The Grammar of Gratitude
NOVEMBER 21, 2023
“Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.”
Every year I hear that remark from a number of people. One of the reasons revolves around the timing of the holiday: it’s before the craziness of the Christmas season and there are no decoration expectations, ugly Christmas sweater parties, endless holiday music playlists, hectic schedules, or awkward gifts from that awkward great uncle. Thanksgiving, they’ll say, is just a time for an intentional, fantastic meal and some relaxed time with friends and family (as long as the great uncle isn’t there).
As someone put it: “I just like the feeling of Thanksgiving.” That’s not an uncommon sentiment. But some unfortunate consequences can happen when we confuse the meaning of the holiday with the meaning of the word: we can miss the Life-giving grammar of authentic gratitude.
Thanksgiving can actually prompt a powerful reset to the cadence of my journey if I realize it’s more than a holiday and more than an emotion. But for me to experience such a reset I need to take a quick refresher in English grammar. “Being thankful” or “exhibiting gratitude” implies a provider — it implies something or someone that has provided whatever I’m grateful for. You might even say it implies a direct object. One dictionary website defines a Direct Object as, “the person or thing upon which the action of a verb is performed or toward which it is directed.” (Mrs. Tucker, my delightful high school English Grammar teacher, would be proud of me for bringing this up. At least I think she would. My palms just got sweaty.)
For me to say “I’m thankful,” begs the question, “To whom am I thankful?” Whatever I’m grateful for didn’t just pop out of thin air. To be grateful is to understand not only the gifts and blessings I’m grateful for but where those gifts come from.
When I realize gratitude is not just the feeling of a holiday but an act of worship, it deepens the meaning without undermining the sentiment. With the word, “worship,” people can immediately think of a religious act confined to a house of worship. But true worship is not only a matter of going to church or corporate singing. It’s an all-of-life, humble, grateful response to the worth of God in my life. Responding to the worth of…
…His character by admiring Him,
…His grace by loving Him,
…His guidance by obeying Him,
…His agenda by following Him,
…His blessings by thanking Him…
How about taking this entire Thanksgiving week and treating it as a week of worship, an entire week of not only feeling grateful but also responding to the Direct Object of your gratitude? Of not only feeling thankful but actually giving thanks? Giving thanks to the God who gives us the people, places, and things (I’m on a roll with this grammar thing) that we consciously acknowledge as demonstrations of His smile in our story.
Authentic gratitude will mean engaging my mind and recognizing God’s worth in every nook and cranny of my life. It’ll mean paying attention, being constantly on the lookout for His fingerprints on my day and my story and the lives of people around me.
Authentic gratitude means engaging my heart — resonating and agreeing with the relevance of God’s proven ability to lavishly meet my needs. Jesus actually made a point of emphasizing that, when I think I’m worshiping, if my heart’s unengaged, it’s a vain waste of time. (Matthew 15:8-9)
Authentic gratitude will also mean tossing aside my addiction to passivity pills and actively engaging my strength and behavior in an all-of-life response to God’s worth. Worship is not a spectator sport. In both the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew and Greek words we translate as “worship” involve physical postures and actions. Worship is not just an attitude—it’s an activity. It will involve the ways I consciously live my life in God’s presence, spend my time, energy and money, and treat the people around me. So it will happen in plenty of places besides church.
I love how poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning revealed some familiarity with the art of paying attention—being aware of the worth, beauty, and goodness of God that’s displayed in the everyday stuff of life—when she wrote,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.
At the Thanksgiving table this year, how about, instead of being “unaware,” you “take off your shoes” and really “see” the goodness, truth, and beauty of God? And maybe even mention it in your out-loud voice?
“Place of worship” is a phrase we see on city maps and tour guides, referring to a building or holy site. This year, could I encourage you to let that Thanksgiving table not only be a setting for some great food, but also a place of worship and authentic gratitude? Even if the awkward uncle does show up.
Matt Heard is the Founder of THRIVE and is the author of Life with a Capital L: Embracing Your God-Given Humanity.