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How to Cultivate a Thankful Heart No Matter What

Cultivating thankfulness is a strong, costly part of discipleship.

“What are you most thankful for this year?” It’s the question we anticipate passing around the table as we celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. Reciting our gratitude is part of the turkey dinner and pumpkin pie. It’s what we do on Thanksgiving.

Like many of our American traditions, Thanksgiving has retained some shallow roots of what it was originally intended to be, but for most of us, it has lost the “punch” of spiritual significance. Being thankful means more than sharing a list of good things in your life. Throughout Jewish and Christian history, true thanksgiving has been paired with a “sacrifice.”

Before your mind goes to slaughtered goats from the Old Testament, remember that we are still called to bring a different kind of sacrifice to the Lord as New Testament Christians. The writer of Hebrews spells this out for us:

Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name.And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. (Hebrews 13:15–16)

Even if we have grateful hearts this week, most of us celebrate without anything resembling a sacrifice. Probably the closest we will get to sacrificing is sitting next to a relative we don’t get along with. Yet true thanksgiving means more than writing God a proverbial “thank you note” for all of our blessings. An incident in David’s life helps paint the picture for why thanksgiving should also include a “sacrifice of praise.”

David sinned against God by ordering a census of all of the able warriors in Israel. As punishment, God sent a plague against the people of Israel, killing 70,000 of them. Just as an angel was poised to destroy Jerusalem, God said, “Stop! That is enough.” David bought the land where God stopped the angel, with the intention of building an altar to the Lord. The man who owned the land offered to give it to David, but David protested, “No, I insist on buying it for the full price. I will not take what is yours and give it to the Lord. I will not present burnt offerings that have cost me nothing!” (1 Chronicles 21).

David’s actions show us two different ways that we can offer the Lord a sacrifice of thanksgiving to show him our gratitude.

1. Being Thankful When You Don’t Have Reason to Be

Think about it. God had just struck 70,000 Israelites when David built an altar of praise. No doubt, David felt grief and even anger based on what had just happened. However, he chose to respond to the Lord with praise and gratitude that the Lord spared Jerusalem. Now that’s just incredible. Who would want to be thankful in a moment like that? Yet we are encouraged to “continually offer a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that profess his name.”

Maybe you find yourself this Thanksgiving feeling like you have very little to be thankful for. A true sacrifice of thanksgiving is declaring the goodness of God when life is anything but good.

Corrie Ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place, shared a story of offering such a sacrifice of praise. Corrie and her sister, Betsie, had been captured by Nazis for hiding Jews and placed in the Ravensbrück concentration camp where Betsie eventually died. Of course, the conditions were horrible, including fleas in the barracks constantly biting them. Betsie challenged her sister with the verse, “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). With her sister’s encouragement, Corrie very reluctantly thanked God for her terrible circumstances, even the fleas. Eventually, Corrie realized that because the fleas were so bad, the guards never came to their barracks, allowing Corrie and Betsie to hold worship services! Now that’s a sacrifice of Thanksgiving!

What is the last thing in your life you feel like thanking God for today? Maybe now is the time to offer a true sacrifice of Thanksgiving, trusting that God has allowed even the worst circumstances for his unseen purposes.

2. A “Thank You” That Costs Something

When David built his altar of praise to the Lord, he refused to offer God something that had cost him nothing. We see this same theme other places in Scripture where a woman poured costly perfume on Jesus as an act of worship (Matthew 26:6–13). Sometimes our words of thanks actually cost something, but often they don’t. Would you allow yourself to be so moved by thankfulness that you sacrifice something precious to you? The verse in Hebrews quoted earlier spells out one way to do this: And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Jesus isn’t here for us to anoint with costly perfume. However, he has called us to be his hands and feet to a hurting world. There are many around us who need a “cup of cold water,” financial help, and to know about the Savior who died for them. We serve others over the holiday season not just because “it’s that time of year.” We write that big check, cook a meal for a hungry family, and show love to the downcast as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to our Lord who has so graciously blessed us. As I write this, my own heart is convicted. So many holidays have gone by with the intention of truly worshiping the Lord, but my thanks and praise seem empty with the clamor of family, food, and shopping. I want this year to be different. I truly want to offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. How about you?

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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