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It’s that time of year again. The family is gathered around the table. Grandma asks each person to say what they’re thankful for – “And you’re not allowed to simply say ‘God’ or ‘Family’ or ‘This food’!” The kids (and some of the adults) roll their eyes while racking their brains for something to say. The economy is down, World War III is probably about to break out, and the world is on FIRE – but it’s Thanksgiving SO JUST BE GRATEFUL DAGNABBIT! Scenes like this have created a new cultural phrase – and one that we at Mama Bear wish to avoid: Toxic Gratitude. Toxic positivity? Yeah, that’s maybe a thing. You know, when a person isn’t allowed to grieve or have a bad day. There’s no verse anywhere declaring that “Thou shalt be chipper every day.” But toxic gratitude? Nah, brah. Now you’re just putting the word “toxic” in front of anything good to make it bad. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen. It’s not going to happen. 

What the heck is “toxic gratitude”?

First, let’s take a look at what people mean when they say “toxic gratitude.” It’s important to note that “toxic gratitude” is supposedly a subset of “toxic positivity,” which describes covering up or suppressing one’s authentic negative emotions to always have (or appear to have) a positive outlook. An example of toxic positivity is telling a friend to “look on the bright side” when they have experienced a true loss, rather than validating their pain. 

In the articles touting “toxic gratitude,” I noticed a very important theme: gratitude is being defined as an emotion. To the authors, being grateful is the same thing as feeling grateful. In fact, kidshealth.org defines gratitude as “when you feel thankful for the good things in your life.” Therefore “toxic” gratitude is meant to describe a situation in which a person is told (or tells themselves) that they should feel grateful and suppress any negative emotions, including pain or justified anger. 

This is where we ask ourselves: Is it true that gratitude is merely an emotion? 

What is the truth about gratitude?

The Oxford Dictionary definition of gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Showing appreciation and returning kindness are actions, not emotions. When we see charges of “toxic gratitude,” we’re not dealing with gratitude at all, because what we are actually dealing with is an emotion. Someone might use the phrase “Just be grateful,” but what they really mean is, “Just be happy.” And that is when we might put on a happy face and stuff down our negative emotions as deep as they can go. But thankfully, the Lord does not ask us to do that. (Want proof? Read the Psalms and Lamentations). Biblical gratitude does not require forcing or faking happiness. Biblical gratitude is never toxic. Click To Tweet

True gratitude is acknowledging the good gifts in our lives and especially the Gift Giver–God who brings about good in every circumstance for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). We don’t have to fake or force the emotion of happiness. All we are called to do is confess the truth about our good God – even if we do so while crying… 

And this is what is so brilliant about gratitude: more than just acknowledging the good that comes from God, the practice of gratitude aligns our minds with truth. Whether we are feeling down or downright suffering, the enemy will use whatever he can to discourage us and tempt us to wallow in self-pity while ruminating on the bad. But when we give in to this temptation, we are not recognizing the truth. We are giving in to the lie of hopelessness and despair. We may suffer, yes, but we need never despair. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to remain grounded in the truth that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). If we keep our minds not on this earthly kingdom (which is ruled by “spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12), but on Christ’s heavenly kingdom (which is not of this world – John 18:36), we are reminded that our life is now hidden with Christ and we patiently await appearing with Him in glory (Colossians 3:3-4). The objective truth that God will redeem all things for good is something we can cling to, declare, and rest in. This produces true gratitude in our hearts, even when life isn’t peachy. Click To Tweet

How do we advocate for biblical gratitude?

Unfortunately, our culture isn’t too keen on the idea that truth is objective. In our postmodern culture, “perception is reality” and many people believe that the way a person subjectively experiences something is simply “their truth.” If, by secular standards, we create our own values and even shape our own realities, then it follows that we decide whether a person, thing, or circumstance is a blessing or harm. Some people caught up in New Age practices even attempt to “manifest” blessings, which means to bring them about, by attracting them through speaking self-affirmations. This comes under the guise of positive thinking, but in reality, it merely provides an illusion that one is in control of life’s circumstances. It also bypasses any need for giving thanks to a sovereign God and keeps their focus on the self. But here’s the truth: a blessing from God is objectively a blessing, whether or not someone recognizes it as such. By failing to show gratitude to the Lord, people are missing out on another blessing – the encouragement and joy that gratitude produces in our hearts!

If the Bible is our source of objective truth, then we know that all good things come from the Father (James 1:17). And we know that good is produced from every circumstance (James 1:2-3). What amazing news this is! This is far from “toxic positivity.” No matter what we are going through, we truly do have something to be grateful for. That is the goodness of our God. If Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” let us align our minds with truth and continuously give thanks to Him. 

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-29

Three ways to promote biblical gratitude with our kids

1. Make Giving Thanks a Habit

A really simple way to do this is to start every prayer to the Lord with thanksgiving. Remind your kiddos each time you bow your heads to pray to thank God for something specific before making a request. Something I often do with my kids is I pray in the car as we are driving out of our neighborhood, and I begin by thanking the Lord for the sunshine or the rain or for whatever is in my heart at the moment. We can both model and teach this habit of gratitude to our children.

2. Model Gratitude in Grief

Recently my family experienced the heartbreak of our beloved fur-baby leaving us for doggy heaven. While grieving, I made sure to emphasize how grateful I was that our pup did not suffer like some do with drawn-out illnesses. I did this while also validating my family’s feelings of shock and pain. Apparently, the kids were influenced positively by this because a sweet neighbor informed me that my kids told her they were sad about their dog but happy she didn’t suffer, and that she lived a good long life. My neighbor was impressed and called them “well-adjusted.” I say this to remind you, Mama Bears, that our kids are watching us. modeling the fruits of the Spirit has a greater impact on them than we realize. 

3. Motivate Generosity through Gratitude

Help your kids understand that ultimately every gift comes from God. Even when we give to others, we give out of what the Lord has first given us. If you ever participate as a family in a charity drive, you can remind your kiddos that you are simply giving out what God has given you. This type of gratitude frees us to be more generous so that we may in turn be a blessing to others.  

So, when you find yourself at Thanksgiving dinner, don’t roll your eyes at Grandma! Let us align our minds with truth through the practice of gratitude, which honors our Lord. May we recognize God's goodness and allow the Holy Spirit to produce true and lasting joy in our hearts despite whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Click To Tweet

Happy Thanksgiving from the Mama Bears!