Thanksgiving posts always seem to sound like such a scolding: we ought to give thanks.

Think about all the things you have and all other people who have nothing.
There, now: give thanks.

Don’t concentrate on what is missing, be grateful for what you have.
There, now: give thanks.

Ungrateful people are losers.
There, now: give thanks.

The problem is, guilt is a terrible motivation for giving thanks. When I read Bible passages instructing me to give thanks, it can sound the same way:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

On my grumpy days I feel like talking back to the scripture, “Don’t tell me to be happy! Do you think I could put it on from the outside?” Here’s a happy-coat, why don’t you put it on?

And yet, giving thanks is the will of God. So if it’s the will of God shouldn’t I simply try harder, be obedient, and say thank you?

For example, frequently we teach children to say please and thank you as a matter of courtesy – as a way of teaching them how to get along in society. It’s the price they must pay to get their milk and cookies. We’re more concerned with the outward performance of good manners than we are with true gratitude.

As we approach Thanksgiving in the United States this year, I’m beginning to discover there’s a difference between giving thanks and having a thankful heart. I’m also beginning to discover that the Father cares more about thankfulness that flows from the inside out than obedience we wear like a cheap suit.

Paul’s words in Thessalonians have something to teach us about the will of God: does the Father want outward compliance or a heart capable of expressing his will and doing it naturally? Of course, it’s always better to obey than not to obey, but I think he’s after more than mere obedience–he knows thankfulness is the best thing for us. He knows that when our hearts respond with prayers of joy and gratitude to the situations of life, we are responding out of Christlessness and not simply parroting the company line.

Rather than hearing thankfulness as a command, perhaps we can hear it as an invitation:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 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. Colossians 3:15-16

God is not honored when we tell him what we think he wants to hear–even though we don’t believe it. He knows better. He is honored (and we are healthiest) when our hearts and minds flow naturally with his. In this season we do well to recognize that included in the flow is a heart-condition called thankfulness.