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An ancient story and the transforming power of optimism: Three reasons for thanksgiving

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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An ancient story and the transforming power of optimism: Three reasons for thanksgiving
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This story could be more than two thousand years old: A farmer’s horse ran away. His neighbor commiserated with him on his loss, but the farmer replied, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”

This proved true when the horse returned the next day, bringing with it a group of wild horses it had befriended. The neighbor reappeared to congratulate the farmer on his windfall, only to hear the same reply, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” 

The farmer was right again, as the next day his son tried to mount one of the wild horses and fell, breaking his leg. Again his neighbor commiserated with him, only to hear a third time, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”

And a fourth time the farmer’s wisdom prevailed: the following day, soldiers came by commandeering young men for the army, but the son was exempted because of his injury. 

Optimists live better and longer 

This ancient tale illustrates an important fact: much of life consists not in what happens to us, but in how we respond to what happens to us. Whether we choose to be pessimists or optimists, we find that we are usually right. 

And if we choose to be an optimist, studies show that we are likely to live better and longer. 

Researchers have discovered direct links between optimism and better cardiac health, a stronger immune system, better lung function, mindfulness, compassion, kindness, and having a strong sense of purpose in life. Now a new study reports that men and women with the highest levels of optimism had an 11 to 15 percent longer lifespan on average than those who practiced little positive thinking. The highest-scoring optimists also had the greatest odds of living to the age of eighty-five and beyond. 

So, how can we be more optimistic? Psychologists encourage us to imagine our best possible self, keep a journal of positives, take a few minutes to practice gratitude, and bring to mind people who have helped us. 

These are all good steps, of course, but I’d like to suggest an additional approach that is especially relevant for this Thanksgiving week. Writing for Christianity Today, pastor Jay Y. Kim notes that Christian hope is based not on us but on God. More specifically, on what God has done and on what he will do. Today, we’ll focus on the former, and tomorrow on the latter. 

No matter where you are and no matter your circumstances, three reasons for thanksgiving apply to you right now. 

One: Give thanks for your world 

Astronaut Victor Glover arrived recently at the International Space Station. The first African American to go on a long-term space mission, he brought his Bible and communion cups so he can participate in virtual worship services while circling our planet. 

He will have much to see that is cause for thanks. Our planet orbits a star so large it would take 1.3 million Earths to fill it. It is one of 100,000,000,000 known stars in our Milky Way galaxy. There are 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the known universe. 

And the God who made all of that measures it with the palm of his hand (Isaiah 40:12). 

Two: Give thanks for your life 

Astronaut Glover can find reasons for gratitude not just outside his ISS window but also in his mirror. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson invites us to consider the fact that “every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.” 

David spoke for himself and for all of us when he said to God, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). 

Three: Give thanks for your day 

And Astronaut Glover can find cause for thanks when he considers that each day is a gift we cannot create but can celebrate. Frederick Buechner describes “today” this way: “It is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by darkness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again. It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.

“‘This is the day which the Lord has made,’ says Psalm 118. ‘Let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (v. 24). Or weep and be sad in it for that matter. The point is to see it for what it is, because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you’re wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you’ve been waiting for always that you’re missing.

“All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from it. Today is the only day there is.” 

Are you failing, surviving, or thriving? 

In writing on thanksgiving during a pandemic, my purpose is not to be naïve but to suggest that choosing an attitude of gratitude even in the darkest days is best for us. It honors the One who made us, loves us, and redeems us by his grace. And it shows a suffering world that our hope is based not on our suffering world but on our loving Lord. 

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and author of a new book, From Survive to Thrive. He told an interviewer recently that his twenty-nine-year-old daughter, after giving birth to his granddaughter, contracted COVID-19 and ended up in critical condition on a ventilator. She is now well, but his family faced the worst fears any parent can feel. 

He suggests that every person on the planet is either failing, surviving, or thriving. Said differently, we are in Egypt, in the desert, or in the Promised Land. The choice is ours. 

Rev. Rodriguez notes that people who are surviving pray like this, “Lord, answer my prayer and please bless me.” People who are thriving pray like this, “Lord, make me an answer to someone else’s prayer and make me a blessing to everyone I know.” 

Which prayer will you choose today?

NOTE: For more, please see my latest video, “What does the Bible say about suffering?

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