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Why do we need Thanksgiving?

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A good friend of mine starts decorating his house for Christmas early in November. While I love his Christmas enthusiasm, I challenge him, “What about Thanksgiving?” I can’t bring myself to rush into the yuletide season, because, well, I need Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the perfect way to bring the year to a close.

Why do we need Thanksgiving? Who do we thank? And how do we do it? Here is where one of the great psalms of the Bible, Psalm 103, helps me. It starts out, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”

Recently my wife and I watched the 1990 movie "Avelon."  It’s about a Polish Jewish immigrant family living in Baltimore in the 1940s who recently moved to America, and they are trying to figure out their new country. In the film, the mother is perplexed by Thanksgiving. She says with exasperation, “Thanksgiving, thanksgiving, why do we have to give thanks? We have to get the turkey and kill it to give thanks?! We’re giving thanks to whom?”

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Psalm 103:2 answers both the “who” and the “why” question. Who do we give thanks to? The psalm answers—it is the Lord to whom we ultimately give thanks. The psalm uses the sacred name of God. He is the one, eternal, self-existent, creator, sustainer, and redeemer. That’s who. Our thanksgiving holiday involves a lot of things but the fundamental thing, the most basic thing is to give thanks to God.

But why? Why should we give him thanks? Again, the psalm helps, “forget not all his benefits.” Benefits as in — blessings. We too easily forget. Jesus once told how he had healed ten lepers. Of the ten, only one came back to thank him.  We are like the 9 lepers. We experience many good things throughout the year, but then we forget to thank God for them. Sometimes we even think we are entitled to them. But we’re not.

When the psalmist says “bless the Lord, O my soul” he is talking to himself. He is exhorting his own soul, giving it a pep talk to not forget.

What benefits or blessings does he have in mind? He actually makes a list, which is a good way to not forget. His list includes forgiveness, healing, saving, blessing, renewal, etc. He could have listed much more. In the King James translation of Psalm 68.19, it reads, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits.” Think of all the benefits you have been blessed with this year: life, health, sight, sleep, hearing, family, friends, work, meals, shelter, work, etc.

Knowing the who, and the why, the practical question for most of us is — how? How can we cultivate a grateful heart? The psalmist answers by listing his benefits, or counting his blessings.

Here are three specific actions you can take to develop a grateful heart.

Begin with daily thanks. Try ending your day with thanksgiving. Several years ago my wife and I decided to dump the late-night television. Often, the last thing we do before retiring is to name five things that we each are grateful for from the day. That’s a great way to go to sleep. Better than counting sheep! And it sets our minds on a track to wake up in the morning with a new outlook.

Next, try weekly thanks. We worship at our church weekly. Worship involves a lot of things, but one thing it should involve is thanksgiving for God’s goodness to you. Before I leave for church, I usually reflect on the blessings of the week. I try bringing my own thank offering with me — a weekly thanksgiving list. It’s one of the most important things I bring to church.

Finally, give yearly thanks. A new habit I’ve been working on is to keep a yearly thanksgiving list. Throughout the year I write these things down in my planning book—good things, important things, even hard things. If I write them down, I won’t forget. I aim to have a list of 50 things to thank God for on Thanksgiving Day. Our family even sets 5 kernels of corn at each place setting on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table, asking each person to name five things they are thankful for this past year.

Look, the psalmist made a list. He seemed to know the importance of counting his blessings and the secret of developing a grateful heart.

Who do we thank? Why should we thank him? How do we thank him? Those questions from the movie "Avelon" are wonderfully answered in Psalm 103:2. “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” Before the Christmas rush at the end of the year, try counting your blessings.

Dr. Donald Sweeting serves as Chancellor of Colorado Christian University.

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