Perhaps of all the holidays, Thanksgiving presents the greatest crisis to the secularist that does not believe in God. Secular people have taken most of the religious holidays on our calendar and added their own mythology to make it fun. For Easter we have the Easter bunny and a celebration of Spring. For Christmas we have Santa and stockings, candies and cakes, gifts and goodness. For those without faith in God, they can get through these holidays without much thought of religion. But Thanksgiving presents a problem for those who deny God because the very act of giving thanks acknowledges that there is a Great Giver of all things.
Without acknowledging the existence of a Creator God who gives “every good and perfect gift,” the feeling of thanksgiving is reduced to a different sentiment altogether. Instead of it being a feeling focused on worship to God, it is a feeling of gladness for material things. In this way, we say we are thankful for our house and don’t want to take it for granted, but really we mean that we are quite glad when we see those with less that we have more. We may call it thankfulness, but it is more of a gladness and triumph about the things that we have. Even when we are good-hearted to realize we have more than things--we have family and friends--it is impossible for this to be a true act of giving thanks unless we acknowledge that there is a God who gives.
Our culture no longer acknowledges a God who gives, and Thanksgiving is in crisis. But we know better. Because of our faith in God, Thanksgiving is first of all an acknowledgment of God and our relation to Him. He is Creator. We are created. He is the giver, we are the receiver. He is the King, we are His subjects. He is everything; we are nothing in contrast, except for our reflection of His glory. Knowing this and knowing that apart from God, we are nothing, we are now in a position to have a thankful heart that overflows with thanksgiving to God, our Provider.
What exactly ought we to thank Him for? The Bible gives us lots of direction. First of all, we ought to be thankful to God for the character of God Himself. Scripture abounds with verses giving thanks to God for His character: His goodness, His steadfast love, His faithfulness, righteousness, His judgment, His trustworthiness, His justice, His holiness, and, well, the list goes on. We should follow the example of God’s people in the Bible and be sure to thank God for His character--for Who He is.
We also ought to give thanks for the works of God. Psalm 9:1 says,
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all your wonderful deeds.”It is right for us to be thankful for the works of God. This is why so many of the Psalms relate the amazing works of God in caring for His people Israel. Other Psalms thank God for His works of creation. We also read over and over in Scripture where God’s people thank Him for His specific care for them in their situation. David praises and thanks God because He “hears the desire of the afflicted.” When we thank God for His works, we ought to remember the works of God recounted in Scripture and be thankful for them, just as we ought to remember the works of God that we witness with our own eyes and are thankful for them.
We are also to be thankful for the Word of God. It is an incredible gift of God that we have His inspired words given to His prophets and apostles and written down for us. We do not deserve this gift and, indeed, many people still do not have the very revelation of God available to them. When Ezra read the Law to the people, who had not heard it in so many generations, the people stood to listen. All ears were attentive. They listened and Ezra and Levites helped the people understand God’s word. Immediately they sought to put it into practice. They read about the harvest Feast of Booths and realizing that it was time for this feast, they set about to celebrate it. The Feast had not been observed since the days of Joshua, but the people returning from Exile were eager to be thankful to God and obey His word. The people made booths and dwelt in them for seven days, as God had said to do. Each day Ezra
“read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.” (Ezra 8:18)The Feast of Booths, one of the feasts given in the Law, was a harvest feast of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the right response to God’s Word.
Scripture also teaches us to be thankful for the provision of God. He is our Provider and provides for our physical needs. In the Gospels, whenever Jesus breaks bread in a meal, we read that He “gave thanks.” He gave thanks to God when He miraculously provided food for 5,000 and He gave thanks to God when He broke the bread in the Passover feast at the Last Supper. We, too, should always thank God that He provides for our needs. Our habit of mealtime prayers should remain a habit, but with hearts full of gratitude, acknowledging that it is truly a “grace,” that God has given us food to eat, clothes to wear, and homes for shelter.
We also discover in the Word that we ought to be thankful for the people of God. Over and over in his letters Paul thanks God for people.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. “ (Phil. 1:3-5)He wrote to the church in Thessalonica and said,
“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ...” (1 Thess. 1:2-3)The fellowship of believers is a precious, uncommon gift and Paul’s example tells us that it is something we should always celebrate and thank God for. Our friendships and relationships should encourage us in our faith, strengthening us and building us up as we, together, stand side by side in proclaiming the Gospel. C.S. Lewis says in his book, “The Four Loves,” that philia, or brotherly love, is distinctive because it describes the relationship of two people working side-by-side with a common goal. The Greeks used philia to describe the friendship between a soldier and his armor-bearer. They were close and they were united in a common purpose. While affection may accompany philia, it isn’t the same thing. The brotherly love of Christian fellowship grows out of our service together, as we serve in the Kingdom of God. We should be thankful always for this fellowship, even as we are careful that our friendships and relationships do not become our god, but instead are gifts from God above.
Most of all, we are thankful to God for His indescribable gift, salvation by grace through faith by the redemption of Jesus Christ. Our souls are broken by sin and in need of the healing power of God. For Christians, we have been healed and made new. In Luke 17 we read of ten lepers who were healed of their leprosy. One of them, seeing he was healed, turned back
“praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)Like the leper who was healed by Jesus, we ought to turn to Jesus, praise God for our salvation and healing with a loud voice, fall on our knees in worship, and give thanks. Ephesians 1:3-10 details the riches that we are given by God in the gift of salvation, for which we are so thankful:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.Because of our confidence and faith in God, Thanksgiving is more than a Thursday “turkey-day,” it is a sacred day of Thanksgiving. From the days of Moses, God instructed us to be intentional about giving thanks to Him. In fact, while most of the sacrifices given in Leviticus were atoning sacrifices where blood was shed to cover sin, Leviticus 7 tells of the peace offering for thanksgiving. Unleavened loaves mixed with oil were offered in sacrifice as a thanksgiving offering along with the animal sacrifice. The people offered this sacrifice in thanksgiving for the atoning sacrifice that covered their sin. It was a worshipful response of gratitude.
Christ is our atoning sacrifice once and for all, and Romans 12:1-2 tells us that our very lives are essentially a thank offering of worship to God.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This Thanksgiving, may we use our traditions to help our family step beyond counting the blessings of “things” that they are glad for and take time to thank God for His character, His works, His Word, His provision, His people, and His Son Jesus Christ, our Savior.