In this season we call “the holidays,” sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, many Americans find themselves see-sawing with gratitude. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holidays, there are subtle exhortations calling us to be thankful, while others call us to be thankless. We watch ourselves rock back and forth between gratefulness and criticism, contentedness and dissatisfaction. The holiday season seems to be broken because such a season has virtually no bearing on how our society lives the other eleven months of the year. Social media is filled, not with gratefulness, but with animosity, hostility, divisiveness, impatience, and critique. Save a few days of the year where we sprinkle in heartfelt posts, most of our social media feeds are saturated with thanklessness.
Some of us have lost all of the thanksgiving in our Thanksgiving (and the days that follow), despite what the Instagram posts might say. But the Christian need not lose heart. Holidays, despite whatever they represent culturally, are powerful opportunities for us to remember, reflect, and, most of all, to recover Christian thankfulness, propelling us into the year to come.
The same God who can make dry bones live can revive even a dead consumerist back to his glory and praise.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO GIVE THANKS?
Most of us, Christian or not, know we ought to be thankful. As Andrew Peterson poetically puts it, “Don’t you want to thank someone?” The question then becomes, How do we begin to work that thankfulness out in our lives to the praise of God’s glory and grace?
Perhaps we should go a little deeper: What does it mean to give thanks at all?
I turned to the Bible for wisdom in answering this question, and I was amazed at what I found. A quick search through the ESV Bible shows that there are well over 100 instances in which the words “give thanks,” “grateful,” “thankfulness,” or “thanksgiving” occur. But that’s not the amazing part.
What’s amazing is how these verses describe what it means to express gratitude and thankfulness. Time and time again, the biblical authors make the act of thanksgiving primarily something we say. There are too many examples to list them all, but consider this brief list:
- Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! Say also: “Save us, O God of our salvation, and gather and deliver us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.” (1 16:34-35).
- When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gavethanks to the LORD, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (2 Chr. 7:3)
- And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanksto the LORD (Ezra 3:11)
- Then I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks. (Neh. 12:31)
- The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. (Ps. 28:7)
- At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children. (Matt. 11:25)
- And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:38)
- If you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? (1 Cor. 14:16)
- And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. (Rev. 11:16-17)
Of course, Scripture tells us of other ways humans can give thanks to God. There are thank offerings, which were ritual sacrifices performed in the Old Testament (2 Chr. 29:31). The act of bowing reverently before Christ’s feet was considered an act of thanksgiving (Lk. 17:16). We can give thanks in our hearts (Col. 3:16). Even eating and honoring God in our eating is an act of thanksgiving (Rom. 14:6), so bring on the Christmas cookies!
The point, however, is that most often the way to express the gratitude and thanksgiving we feel in our hearts is by voicing it. Perhaps it’s through song, praying aloud, or simply making it public knowledge with our mouths that we are grateful. Voiced gratitude was a common expression of one’s devotion and love for God in biblical times, and it has become a bit lost on us.
HOW CAN I EXPRESS GRATITUDE TO GOD?
I know in my own life how often I reflect a spirit of taking God’s blessings, whether spiritual or tangible, totally for granted. I know his love for me and am reminded of it often, but do I thank him for it? Does the world know that I am grateful for what he has done for me?
We don’t have the same kind of privilege the biblical authors did, able to display for the world to see that they were indeed grateful to God through written letters and books. But we can voice our gratitude in a myriad of ways. A gratefulness to God for who he is, for who he has made us to be, and what he has given us will lead to a holiday season loaded with so much more than food and football and family interaction—namely meaning and significance.
How do we practically express our gratefulness to God the way David did? Not many of us have his poetic talent, and even less of us can play the harp as he did. What hope is there for us to voice our thanks? Here are four ways, in this season and beyond, for us to practice the discipline of spoken gratitude.
FOUR WAYS TO PRACTICE THE DISCIPLINE OF SPOKEN GRATITUDE
Pray as a family, and don’t forget to praise. Too often, prayer time in our lives morphs into a laundry list of things we need help with. We should make our requests known to God, yes, but prayer is more than this. Chiefly, it is an opportunity to praise. There is a reason Jesus began the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). Praise took pride of place in his prayer, as it should in ours. And, not to mention, modeling this pattern of prayer for our children is an easy way to disciple them.
Share your testimony, and don’t forget the present. Stories are a profound way we communicate the goodness of God, and when we tell stories to one another we help others feel thankful to God. Importantly, we should not just tell others about our past story, highlighting just what God did for us at sixteen at Bible camp. We should show others how God is leading and teaching us today, and what we are learning. Becoming aware of one another’s stories makes us grateful to God for his work in us and in others.
Get creative, and don’t forget who gifted you. Write a poem, lyrics to a song, a journal entry, or create something that communicates gratitude. You never know how your creative influence could invite someone into their own vocal gratitude to God. God has given you gifts to use to proclaim his excellencies, so use them! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to “perform,” either. God loves when his children color for him, even when it's a scribbled mess. He takes pride in their art and displays it on his heavenly fridge.
Remember that everything is God’s gift, and don’t forget the greatest of them. Matt Chandler once remarked that under common grace, every man can enjoy a steak (or a turkey, to keep it relevant), but only the Christian can turn that simple human enjoyment into deep, lasting gratitude. With every bite of a wonderful meal, every intricacy of creation, and every hug from a family member, one truth abides for the Christian: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17). And the greatest of these perfect gifts is the salvation of our souls, the gospel that is such good news that we ought to burst with gratitude.
Be thankful this holiday season. And if you're not sure where to start, just say "thanks."
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University, and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.