Last November, I browsed dozens of children’s books related to the Thanksgiving holiday, searching for one to teach my daughter about giving thanks. Almost all of them mentioned things to be thankful for but missed the fact that thankfulness has a person behind them. These books do teach kids to spot stuff they appreciate: their dog, toys, parents, grandparents, teachers, falling leaves, good health, and pumpkin pie. Both children and adults benefit from considering the blessings in life. But each of these books stopped short.

Gifts are great, and I love to receive them. But they’re not enough. The gifts we enjoy and give thanks for lead us to better know and enjoy the Giver.

The gifts we enjoy and give thanks for lead us to better know and enjoy the Giver.

And the two aren’t in competition. “Our enjoyment is all about him,” Trillia Newbell writes in Enjoy. “He gives good gifts, and we in turn thank him. But we not only thank God—we experience the fullness of enjoyment as we let those gifts point us to truths about him” (4).

We don’t have to choose God or his gifts. We can find joy in both, because they belong together.

Thanksgiving links the two as we better understand God through his gifts. It begins with identifying blessings, but these must point us to someone or else we’re not giving thanks. “True gratitude, Christian gratitude, doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it has an Object,” Nancy Leigh DeMoss writes in Choosing Gratitude (36).

We enjoy the gift and exalt the Giver. Gifts point us to God; they don’t take his place.

Believing all things come from God lays the foundation for biblical thanksgiving. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever” (Rom. 11:36). God is the source of our gifts and the object of our gratitude. Thanksgiving begins and ends with him. A God-centered life produces a praise-filled life.

Gratitude and Humility

“What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks rhetorically (1 Cor. 4:7). The honest answer, then and now: “Nothing.” We receive everything we have. It’s not that we play no role, but apart from God’s grace and blessing, we could not even contribute what we do. He gives us our bodies, minds, and physical abilities. Our place, position, skills, experiences, and opportunities depend on his sovereign provision.

Giving thanks provides perspective. Gratitude humbles us. It crushes pride and sweeps away entitlement. The more we give God credit, the less we take credit.

Thanksgiving helps us make less of ourselves and more of God, a perennial struggle for hearts that love attention and applause. Just a spoonful of gratitude helps the humility go down.

Just a spoonful of gratitude helps the humility go down.

As we experience self-forgetfulness, our hearts find the space to wonder and worship at the sight of God. It just takes us getting out of the way to make room (John 3:30). And as we recognize and reflect on God, it leads to joy in him.

In Matthew 7:9–11, Jesus moves from the lesser to the greater. If fallen parents know how to provide what their children need, how much more does God provide for us? His heart abounds with the generosity of a kind Father concerned with our provision and our pleasure. “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Not some gifts, but every gift, comes from God. He’s over-the-top gracious and generous.

God not only knows what we need. He knows when we need it and how to give it. When we give thanks, we move from gratitude for a gift to gratitude for the Giver.

Following the Trail

Investigative, crime-solving, or medical-mystery shows fill television programming. These shows understand there’s no such thing as a coincidence. Every effect has a cause. The evidence lays breadcrumbs that take us on a trail to discover the answer. We watch these shows, eager to connect clues and find the big picture.

Like a spiritual Sherlock Holmes, we must detect the divine connections around us. Our eyes must be open and our minds must be attentive to God’s work. God filled our world with his fingerprints, some unmistakable and others less apparent at first glance. Take the time to look, observe, and connect the dots. As you notice God at work, thank him.

Identify God’s involvement and activity. Recognize his handiwork, whether in your circumstances, what he teaches you, his work in or around you, or his gifts to you. Consider what blessings you take for granted. Any gift from God should lead us to God. God receives the credit he deserves, and we learn what he’s like through what he does, says, and promises.

Allow God’s gifts to teach you about the character and heart of the Giver.

Take a minute to list some gifts in your life, an action of God on your behalf, or an attribute of God on your mind. Then write how it helps you understand and thank him.

For example, I might give thanks for the finances to pay the bills, but this also helps me see God as my provider. Or I might give thanks to God for his forgiveness of my sin, and this points me to his mercy and grace. As I give thanks to God, I remember who he is and why he’s worthy of our thanksgiving.