“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil 4: 12).
Continuing in the tradition first established by President George Washington in 1789, our nation observes today its long-standing national day of Thanksgiving. On this occasion, it is most fitting to offer up gratitude for all the blessings we have received from our gracious God this past year. As we reflect on those things received from the Lord for which we ought to consider worthy of special thanksgiving, we should remind ourselves about what blessings are and why some of them may be difficult to spot. If you cannot perceive the Lord’s merciful and gracious hand in your life, a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving may be difficult to come by.
If you learned as I did about the events that led up to the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims, you probably got the PC version minus most of the details. The first winter at Plymouth Rock was a complete disaster. Half the new settlers died because of drought, the plague, and failure to understand how crops grow in the new world. Then a particular Native American named Squanto showed up. He was taken in by Spanish monks while in slavery and subsequently was captured by the British. They allowed him to return to his original village in 1619, which had been completely wiped out by disease. One year later, the Pilgrims showed up and settled in Squanto’s devastated village. Governor William Bradford wrote that Squanto “became a special instrument sent of God for [our] good… [he] never left us till he died.” It was Squanto, not the multi-cultural experience of native Americans generally, who taught the Pilgrims how to farm. With Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims survived to celebrate that first Thanksgiving in 1621. The central takeaway is that just survival was the occasion for which they gave thanks.
Perhaps it is easy for you to recall for thanksgiving if milk and honey and their equivalents were received by you and yours this past year. However, if you are like some, you must recount his blessings amid difficult times of want or experiences of adversity. Perhaps, these might mirror the kind of occasions noted above by the Apostle of having been brought low, or hungry and in need. Might these times be, as the Pilgrims first faced, when you knew that only the Lord could sustain you? And he did.
We are given, so we give thanks, and we give thanks by giving.
We usually think of our blessings in terms of the quantity and quality of the things that we have enjoyed, do we not? When things are going well, when we are experiencing great bounty, these are the times we understand to have been richly blessed. Conversely, when we suffer want and deprivation, we may be tempted to think that God’s blessings are either on hold or in short supply. At such times, we might wonder if God has forgotten us or if we have fallen out of his favor. Why should anyone give thanks while having been brought low or while facing hunger and need? This view is a misunderstanding of what constitutes a blessing from God.
From God’s perspective, blessings should be understood in some ways that might seem bewildering. A blessing might be something he bestows, but also something he withholds. Blessings might be God producing certain outcomes or preventing them. In each case, however, blessings are what come to us from our Lord’s infinite wisdom for our good. While he blessed the Apostle Paul with bounty and abundance, he also blessed him through hunger, suffering, adversity, and poor health. About the latter, Paul confessed to being blessed with a greater awareness of the sufficiency of God’s grace and his strength being perfected in his weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). God blesses us in similar ways; in plenty and in want; in adversity and in joyous times, in hunger and in bounty. He blesses us in what he gives and in what he withholds. Perhaps, our greatest sense of thankfulness and gratitude may come from just surviving amid poverty, adversity, or even a pandemic - all of which the Pilgrims endured in the North American wilderness. You may have your own stories about this past year that have reminded you that all you have and all that you are have only been sustained by His bountiful goodness.
Let’s be clear on how this works. Using the botanical metaphor, you reap everything you need from the Lord of all grace without any sowing on your part. Everything comes unconditionally to us as favor and gift from our gracious God. You did nothing to earn these gifts. And then, from your gratitude sowed and invested, you reap cheerful gifts of thanksgiving that benefit others where your joy becomes their joy. God grant us the mind and heart to measure our treasure in the riches of his grace, and at the same time to praise him from whom all blessings flow. Then also, let us sow our mind and heart with lives that reap a bounty of blessings for others. Here is the connection: we are given, so we give thanks, and we give thanks by giving.
Imagine the quandary of the modern atheist. As he becomes the recipient of good things understood full-well as neither earned nor deserved, he feels very indebted, but alas, he can think of no one to thank. How good it is not to have that problem. We have been neither lucky nor fortunate; we have been blessed. Fate has not shined upon us; God has! Things have not simply turned out well for us; rather we have been made well by He Who has given us both the Kingdom and all we need for daily life.
God grants us the mind and heart to measure our treasure and treasure our measure in the riches of his grace. At the same time, with the eyes of faith, let us praise him from whom all blessings flow; when they abound, and when we have been brought low. With those surviving Pilgrims let us appreciate that he often may grant us our greatest sense of thankfulness and gratitude for his blessings amid our own poverty and adversity – where we, like the Apostle Paul, have learned the secret of facing both plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Lord, keep us mindful of the secret that all that we have and all that we are come only from your bountiful goodness. And for that, with our nation, may we on this our National Day of Thanksgiving, ”Give thanks unto the Lord for he is good, and his mercy endures forever (Ps 107:9).