When Paul summarizes the nature of the Christian life, and thus the fundamental activity of the church, he frames it in terms of gratefulness. "And now," he tells the Colossians, "just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness" (2:6–7, italics added).
In the context of the church, then, gratefulness is the normal, expected lifestyle. In the context of the world in which we live, it is anything but that. Anyone with half an ounce of self-awareness recognizes how much we whine about what is missing in our lives, and how often we nurture what I call thanks-killing vices like anger, lust, and greed, and how often we're just indifferent to the many divine gifts showered upon us hour by hour.
So can a simple admonition like "be thankful" do the trick? Can something so deeply inbred in us as ungratefulness be whisked away with a simple command, one that seemingly can be simply obeyed with a tweaking of the will? Is thankfulness something we can conjure up like that?
Yes, at a certain level. For example, we've come up with verbal formulas to snap us out of ungrateful funks: "Look for the silver lining in the dark cloud"; "Look at the glass as half full, not half empty"; or the cliché par excellence, "Count your blessings." These clichés can help . . . for a while. But here's the truth of the matter: We can't keep it up. There are days when we just don't have the energy to count our blessings. And sometimes those days turn into weeks or even years. There are long stretches when we'd like to be thankful, but, frankly, we just don't give a rip.
Thanksgiving may sound easy at first, but under scrutiny it looks more and more impossible by the minute. And it doesn't get better when we look at the way Paul talks about it in Ephesians 5:20: "Give thanks for everything to God the Father . . ." (italics added).
This little phrase—always for all things, in the King James Version—reveals the utter inadequacy of all our human attempts to manufacture thanksgiving, whether through clichés or any other mood-altering activity. Be thankful always and for everything? Is he kidding? Even for my spouse and kids or roommates when they're driving me crazy? Even for my church when it fails to meet my spiritual needs? Even for my cancer, which is draining life from me?