. And it worked.[2] Our minds can be trained. So, like my crossing the road routine, we can create a default mode to stop / think of good things / be thankful.

It easy to drift towards negativity, but it’s not inevitable. We can discipline our minds to think of things for which to be thankful.

Accepting that life doesn’t always go in our favour

I often hear someone complain: ‘Life isn’t fair’. The honest (but not tactful) reply could be: ‘And who said life should be fair?’

Here are two things about the fairness of life.

First, we live in a broken world. God made it perfect but after very little time it was spoiled. Theologians might say we now live in a ‘fallen world’. So, if it’s broken or fallen, it’s not likely that only good things will flow our way. Bad things will happen too. Sometimes they won’t be our fault. Sometimes they will be. We make rash choices, and suffer hard-to-bear consequences. This world isn’t perfect nor are we perfect, so our lives will include ‘unfair’ things.

Second, isn’t it arrogant to think everything that happens to us should be good, pleasant, fair? If the whole world was perfect, what everyone experienced would be perfect. But no-one really believes everyone and everything is perfect. But then, why should we be excused hardship? Why should nothing unfair happen to us? And not to our family? The hard reality is that we don’t get a pass. Every person goes through good and bad times. Life is not always good for anyone.

Therefore, let’s avoid unrealistic expectations. Life will bring trouble as well as joy. Accept that. A starving man is grateful for a plate of food, and doesn’t quibble that it includes brussels sprouts (or cabbage, or broccoli…). He’s just grateful to have food. Likewise, let’s be grateful for the life we have, pleasant and not so pleasant.

Always believing good things still lie ahead

I’ve talked with many couples who were planning their weddings. Usually one of them would say, ‘We want our wedding day to be the most wonderful day of our lives’. If I knew them well, with a smile I might joke: ‘Really? So everything will be downhill after your wedding day?’

Now, I knew what they meant, and they knew that I was teasing them. No-one was offended. And we’d have a good chat about how to make marriage wonderful for the long-term.

The serious point for now is that for some people the best is past, perhaps long past. Nothing good lies ahead. Which means there’s also nothing for which to be thankful.

I prefer to think of my life like chapters in a book. So, were there wonderful things about my childhood? Yes, there were. In my next chapter, moving through the teens, were there wonderful things? Yes. And the years just after leaving home and starting work? Yes. And so on, thinking through all the major stages of my life, each one like a new chapter in a book. What I don’t do is compare the later chapters to the earlier chapters. I’m the same person, but most other things are different. They’re not comparable. So I don’t wonder whether this chapter is as easy or pleasant as chapters from decades ago. I only seek the good in the chapter I’m living now, and hope for equal or greater happiness in chapters yet to be written.

It works for me. I don’t wish I was back where I once was in life. I do enjoy the time I’m in now, and I have plenty to look forward to in the next chapter. All of which makes it easier to be thankful for all that’s around and ahead of me. Living gratefully is wonderful.


[1] A great guide for crossing the road, written for parents with young children, can be found at this UK website:

[2] Except once! I panicked and forgot my training, with near disastrous consequences. See my blog ‘Lasting relationships are not lucky or unlucky’ posted on June 27, 2021. You’ll find it via the Archives list