Thanksgiving comes at a difficult time this year. Our economy is imploding. Stocks are down and anxiety is up. Citigroup, one of the largest companies in the world, lost sixty percent of its value in one week. The American auto industry is closing plant after plant. The Big Three automakers are begging Congress for a bailout. Small businesses are shutting their doors left and right, and consumer confidence is dangerously low. In this atmosphere, it is easy to despair or bemoan our state, but, during this one day of the year specifically centered on giving thanks, we should take the opportunity to gain perspective on the important things in life and to be thankful for what we have.
Many Americans have lost their homes or their jobs. Many others are struggling to afford gas or groceries. These times are not easy for anyone, but we should not despair. Our lives are not defined by how much we own or where we live. Our worth is not dependent on our material possessions. Our relationship to God and to our fellow man is what really defines us. God, family, and community always remain, despite our financial difficulties. These are the things for which we should give thanks.
There is a temptation to worry obsessively about our financial plight. But this temptation betrays too great a reliance on self. God knows our needs and He cares for us. The Gospel of Luke assures us that God cares for the birds of the air, the lilies, and the grass of the field and that we are more valuable to Him than they (Luke 12). He assures us that he will provide for us if we will but seek his kingdom. In good times and bad, he exhorts us to place our confidence not in ourselves but in him. We, of course, have a duty to make wise, careful decisions, but we will not add "a single hour" to our lives by worrying. (Luke 12:25 NIV) We have better things to do with our energy. Worry helps no one and harms our souls.
It is hard to imagine now, but this economic downturn may ultimately be a boon to our society. Perhaps we will relearn the virtues of saving more than we spend, of denying ourselves material wants we can't afford, of spending more time with family, community, and church. For years, maybe decades, our holidays have been dominated by consumerism—epitomized by the "Black Friday" shopping extravaganza after Thanksgiving. Faith, family, and friends were often lost in the hustle and bustle of decorating, shopping, and holiday planning. Our goals and sense of worth are too often centered on material gain: we want to retire by 65, we want to buy a vacation house, we want to get a new TV, etc. We spend so much time trying to achieve these ends that we miss out on the more important things in life.
We are tempted to worry as our mutual funds and retirement accounts dwindle. Many people approaching retirement age are watching their savings disappear before their eyes. They will have to work many years longer than they originally planned in order to stay afloat. This is an incredibly difficult time for those who place all of their hopes in their retirement, waiting until 65 to "really live." But for those who keep life in perspective, the draining of retirement accounts and the shrinking of mutual funds is difficult but not debilitating. This crisis presents us with a choice: either focus on the difficult times and spend the next several years worried and depressed, or work hard, tighten our belts, and find joy in the truly important things in life.
The Apostle Paul instructs us, "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thess. 5:16-18 NIV) This admonition came from a man who suffered far more difficulties than most of us will likely ever face. A man of great influence who was held in high esteem, he was brought low and suffered persecution and imprisonment for his faith in Christ. Paul was a man who knew what it was to be in need and to have plenty; nevertheless, he declared that he had "learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Phil. 4:12 NIV) His secret? "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Phil. 4:13 NIV)
Paul's secret can be our secret, too. Recognizing God's providence and his care for us will enable us to give thanks, even in difficult times.