By Meredith Cook
The holiday season flows with words of gratitude and songs of joy, but Thanksgiving and Christmas also come at a time when many people are weary from the events of the past ten months.
Many people have experienced tragedy and sadness; others experience stress that comes from the busyness of the holiday season. Still others struggle with the state of their country and the world.
But despite how discouraged or stressed we may feel, Thanksgiving and Christmas should remind us of all the reasons we have to be thankful. Not least of these is the grace that extends to us from the cross.
A former pastor of mine often reminded his congregation that in Christ, our greatest need has already been met. Our biggest problem—being separated from God—is solved through Christ’s death and resurrection. This truth is especially important for us to consider this time of year as we celebrate all we have to be thankful for and the joy of Jesus’ birth.
Thanksgiving and Christmas represent two key qualities of the believer: gratitude and joy. These should be ingrained in us. Throughout the Bible—from the Pentateuch, to the Psalms and Proverbs, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles—we’re exhorted to be thankful and joyful in all circumstances.
And we can do so precisely because of our salvation.
Defining Gratitude and Joy
Although Christians are apt to equate gratitude and joy, they’re actually different qualities.
The Bible makes gratitude a constant theme by continually commanding us to be thankful. Giving thanks requires active effort. It involves consciously recognizing and thanking God for who He is, for all He’s done, for all He’s promised, and for all He’s given us in Christ. Gratitude is something we cultivate as we count our many blessings.
While joy may require less action and work, it’s no less of an important quality. My pastor calls joy a state of being that’s based on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us joy is a fruit of the Spirit, a quality we increasingly exhibit as we grow in Christ.
Gratitude and Joy Define the Believer
Believers and nonbelievers alike can feel thanksgiving and joy. So how do these qualities manifest themselves differently in the believer? First, gratitude and joy are not merely the result of feeling happy, which is often how the world defines joy. These qualities are inherent in a person filled by the Holy Spirit—a person who realizes their biggest problem has been solved because of God’s grace.
Neither gratitude or joy are bound by time or circumstances. The Bible presents both qualities as enduring and universal—not temporal nor limited to “good circumstances.” It doesn’t make sense to the world that believers can be joyful and grateful even in times of sorrow, mourning, and suffering.
But we know why we can always have joy. R.C. Sproul writes, “The key to the Christian’s joy is its source, which is the Lord. If Christ is in me and I am in Him, that relationship is not a sometimes experience. The Christian is always in the Lord, and the Lord is always in the Christian, and that is always a reason for joy.”
Striving to Be Thankful and Joyful
Gratitude and joy are dancing partners in the Christian life—one almost always causes the other. The more gratitude we have, the more our hearts produce joy. And as joy increases, so must our gratitude.
The reverse is also true. As we cease to be grateful, our joy suffers. When we take our eyes off the grace extended to us at the cross, our gratitude is replaced by fears that rob us of joy.
John Piper calls gratitude a “guardian of the soul.” He writes, “Unless the song of thanksgiving is being sung in our hearts the enemy outside will deceive his way into the city of our soul.”
This holiday season, let’s be a people who exude joy and gratitude that extends throughout the entire year. Let’s do the hard work of cultivating thankfulness in our hearts in all circumstances and allow that gratitude to manifest itself into joy.
Let’s keep our eyes fixed on Christ and view all things through the eternal perspective given to us through our salvation.
Meredith is the wife of Keelan, an editor for IMB.org, and an M.Div graduate in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.