You probably have not heard of Sarah Hale, but you likely do recognize her most famous poem — Mary’s Lamb. Besides her work as a poet, Sarah was a magazine editor and advocate for the end of slavery.
She also appealed to several United States presidents, asking them to create a day of national thanksgiving to God. One president finally agreed to her request, and Abraham Lincoln observed the first ever National Thanksgiving Day in 1863.
If you know your U.S. History, 1863 would be a rather unusual time to find things to be thankful for, wouldn’t it? The Civil War was raging around the nation. People were dying, the nation was on the brink of being ripped apart, yet President Lincoln considered it necessary to set aside an entire day for the nation to give God thanks for His blessings.
Since then, every president has given a speech on Thanksgiving Day, and recognized it as a federal holiday. This normally happens on the fourth Thursday every November. But one year, President Andrew Johnson gave his thanksgiving address in December, because he forgot to do it earlier!
While even our presidents can forget to be thankful, we’re encouraged to follow the perfect example of gratitude. In fact, His entire life on earth is a model of what a thankful heart looks like. The Lord Jesus perfectly balanced His God-man status, simultaneously being God and consistently giving thanks to God.
During His earthly life, Jesus demonstrated that thankful spirit publicly through His words, prayer life, and attitude. Before meals, Jesus thanks His Father for the food (Matthew 15:36). Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus begins by praying, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” (John 11:41).
From the life of Jesus, there are three critical lessons that we can learn in developing a grateful disposition and attitude.
Give thanks to God, even when you don’t receive thanks from others.
In human history, no one was more worthy of thanks than Jesus. He saved people from storms, healed them of their lifelong injuries and illnesses, and fed them where there seemed like there was no food to be had. Jesus lived a life of service, helping others, and that service often went unappreciated.
Many times, in Scripture after Jesus performs a miracle, the person healed runs off in amazement, or tells others about what Jesus did without stopping to thank Him. In fact, it happens so rarely that Jesus typically pointed it out, when it took place.
For instance, in Luke 17, Jesus heals ten men of their leprosy, and all ten run off to show themselves to the priests, a custom required to be declared clean again and reenter society. One of them, however, turned back and went to Jesus, falling on the ground and giving thanks. Jesus asked, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Jesus could have felt unappreciated when He healed someone and did not receive a “thank you”. But He continued to humbly serve others, and most importantly, He continued to give thanks to His Father.
Give thanks to God, and others just might follow your example.
During their time on earth with Jesus, His disciples do not appear to be particularly grateful people. They, like the crowds, do not always thank Jesus when He provides food, heals or teaches. But they certainly were watching Jesus, listening to His every word. Later in life, the disciples showed that they had apparently taken notice of Jesus’ example. The epistles of John, James and Paul overflow with thankfulness. Paul, especially, begins almost every letter thanking God for the people he is writing to (Philippians 1:3, Romans 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:4, Colossians 1:3).
If you have young children, or grandchildren, be aware that they are watching you, picking up habits and traits and eventually imitating you. Do you thank God before meals? Do you praise God for that near miss on the highway? Do you thank God publically for His goodness to you and your family? If you don’t, the people in your world might not either.
Give thanks to God, even when you don’t feel thankful.
When Jesus sat in the upper room with His disciples, mere hours before His death on the cross, He understood what was about to happen to Him. He was about to endure the worst physical suffering imaginable along with unimaginable emotional suffering as He bore the sin of the world and endured the rejection of His Father.
But even in the face of these coming events, Jesus “took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 22:19). As Jesus prepared to go to the cross He still remembered to give thanks to God for little things, like food on the table.
This kind of gratitude is unnatural, but it is critically significant. There will be times when you don’t feel thankful, when you don’t feel grateful to God for anything. Follow the example of Jesus and give thanks anyway.
By doing so, your spirit will be focused back on the sovereignty of God, recognizing the ways He provides for you, protects you, and preserves you.