Thoughts from President Ellis — The difference between gratitude and thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time of year when I can lay aside my professional obligations and be truly present with my loved ones. This time of fellowship with my family is indeed a blessing and would be near the top of all the things for which I’m grateful this season. Thanksgiving is a good reminder to keep those things in our hearts year-round, just as we keep Christ in our hearts.

In Ephesians 3:17b-19, Paul writes, “…And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” We are meant to keep Christ’s love for us in our hearts, to abide in it as Christ abides in God. Doing so is an active recognition of our gratitude and it builds a bridge between the everyday inactive gratitude we have, and the act of giving thanks. 

It is important to recognize that gratitude and giving thanks aren’t the same thing. Our culture often uses them interchangeably, so it is crucial that we as Christians make the distinction if we are to be intentional in our relationships with each other and with God. When we are grateful for something, when we feel gratitude, we are experiencing something internal, personal and private. Through the recognition and naming of the objects of our gratitude, these feelings help to form our Christian worldview. But holding gratitude in our hearts and abiding in the love of Christ only gets us halfway there.

If our gratitude is to be meaningful, it requires action, it requires the act of giving thanks. In giving thanks, we honor God, the one from whom all of our blessing flow. We externalize the private counting of our blessings through prayer and worship of our Creator, through reading and meditating upon scripture, and through our every action, as both individual members of the body of Christ and as the corporate Church itself.

In Colossians 3:16-17, Paul encourages us to do exactly this, and writes “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Living out this thankfulness day-to-day won’t always look like Sunday morning worship or a mission trip to Guatemala. In my role as president of Spring Arbor University, I give my thanks through fellowship with our students, faculty and staff. I give my thanks by joining them in living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. I give my thanks through my service to this community, through sharing the story of SAU with each donor, student and community member I meet. Thank you for allowing me to do this. May we live out and act upon our feelings of gratitude toward each other and toward God. May we glorify him. There is truly no better thanksgiving than that.

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