Game time. Time to pile in the car and head off to grandma’s house to celebrate Christmas. For my older brother and me this was 10 minutes to waste until we saw our cousins, romped around the house for three hours, and scored some loot from “Santa”. For my parents the 10 minute drive was one last opportunity to passionately communicate the importance of acting like an actual human being. We may have been too young to spell m-a-n-n-e-r-s but we were clearly expected to have them.
“Remember boys, make sure you say, ‘Thanks’ when you open your presents”. In my family this was code for, “Grandma’s giving you socks and underwear for Christmas. I know you’re not going to be all that excited about it. Suck it up. Pretend you like it anyway and do your best to show some gratitude so you don’t embarrass anyone.” In other words, “Fake it.”
And so we did. We held the small present in our adolescent hands, feeling the 100% cotton socks and underwear beneath the wrapping paper. Opening Fruit of a Looms for a kid is like death by paper cut-especially when you weren’t allowed to tear the paper. Grandma saved it every year to be reused the following Christmas. We were opening disappointment in slow motion. With every tear of the paper we mumbled under our breath, “Be thankful. Be thankful.”
When the present was finally revealed we smiled, got up from our seat, walked over to grandma, gave her a strong hug, and said our obligatory “Thanks.” However, deep down we held on tight to a secret. It was a secret we knew we could never tell. No one, and I mean no one, could ever know. But we knew. We knew that when we gave “thanks” we really didn’t mean it. We pasted on a smile. We jumped through the recommended manner’s hoop. We said the words, but we didn’t mean them. We faked gratitude.
Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Always? I wonder if Paul ever got socks and underwear for Christmas when what he really wanted was new Birkenstock sandals and a beard trimmer! He did. Paul was exposed to the harsh winter of life. He experienced many unwanted presents. Suffering and sickness, abandonment and disappointment all too often arrived at his doorstep like an uninvited guest. Yet, he wrote about giving thanks “always” and in “everything”. I don’t think he meant “Fake it.”
How can you give thanks “always” and in “everything”? If gratitude is birthed in our circumstances we won’t be a grateful people. It’s impossible. Circumstances quickly change. Yesterday’s promotion can become tomorrow’s crushing responsibilities. Today’s love interest can become tomorrow’s heartbreak. Today’s new toy can be tomorrow’s mounting debt. If gratitude is dependent on circumstances we’ll always be left pretending. We’ll say “Thanks” through our gritted teeth and clinched fists. We’ll fake it.
What if our gratitude flows from another place? What if gratitude is grounded in the grace and character of God, and not in our changing circumstances? It has to be or we won’t have it. Gratitude is, after all, a feeling. It’s an affection. We have it or we don’t. When we don’t feel it, we shouldn’t fake it. We should confess it. God’s big enough to handle it.
James Metsger is lead pastor at Renaissance Bible Church in Concord, NC. He holds a master’s degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is husband to Melissa and father to Caedmon, Noah, and Amelia. In his spare time he likes to read, follow Michigan sports teams, and practice writing his bio in the third person.