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?
This little phrase points out that it isn't from time to time that we get in sour moods, that once in a while we forget to be thankful, or that it's only a matter of willpower to get upbeat again. No, ungratefulness is a state of being, a sickness at the very core of souls, something that defines our personality; it's what theologians call original sin—a signal of something desperately wrong with us.
Thankful always and for everything? Are you crazy, Paul? It would take a miracle!
That's exactly what Paul believes it does take, and why he's bold enough to command thanksgiving. He believes the miracle is possible, and so he adds a phrase that suggests from whence the miracle comes: "Give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (italics added).
Jesus Christ is the Source of our hope. To live in gratefulness in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is to recognize that the impossible possibility of gratefulness is granted to us again and again. There is no reason to despair.
Naturally our calling to live and breathe thanksgiving is high—so high as to be humanly impossible. So we will fall far short of it in this life, and fall short time and again. We will have moments when a pure and complete thanksgiving floods our souls, but most days we'll live in hope.
That means that when, unsurprisingly, we find ourselves wallowing in ungratefulness again, we will not get discouraged. Because at that moment, despite the fact that we do not yet thank God always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will remember that the Lord Jesus Christ has done something extraordinary in and for us, something that affects us in everything and for always.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @markgalli.