“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” (Psalm 92:1)
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 thankfulness struggles to compete for attention with a holiday where I get to make a list of things 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 go through most days taking God’s gifts for granted. 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.
To fight our fallen inclination toward grumbling, we need to give thanks. But thanksgiving involves more than naming blessings. “I’m thankful for family. I’m thankful for church. I’m thankful for pumpkin pie and all its various spinoffs.” I’m not the thanksgiving police here to slap anyone on the wrist for giving thanks, but I’d love to see Christians 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 giving thanks isn’t limited to naming blessings; it’s knowing the One behind them. When we give thanks, we acknowledge something to be from the Lord and it stirs up worship because it tells us what he’s like. Thanksgiving helps us better enjoy the gift because we also see the love and goodness of the Giver behind it.
In the Bible, thanksgiving is much more than a quick nod of the cap for all the goodies in life. David Pao writes, “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.”1 Giving thanks takes us beyond recognizing God and into enjoying God.
As we give thanks to God, we not only confess we would have nothing good apart from him (James 1:17; 1 Corinthians 4:7), but we also consider who he is. Biblical thanksgiving is a response to more than God’s gifts and acts. It’s a response to what we learn about him through those gifts and acts.
I’m not just saying we should value the giver more than the gifts. I’m suggesting 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 enjoy and love the giver even more.
Ask, “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’re seeking my good? How does this provide insight into their heart, character, intentions, and attributes?”
Biblical Examples of Thanksgiving
In Paul’s thanksgiving prayers (Colossians 1:3; Ephesians 1:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14), he praises God and recognizes the grace and power of God at work in their gospel-growth. There’s a rich theology of God under every statement of thanksgiving to God.
Consider 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. The joy isn’t only in what he received from Jesus, but it’s also in what was discovered about Jesus.
This kind of God-centered, worship-filled thanksgiving shows up throughout the Psalms (such as Psalm 9, 30, 100, 103, and 138). In Psalm 103, for example, David begins by blessing God for specific actions on behalf of his people (1-5). As he continues, we see that God’s actions reveal his attributes and heart toward his people. David thanks God for His actions but also worships God 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 are windows allowing us to see who God is, and who he is for us. A theology of thanksgiving to God is therefore a conduit of communion with God. Gratitude for what God has done produces worship because of who God is.
Growing in Gratitude
Thanksgiving involves saying thank you to God for his acts and gifts but also worshipping God because of what those things tell us about him. We first recognize God as the source of what we have to be grateful for. The second, more neglected step, is we must stop and think about what these gifts tell us about him. 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 material blessing. It’s even better to perceive in that blessing a God with a generous heart eager to provide for his children. It’s good to give thanks to God for a spiritual blessing, such as our adoption in Christ, but it’s more impactful when you simultaneously delight in a God who clears your charges and embraces you in his loving arms.
Thanksgiving to God for his gifts and actions reveals God to us in bigger and clearer ways. See God at work and know him through what you see.
1David Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 28.
To go deeper in biblical thanksgiving and understand how it leads us to know and enjoy God, check out my book The Grumbler’s Guide to Giving Thanks: Reclaiming the Gifts of A Lost Spiritual Discipline.