Today Americans are preparing for one of our greatest traditions: Thanksgiving. Soon almost every household will be filled with the smells of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and the occasional green bean casserole, all met together on the multiple plates of family members who gather together to express how thankful they are... at least hopefully.
In reality, Thanksgiving has become a cultural expression of apprehension more than gratitude. Family members you haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving are now, once again, gathered together into one place, and alongside the potatoes comes an extra helping of tension. These relatives, who do not hold the same political, social or even theological views as you do, will all gather at your table. Christians and agnostics, liberals and conservatives, the old and the young, will come together to participate in the inherently spiritual act of thankfulness. So what does that mean for millions of Americans about to consume too much gravy? What does that mean for us as believers in Christ, who believe thankfulness is an essential facet to our faith? Here are four unfolding dynamics of gratitude that should be in the mind and heart of the believer this coming holiday season.
GRATITUDE IS SPIRITUAL
Thankfulness is the simple expression of gratitude to someone or something, but where does that come from? The doctrine of Imago Dei tells us that all humanity has been created in the image of God, and thus, God is at the center of our value and worth(Genesis 1:27). This is why humanity can express thankfulness, grace or compassion, while not fully grasping the ultimate reality of each, and conclusively, reject the God who is the origin of all these true virtues. Gratitude, both etymologically and definitively, is all about grace, and without the right understanding of grace, humanity is incapable of true, tangible, thankfulness.
GRATITUDE IS THEOLOGICAL
In his beautiful book, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, Fred Sanders explains just how theological gratitude is:
“When something is gratuitous (from gratia, grace) and given to us gratis (for free), the appropriate response is gratitude (responding to gratia) or gratefulness. Sometimes when a person gets a surprise gift, he blurts out, ‘You didn’t have to do that!’ Well, of course. That sentiment, too obvious to need saying, is a tiny meditation on the nature of the freedom that lies behind a true gift. SO is the redundancy of describing something as a ‘free gift,’ as if there were any other kind of gift. Grace calls forth gratitude, and we answer with ‘thank you.’ This is also, by the way, why we say the word please when we ask for something. It is a shortened form of expression, “If it pleases you,” which is a way of recognizing that the person you are asking a favor from is not your servant but a free person who isn’t required to do your bidding. Good manners are good theology.”1
When grace calls forth gratitude, it heralds for all to hear about the Greatest Gift Giver, who has given us the greatest gift, God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. The greatest gift is that God has fulfilled His promise, that He will dwell in the midst of His people. God fully righteous and holy has made a way for me to have a relationship with Him. I know this is a Thanksgiving article, but when we give gifts to our children at Christmas, this is the proper response to give them when in joyous rapture they open up those gifts. It wasn’t Santa who put those gifts under the tree, but also it really wasn’t YOU either. These gifts represent the greatest gift of God’s Son to us, and every beautiful truth that comes from Him, Jehovah Jireh: the center of all good things.
GRATITUDE IS WORSHIPFUL
Worship and gratitude are intrinsically connected. In fact, worship without gratitude runs into the danger of losing one of its defining characteristics. In the Psalms, much of worship is simply ascribing back to God the acts and characteristics of who He is. Psalm 65 shows the rich qualities of a God who’s temple is holy, and the drawing of Himself to His people. Thus the people respond to say that its God who visits the earth and waters it. Its the same God who provides the grain because He is the one who created and prepared it for those who are about to eat it.
Today, believers in Jesus Christ take the time at each meal to ascribe to God once again that He is the provider of all things. At Thanksgiving, we aren’t just saying thank you for the meal at the table, we receive the opportunity, together with friends, to thank Him for ALL that He has given us. This reveals a truth to us about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving isn’t a one-time spectacle of thanks, rather it should be the consequence of thousands of prayers of thankfulness throughout the year, in feast or in famine, as worship to the God who provides all things.
GRATITUDE IS MYSTICAL
I know that some of us may bristle at the word “mystical,” but there is an edge of mystery in our thankfulness, and we are called to wonder about that mystery every time we express thankfulness to God. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he encourages them to be cheerful givers, that in serving one another, they glorify God, and the result of their glorifying God is more thanksgiving! Paul culminates this participation with, “Thanks be to God for His INEXPRESSIBLE gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15, emphasis mine). This mystery rests in an infinitely holy God, loving such a finite, unholy me.
So this is the daily challenge of gratitude in the life of every believer, ESPECIALLY on Thanksgiving: How are we going to bring EXPRESSION to the INEXPRESSIBLE gift Christ has given us? If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then the spiritual act of thanksgiving is the proper response of God’s DAILY grace in our lives.
For our thankfulness to become tangible and real, we need to express just how big the grace of God is to those around us, and what better time than this holiday season? When the turkey is ready to be carved, and those image-bearers of God gather at your table, each with their own eccentricities, worldviews and difficulties, show them what true gratitude looks like. Give them an extra helping of grace, and feast knowing that God loves to inhabit the praises of His people.
1 Fred Sanders. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. Crossway: 1300 Crescent Street, Wheaton, Illinois 60187. 2010.