This week, everyone is talking about thankfulness, so it’s especially important to ensure we understand it from a biblical perspective. The Bible of course has plenty to say on this subject. Among other things, it tells us that thankfulness is deeper, louder, and more dangerous than we might think.
Designed by God
Thankfulness goes much deeper than we might think. It’s not a human idea. In fact, it was in the Creator’s mind when he created. The Apostle Paul says food was created by God "to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth…" and then immediately goes on to broaden this out to ‘everything’ God created (1 Tim. 4:3-4). This is a massive theological claim. God created corn on the cob, steak, pasta, avocados (dare we say even brussel sprouts and liver?) with a specific purpose in mind: that they would be received and then result in thanksgiving flowing back to him. Even a grape and a tangerine can lead a purpose-driven life. Who knew that baby carrots and barbecue ribs and escargot had a telos? They do. So do sunsets and flowers and rain, and good conversations and sweet sleep. God intended them to produce thanksgiving. Thankfulness is the God-designed follow-through to God-given blessing.
Giving thanks to God is living along the grain of the universe, savoring God’s creation in sync with the Creator. It’s one of the very best ways of bringing glory to God (2 Cor. 4:15). On the other hand, enjoying a meal or conversation or movie without feeling thanks to God is a tragic exercise in missing the point. It’s a waste, like using a laptop as a paperweight. It’s a damaging mistake, like using a light bulb as a hammer.
Meant to Be Overheard
Thankfulness can be silent and personal. But very often it ought to be loud enough to be heard by others. Thankfulness wants to point others toward God. And it wants to be a group activity. "Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!" Thankfulness is much happier when someone else can say ‘amen’ (1 Cor. 14:16-17).
In John 11, God (the Son) gives thanks to God (the Father). Jesus stands before the tomb of Lazarus and prays aloud, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me." He then continues praying, stating to God why he said just thanks out loud: "I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me." In other words, Jesus gives thanks to God aloud because he wants the other people present to overhear his thanksgiving and believe in God and in his mission. That’s the whole point. Thankfulness is meant to point others toward God.
In Acts 27, the Apostle Paul is sailing for Rome as a prisoner. The ship he’s traveling on gets caught and driven along in a storm for many days, the crew frantically throwing all the cargo overboard. Finally, they approach land and spend a long night in the dark, anchors down. In the morning, here’s what happens: "Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, 'Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. It will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.' And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat."
I love this little phrase "…and giving thanks to God in the presence of all..." It had been fourteen days since Paul had eaten! He must have been starving. Here was bread in his hands, finally. But he paused and prayed. He gave thanks ‘in the presence of all’ – clearly meaning for these sailors to learn something about God and about the purpose of food. Paul was living with the grain of the universe, going vertical with thanks, and doing it loud enough for others to hear.
But thankfulness can be dangerous. It’s striking that in the famous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the one who’s recorded as expressing thankfulness is the Pharisee. "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." Of course, this isn’t true thankfulness. True thankfulness is a posture of great humility before God the giver. The Pharisee is using his supposed thankfulness in order to puff himself up. He’s taking something designed to make much of God and instead using it to make much of himself. His thankfulness is false cover for his pride. The spotlight operator has turned the spotlight from the stage and is now standing, lit up with ludicrous glory, on the balcony. Pathetic and bizarre. God is clearly not pleased with this perversion of thankfulness. He rejects the Pharisee.
But lest we run too quickly to judgment… have we ever used thankfulness amiss? Have we ever publicly thanked God for an accomplishment and in so doing, wished for the accomplishment to be known more than the One we’re thanking? Have we ever tweeted "Thankful to God that my new article…my most recent speaking engagement…my kids…" and mainly used our thankfulness to announce our latest achievement? Maybe? Just saying. How easy it is for the spotlight to turn from the stage to the stage hand.
This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for thankfulness, thankful that God has built it into the fabric of the universe, maximizing both his glory and our joy as we live in sync with his design.
Stephen Witmer is Pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, MA and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of the forthcoming Eternity Changes Everything: How to Live Now in the Light of Your Future (Good Book Company). Follow him on Twitter: @stephenwitmer1.