Gratitude gets wonky when we sit down at our Thanksgiving banquet table and look side to side, doesn’t it?
Look to your right, and there’s your neighbor who went to school for fewer years than you, works fewer hours than you, and makes twice as much money. Look to your left, and there’s your senior pastor, who usually receives 100 percent of the Pastor Appreciation offering while you’re lucky to pocket a $10 Starbucks gift card.
It’s reasonable for youth workers to become frustrated, upset, even bitter when they feel marginalized, unappreciated, or forgotten. When bitterness and apathy take a seat at the table, gratitude becomes elusive.
Yet the Thanksgiving season compels us to teach young people about contentment and appreciation for what we have—even when that feels more like a bologna sandwich than a turkey feast. It’s convicting to remind students to “be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11, NIV) when in the depths of your heart, you aren’t.
Here’s a surprise: Discontentment is acceptable—and maybe even therapeutic. After all, God loves justice. A sense of fairness propels us to question when we’re slighted (see Proverbs 16:11; Micah 6:8; and Job… the whole book!). It’s okay to cry out to God in frustration when the custodian’s office is bigger than ours. Even David did it—and he was chasing God’s heart!
Jesus welcomes when we confide in him and unload. But problems arise when we wallow long enough that bitterness takes root. A “drive-by” disillusionment isn’t the issue; parking there is.
Sadly, memorizing all the right Bible verses about thanksgiving, prayer, and contentment may not be enough to inoculate you from that. Instead, consider Philippians 4:13 in context. We use “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” as encouragement to succeed at whatever we’re trying to accomplish. But in context, the Scripture isn’t concerned with equity. It’s more of an antibiotic for a wounded, broken soul needing gratitude and healing.
Think about broadening your comparisons. It’s easy to get stuck in the cycle of comparing “up,” which easily breeds discontentment. A bologna sandwich for Thanksgiving suddenly looks a lot better when the alternative is digging through a dumpster for rotten scraps or begging on a street corner.
Take time to confess your discontentment… especially if you’re teaching on it. Be raw and honest with Jesus, admitting that your frailty is a living example of why you need him. Hiding or denying that you’re sick rarely brings healing. And if you’ve been ill long enough, hiding is tough anyway.
The truth is, what we have or don’t have shouldn’t produce gratitude in the first place. Thankfulness comes not from what sits on the table in front of us but from what we get to bring to the table.
Second Corinthians 9:12-15 (The Message) says it like this: “Carrying out this social relief work involves far more than helping meet the bare needs of poor Christians. It also produces abundant and bountiful thanksgivings to God. This relief offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the plain meaning of the Message of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone.”