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How to Celebrate Thanksgiving When Giving Thanks Is Hard

If you’re like most Americans, giving thanks might feel extra challenging this November.

One recent survey discovered that 25% of the country plans to skip Thanksgiving dinner due to inflation. Almost half of the respondents opted to ask their guests to help cover costs. Close to 90% will serve at least one fewer dish.

And that’s just the financial side.

Tensions have never been more intense. Families squabble about getting COVID vaccines, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and other hot-button issues. Indeed, another recent poll reveals how almost one in five voters has experienced a falling out with family and friends over political issues.

To help you in thanking God, we created a 30 Days of Gratitude Prayer Guide HERE. Download and print this guide to keep with you as a reminder of God's love and promises.

Ours is an era for which Paul penned 2 Timothy 3:2-4. Just read the descriptions:

People are “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, . . . unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (NKJV).

No wonder offering up gratitude feels daunting.

However, during the Last Supper, Jesus modeled how to give thanks during dismal times. Highlight the italicized word: “The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).

The four gospels inform us how that night, Judas — one of the 12 men Jesus handpicked as disciples — cemented his betrayal.

But that’s not all. That fateful night was also the last time Jesus dined before His excruciating trip to Calvary.

What must Jesus have felt then?

Please don’t compare Him to the sitting statue of stony Buddha in many Thai or Chinese restaurants. The Bible describes Jesus as God and man both.

He self-referred as the Son of Man (see, for instance, Matthew 12:8 and Mark 2:10). That’s why Jesus had the same capacity to feel as we do:

It’s reasonable that Jesus attended the wedding reception, where He later transformed water into wine, with gaiety (John 2:1-11).

But back to the Last Supper. That evening’s progression of events must have evoked emotions, even for Jesus. Did He feel a tinge of disappointment because Judas double crossed Him?

Did His imagination paint a gruesome image of the intense pain He’d soon experience at the cross? Could He have wished for the agony to be over soon?

Giving Thanks When it Is Hard

Despite the swirl of activity around and inside Him that night, Jesus gave thanks. As His followers, we also ought to give thanks, including when times are rough.

But how? It’s human nature to be thankful for sunny times when smiles slide easily and everything seems rosy.

This article won’t dole out any advice to grit your teeth and crank out a thankful statement out of pure willpower. Getting from “God, these prices are killing me!” to “Lord, I’m thankful” does require intentional steps.

Giving thanks when it’s hard doesn’t require faking it until you make it, either. What this popular saying intends is for you to act contrary to how you feel in order to “make it,” but as a psychologist, I don’t endorse any move to muffle feelings.

Besides, faking things doesn’t really work; for instance, research shows that when you fake smiling, you will only up your happiness by a tiny degree.

So, how do we give thanks when times are hard? Here are five steps that can get you there.

1. Don’t say, “But I’m not Jesus.” It’s admirable that Jesus gave thanks during the most trying time of His earthly existence. But don’t dismiss His example by saying, “Yeah, but He’s the Son of God,” as though Jesus hid a superhuman secret to overcome the pull of feelings.

Jesus is our model. If it’s impossible to follow Jesus’ examples, God wouldn’t have inspired Paul to write, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul was 100% human. Like us. If he could imitate Jesus, this must mean the rest of us can too.

Besides, why would Jesus himself promise that we’ll do greater things than Him? (John 14:12).

2. Hello, hardship. One reason you can trust the Bible is because, unlike Instagram, it doesn’t curate its content to convey only the cute or uplifting.

The Bible doesn’t hide the devastating fact that His betrayer sat in His inner circle — someone He had picked Himself.

Similarly, it’s okay to admit factors that taint this Thanksgiving. Go ahead and list them. It’s not as though God wasn’t already aware of them anyway; at the same time, naming the things that bother you can actually help ease your anxiety.

3. Feelings to fuel prayers. Feelings arise for a reason. If you’re nervous, it may be because a part of you feels threatened.

Sadness pops up to notify you when you’ve lost something or someone valuable. Anger arises due to injustice you might have noticed or experienced.

In other words, feelings inform you how the external world affects your internal one.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge, instead of denying, your feelings. Treat feelings as sources of information that can fuel your prayer time.

Worried you don’t have enough money? Pray for provision. (Read this article if you crave further help). Angry about the latest headline? Ask God to intervene in that particular situation.

4. Glory on the good. I once read a book on feelings and faith. The author, who was also a pastor, shared how his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor — and get this — thanked God for the brain tumor. Her rationale? The tumor brought her closer to Him.

Here’s the thing. Will you chip your daughter’s front tooth so she’ll snuggle with you more?

Better yet, have you ever stumbled on any Scripture in which the Son of God gave thanks to the Father for something wicked?

Even though the narrative doesn’t detail Jesus’ thanksgiving prayer during the Last Supper, given the context, it’s likely He gave thanks for the nourishing meal He could enjoy before the beginning of His suffering. For 3.5 years of fruitful ministry. For earthly parents who did their best to nurture Him as a child.

It’s also possible Jesus gave thanks because only one of His disciples defected, leaving behind 11 faithful ones.

Likewise, instead of giving thanks for inflation, sickness in the family, or other horrible things, find the good you’ve experienced this year. Focus on it. And thank the Father — the Source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17) — for it.

5. Past victories. Even if this year has been extremely hard, rewind your memory further back and give thanks for past prayers God has granted.

How many times have you prayed for something before God answered? If you’ve prayed more than once for an issue, you can also give thanks for it again and again.

Bonus Thankfulness Tip

You can choose to give thanks in advance even though things still look gloomy. If you truly trust that God will turn things around and that He works all things for our benefit (Romans 8:28), you don’t need a change in your situation before showing gratitude.

Giving thanks for good things — while things look bleak — defines faith: “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

Regardless of your Thanksgiving dinner plans, I exhort you not to cancel thankfulness. You can be thankful whether or not a roasted turkey sits atop your decorated dining table.

Oh, and thank you for reading this article.

You’re one of the reasons I’m thankful this year.

For further reading:

Can We Really Give Thanks in All Things Like 1 Thessalonians 5:18 Says?

Is Thanksgiving Truly a Christian Holiday?

5 Things Not to Say to Family Members at Thanksgiving

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Drazen Zigic

dr. audrey davidheiser bio photoAudrey Davidheiser, PhD is a California licensed psychologist, certified Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist and IFSI approved clinical consultant, as well as author of Surviving Difficult People: When Your Faith and Feelings Clash. After founding and directing a counseling center for the Los Angeles Dream Center, she now devotes her practice to survivors of trauma—including spiritual abuse. Visit her on www.aimforbreakthrough.com and Instagram @DrAudreyD.

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