Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I like the occasion of unhurried time with family, friends, and food. This late autumn feast is another reminder of the many good gifts of God. But I also like the name of the holiday. Thanksgiving. What an old but wonderfully curious word. Thanksgiving just sits there ripe for all sorts of questions. What are we giving thanks for? Who are we giving thanks to? How do we give thanks? At my first few Thanksgivings after conversion, these were the questions that occupied my mind.
Like stuffing, cranberries, potatoes and pumpkin pie—answering these questions makes Thanksgiving a time to remember.
What are we thankful for?
In the simplest sense we are thankful for life. We are alive and enjoy, just by virtue of being human, myriad benefits. Some of these benefits include the ability to smile, anticipate, laugh, comfort, remember, and love. Life is full of good gifts. Even amid many struggles there are reasons to be thankful for life.
I think of a dear friend who has recently died. Though afflicted with many physical challenges he still was a characteristically thankful person for the sweetness of life. He loved being alive and spending time with people.
Who are we thankful to?
This question sharpens things up a bit. The Bible teaches us that we are thankful to God and for God. This means that we are not simply thankful for the gifts of life but rather to and for the giver of life. This distinction is a big one. We learn in the Scriptures that people’s natural reflex is not to give thanks to God (neither for him nor his gifts) but to skip right over him and worship his stuff. We read of one of the chief indictments in Romans 1:21: “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” This failure to understand and appreciate the contrast between the Giver and the gift led to a truncated worldview and false worship. Making this crucial error we “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 1:25).
At the heart of what it means to be human is to properly understand that we are to be thankful to God for all that we have. When we are thinking biblically we are not content to simply be thankful for our blessings but rather to be thankful for the Blesser himself.
How do we give thanks?
Since it does not come naturally for us it would seem that most of us would have some difficulty being grateful to God. If we are honest we know this is true. But here is the beauty of what we find in the gospel: God actually makes us grateful. He makes us to see what we are thankful for and who we are thankful to.
Think about this. One of the chief ways that we demonstrate an unhealthy relationship with God is our lack of gratitude to God and for God. When we are born-again we are made to see that our sin has dishonored God. Becoming aware of this brings guilt, shame, and regret. But Christ brings pardon, righteousness, and renewal. Our sin is removed, and we are given new life. The joy comes through being fully known and loved.
Is it any wonder then that Christians are to be a thankful people? In Colossians 3 we read in consecutive verses that we are to cultivate this gratitude (Col. 3:15-17). Those who follow Christ are to be cultivating and increasing in gratitude because they have come to know who they really are while also finding out who God really is. This combined with the gracious forgiveness we have in Christ compels us to thanksgiving.
As Christians we are not simply thankful in some generic sense; we are thankful to and for God in a particular, gospel sense.