A Theology of Thanksgiving

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” (Psalm 92:1)

Thanksgiving: Doctrine before Drumsticks

In our day and age of more-more-more where “Thanksgiving” is the waiting season between Halloween and Christmas, gratitude often takes a back seat.  It’s no surprise being thankful struggles to compete for attention with a holiday where I get to literally make a list of things I want that people will buy me.

It’s easy to blame “the world” around me, but I’ll admit that while I know God is the source of all things in my life, it doesn’t mean thanksgiving makes it into my day-to-day rhythms like it should. I tend to go through most days taking gifts for granted and unaware of ways God worked on my behalf. I’d prefer getting things over giving thanks. And when I don’t get what I want–whether on Christmas or any other day–I complain and feel gipped.

To fight our natural (fallen) inclination towards grumbling–and even grumpiness–many Christians leverage November to practice gratitude. This is a good thing (Ps. 92:1) and an excellent way to be intentional with the month. While commending this, I also want to caution us. What I’ve noticed in many books and articles, is that thanksgiving is understood as naming blessings. “I’m thankful for family. I’m thankful for church. I’m thankful for pumpkin pie and all its various spinoffs today.” I’m not the thanksgiving police here to slap anyone on the wrist for giving thanks. But I’d love to see us as the Church move from merely being thankful to being thankful to Someone.

Thanking God by acknowledging his gifts is a great place to start, and it’s better than not thanking him at all. But, what I’d like to suggest is that giving thanks in the Bible isn’t simply naming blessings, but it’s knowing the one behind them. When we give thanks we both acknowledge something to be from the Lord and it creates worship and love in us because it tells us what he’s like. Thanksgiving then helps us better enjoy the gift because we also see the love and goodness of the Giver behind it.

A quick look at thanksgiving in the Bible will help us build a theology of thanks rooted in God’s Word rather than contemporary customs. Biblical study forces us to confront the gap in our lives between the way it is and the way it should be. So while we’re more apt to feel gratitude and express thanks in November, what might we learn about thanksgiving that will last beyond our leftover turkey sandwiches?

Thankful…to God

In the Bible, thanksgiving is much more than a quick nod of the cap for all the goodies in our life. “Thanksgiving…is an act of worship. It is not focused primarily on the benefits received or the blessed condition of a person; instead, God is the center of thanksgiving.”1Giving thanks should take us beyond recognizing God and into enjoying God. As we give thanks to God, we not only confess that we would have nothing good apart from Him (James 1:17; 1 Cor. 4:7) but we also consider who He is. Thanksgiving, in the Bible, is a response to more than God’s gifts and acts. It is a response to what we see to be true about Him through those gifts and acts.

I’m not just saying we should see the giver as more important than the gifts. What I’m suggesting is that as we give thanks for the gifts—which we can truly and deeply enjoy—we should also look through the gift to learn more about the person who gave it. In doing so we will be able to enjoy and love the giver even more. Our giving thanks gives us pause to ask questions like: “What does the nature of this gift tell me about the giver? What does it tell me about what they want for me or how they are seeking my good? How does what someone did for me or what they gave me provide insight into their heart, character, intentions, and attributes?”

Examples of Thanksgiving in the Bible

In Paul’s thanksgiving prayers (Col. 1:3; Eph. 1:16; 2 Thess. 2:13-14), he not only praises the living God at work in the midst of these churches but he rests in the sovereign God in control of their continued growth and endurance. On one side of the coin we see Paul bless God for the work He started, and on the other side of the coin he is staking his claim in a God who is faithful to finish what He starts (Phil. 1:3, 6). For Paul, there’s a deep theology of God under every short statement of thanksgiving to God.

Consider also the story of Jesus healing ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19. There’s one man in particular who not only “praises God with a loud voice” (17:15), but he also falls “on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (17:16). The healed Samaritan doesn’t just see Jesus as a person who did something for him – he falls to his feet in thanksgiving because he sees Jesus as his Healer, Deliverer, and Savior. Here again, thanksgiving responds to the person behind the giving. The joy isn’t only in what was received from Jesus, but also in what was discovered about and in Jesus.

This kind of God-centered, worship-filled thanksgiving can also be seen throughout the Psalms (such as Ps. 9, 30, 100, 103, and 138). For instance, as you start reading through Psalm 103 you’ll notice that David begins by blessing God for specific actions of God on behalf of his people (1-5). As he continues on we see that these actions of God reveal both the attributes of God and the heart of God toward His people. David thanks God for His actions but also worships God in thanksgiving as those actions reveal a God who is righteous and just (6), merciful and gracious (8), unswerving in love (8), a compassionate father (10), and understanding of our weaknesses (14).

The gifts, works, and actions of God that call for thanks are windows that allow us to see new things about who God is and who He is for us. A theology of thanksgiving to God is therefore a conduit of communion with God. Or, to say it differently, gratitude for what God has done produces worship because of who God is.

Growing in Gratitude

Thanksgiving, at its best, involves saying thank you to God for His acts and gifts but also worshipping God because of what those things tell us about Him. As we seek to grow in gratitude we might think of it as at least a two-part process.

First, we recognize God—not ourselves or anyone else—as the source of what we have to be grateful for. The second, more neglected step, is that we must stop and think about what these gifts we are grateful to God for tell us about God Himself.

True thanksgiving moves from recognition of what God has done to revering Him as a God who does such things. It’s good to give thanks to God for a blessing He gave us. It’s even better to see in that blessing a God with a generous heart towards His children who is eager to be their provider. It’s good to give thanks to God for a spiritual blessing, such as our adoption in Christ, but it’s even better to let that thanks lead to worship as we delight in a God who not only clears our charges, but who also embraces us into His loving arms. We should thank God for working in our hearts to free us from sin, but we should also rejoice in the fact that this tells us that God draws near to help us in our weakness and He desires us to find lasting joy.

November is a great reminder to remember God in all His gifts by giving thanks, but we also see that thanksgiving to God for his gifts and actions is ultimately designed to reveal God to us in bigger and clearer ways. Cultivate – both in this month and in the upcoming year – a habit of seeing God at work, as well as the practice of knowing God more through what you see. May our theology of thanksgiving result in the practice of praise, and may our seeing God at work result in knowing God through His works.

(For a 30-Day Reading Plan & Gratitude Challenge to help you practice thanksgiving, read yesterday’s blog.)

What are you giving thanks for this year? What do the gifts you are rejoicing over tell you about the Giver?

1David Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 28.

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