By Matthew Van Luik
A few years ago my wife and I enjoyed a short holiday to the U.S. during the American Thanksgiving. We were in for a bit of a culture shock, as people everywhere asked what we were doing for Thanksgiving, something rarely heard in Canada. We learned quickly that Thanksgiving is a big event as people travel from everywhere to enjoy time with family. Tradition has it that the first thanksgiving was celebrated in America at Plymouth by the Puritan settlers in 1621. Thanksgiving in North America has its origins in a Christian feast day as new arrivals to America gave thanks to Almighty God for the provisions they could store away for another winter. Early American settlers understood their reliance upon God’s continual care for the bounty of the land. They had a deep awareness of their complete dependence on God and wanted to show gratitude for his blessings.
Grateful hearts lead to praise
One of the great themes in Scripture is the faithfulness of God who in his mercy provides for the needs of his people. Psalm 107 begins with the exhortation to “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The psalmist contrasts the many failings of God’s people with the faithfulness of God. When Israel became unfaithful to her Lord, they suffered serious consequences for their rebellion, but when they again cried out to the Lord in repentance, in his mercy the Lord came to their rescue.
A knowledge of God for the Israelites was not just an intellectual exercise; they experienced a living relationship with him. They witnessed the power of God when he protected them from their enemies and they also felt the wrath and anger of God when he punished them. Throughout their history the Lord revealed himself as the living God who is the sovereign ruler over the whole earth.
He is the Almighty who brings Pharaoh to his knees in order to let Israel go. He has the power to open the Red Sea for his people to escape and cause the sea to collapse and drown Pharaoh with his mighty army. He has the power to send manna from heaven and water from the rock in the wilderness and he has the power to make the city walls of Jericho crumble. On those occasions, when Israel experienced the great power of God, they were filled with gratitude and praised him for his goodness and love.
An awareness of the Lord as the Almighty God of heaven and earth is critically important for our thanksgiving celebration. As New Testament believers our knowledge of God has been wonderfully enriched. Today we know the Lord God as our Father, who has revealed his tender love and mercy through his Son, Jesus Christ. The thanksgiving we experience in our hearts begins with the Lord Jesus, who not only died on the cross to pay for our sins, but also conquered death through his resurrection.
As the living Lord, he is not only concerned about our spiritual needs, but he also provides for our daily food and drink and supplies us with the material blessings we enjoy each day. Our entire life is completely dependent on Christ as Saviour. With grateful hearts we praise him for his goodness, for his love endures for ever.
Grateful hearts lead to a sanctified life
If Thanksgiving in North America has its origin in a Christian feast day, then we wonder what its relevance is today for people in an increasingly secular culture? When people no longer acknowledge God as the Almighty, Thanksgiving Day is turned into a day of self-gratification. Now people express thankfulness only for the things that give them personal pleasure or for their own personal achievements. The focus of thanksgiving in our culture has turned from a focus on God to a focus on the self.
This is not surprising when you keep in mind the sinful nature of humanity. In his letter to the believers in Rome Paul directs our attention to the incredible foolishness of mankind. He writes, “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). In addition, he writes that although mankind claims to be wise, they became fools, for what they did is to exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like the very creatures created by God. In effect Paul argues that all humanity looks to the material things created by God to fill the deepest longings in their heart. They express gratitude only for the creaturely comforts that they feel will fulfill the deepest desires of their heart.
Paul writes to Timothy about the terrible consequences this will have for all humanity in the last days. Paul understands that today we are living in the last days. In these last days, he writes, “people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:2). Paul could not have described the culture in which we live today more accurately, even though he wrote two thousand years ago. When the Lord God is not the focus of thanksgiving, such a lack of gratitude leads to an unholy and wicked culture.
We experience this in our personal lives when our focus turns away from the Lord God. When our merciful and gracious God is no longer the focus, the focus turns on the self and the desires of our own heart. We discover that already in the life of God’s own people Israel. When the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, they were overjoyed at what God had done for them. But when they travelled through the wilderness they began to focus on the things they missed in Egypt, where they had enjoyed a great variety of food and drink. They became ungrateful to the Lord for his deliverance and demanded Moses to take them back to Egypt, for they said it was better there. An ungrateful attitude led to rebellion against God, for in their own wisdom the people thought that they knew better than God what they needed.
In our own culture, mankind rejects the wisdom of God to follow the foolish desires of their own heart. People have become lovers of money as they seek to fill the deepest passions of their heart through their material wealth. Today, they give thanks for the ability to abort their children when it is not expedient to have them, they are thankful for the right to kill those who no longer have a desire to live, they are thankful with the freedom to choose whatever kind of relationship they desire and they think themselves wise when they overturn God’s creation order with regard to our sexuality.
Thanksgiving Day in our culture has been divorced from its original intent to give thanks to God. The reality is that people in our culture have become lovers of self and any culture focused on the self never ends well, as such a society will tear itself apart. Over against the inward focus of this society, believers are to respond with thankfulness for the glorious hope God gives us in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 12:28 encourages, “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.” Thanksgiving Day is never about us, but God’s work for us in Christ Jesus. That makes it possible in all circumstances, both in good and difficult situations, to have a heart that is filled with thankfulness. Would you give up the kingdom of God that can never be shaken for all the money in the world? Would you give up the kingdom of God for a better home, better food, health, or nicer vacations? If you had the option to make the deepest passion of your heart a reality by rejecting the kingdom of heaven, what would you do?
Our heart often tells us that material and earthly things are all that really matter today. A heart full of gratitude sees through the foolish short term thinking of our sinful heart and is thankful for the glorious hope we have in Jesus Christ. I may be poor today by earthly standards, but I am incredibly rich in Christ for eternity. True thanksgiving is to desire with my whole heart to worship God with great reverence and awe. Make it your daily prayer: “Lord give me the strength to live each day out of gratitude, that my heart may be filled with joy in you.”
Grateful hearts lead to God’s glory
The ultimate goal of our thanksgiving is to give glory and praise to the Lord. A thankful heart looks to God in childlike trust for everything. Gratitude causes us to think less of ourselves and more of God. This new attitude no longer focuses on what I want, or think I deserve, but it is thankful for whatever the Lord gives to me. That is a challenge when our heart tells us that the Lord is not treating us justly. When others have more money, better health, closer friends, greater popularity, the natural response in my heart is envy and jealousy. When we face injustice or suffering, the natural response is to feel that the Lord is treating us unjustly. It is a challenge to experience joy and contentment in every circumstance.
The reason is that we easily lose sight of what is truly important. Paul reminds the believers in Corinth about the real source of gratitude. It is not found in the material things of this life, but in what the Lord has given us in Jesus Christ. Although Paul was not a man of wealth and he endured many hardships and much suffering, yet his greatest joy is that, “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.” He says, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:13-15).
As the gospel of God’s grace makes its way into the world, it causes more and more people to give thanks to God for his precious gift of life in Jesus Christ. What do earthly things matter anymore when the Lord gives us the greatest gift, eternal life in his kingdom? It is the gift that causes us to lift up our voices in thanksgiving and praise to his glory. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.