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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, so naturally our minds as Americans are turned toward things like pilgrims, gratitude, turkey, thankfulness, football, sharing, pumpkins, family, contentment, and working over our Black-Friday-and-Cyber-Monday-shopping strategy.

C’est la Vie

The intended theme of this week’s celebration is a hot lifestyle topic these days.  Whether it’s Ann Voskamp’s challenge to list One Thousand Gifts or Positive Psychology’s attempt to study and promote behaviors that increase well-being, our public consciousness seems to be pretty aware of the importance of being thankful.

The fact is, studies have demonstrated that those who count their blessings are healthier, sleep better, feel closer to others, feel better about themselves, are less likely to be mean…the list goes on.  It would seem that acknowledging the importance of gratitude for these reasons is a no-brainer.

But the emphasis in much of our online discussion of gratitude and Thanksgiving (and consequently our own day-to-day thinking) is terribly skewed.

The Problem with Our Gratitude

One fallout of the secular, scientific, pragmatic, and pluralistic approach that dominates the discussion is that we have by-and-large separated gratitude from the giving of thanks.  Politically correct pop culture’s prevalent penchant for leaving God out of the mix means that we’re focused primarily on what we can get out of gratitude rather than on what we can give (and Who deserves that gift of thanks).

After all, how else can you convince naturally selfish human beings to practice a virtue than to sell that virtue in terms of self-help?  At least, that’s the impression I get when I see opening lines like these and read about why I should be thankful from the perspective of a kind of rational reductionism and evolutionary emptiness in this  article from Psychology Today.

Here’s the deal.  The researchers aren’t wrong about the benefits of “practicing gratitude”.  They’re wrong in holding those benefits out as the purpose for it.

Even when acknowledging that showing appreciation for others can improve relationships, the focus is ultimately on the power of gratitude to improve your own relationships, not on the blessing or benefit the other person receives when you give them thanks!  Our public conception of gratitude is disgustingly self-seeking!

What is this holiday of Thanksgiving, anyway?  Is it merely for conjuring up feelings gratitude?  Or are we settling for a few crumbs from the table when there is a much larger feast to be had?

Logically Speaking

If we are giving thanks, then there ought to be someone receiving that gift, right?  Thanksgiving implies that there are two recipients—first, those who have received a blessing have reason to give thanks, and secondly, if they give thanks, that thanks is received by the one who blessed them.

To illustrate this in human terms:  we often feel grateful for things we receive or kindness done to us.  But how often do we pause the frenetic pace of our lives to actually say “thank you”?  To write a thank you card (or even an email or text!) and send it?

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Scripture paints for us a vivid picture of the difference between mere gratitude and actual giving of thanks.  When Jesus healed ten lepers, as recorded in Luke 17:12-19, only one of them turned back to say thank you.  I’m sure the others felt gratitude.  How could they not But only one showed it, only one gave it.

Listing the things we are thankful for can indeed be a good practice (and to Mrs. Voskamp’s credit, she directs that thanks to God), but ultimately, if in our list-making we only feel gratitude and never actually give thanks, then the practice is, at the end of the day, self-serving.

Digging In

We know from what we’ve covered already that the world is snacking on dessert crumbs and missing the greater feast when it comes to gratitude and thanksgiving, but what is that bigger feast?  What does it look like to practice or celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that honors God?

Curious myself, I opened up E-sword on my computer and did a search on the words “gratitude”, “thanksgiving”, and “giving thanks”?

Interestingly, despite the current emphasis on having an “attitude of gratitude”, the words “gratitude” and “thankfulness”, that is, the nouns that describe the heart-felt disposition from which science tells us we may benefit, each only appear three times in my bible.  Colossians 2:7 speaks of our lives as Christ-followers “overflowing with gratitude“.  In 1 Timothy 4:4, we see food is being “received with gratitude“.  And in Hebrews 12:28 the exhortation to “gratitude” compels us to far more than a mere feeling:

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe;

The three mentions of the word “thankfulness” convey an idea of giving thanks in general, thanks toward a person, and thankfulness bound up with singing praise to God.

Then There’s the Really Good Stuff

But this holiday we celebrate isn’t called “Gratitude Day” or “Thankfulness Day”, is it?  It’s called “Thanksgiving” and it’s intended (obviously) as a day of “giving thanks”.  When I searched for those words in my Bible software, I found a real feast!

“Give thanks” appears approximately 75 times in the bible!  Forty-nine of those occurrences are in the book of Psalms—the songs of God’s people.  The overwhelming majority of times this phrase is used it includes to whom those thanks are given—and over 95% of the time the recipient is God.

Our November holiday’s namesake has twenty-eight biblical appearances, many of which occur in the Old Testament referring to the “sacrifice of thanksgiving to God”, both in the Law and in the Psalms.  Hebrews 13:15 echoes this theme in the New Testament:

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.

The vast majority of the time that the word “thanksgiving” shows up  in the New Testament, it is in reference to prayer–and it is always directed to God.  You’ll also find it eleven times in the Psalms (this is the most thanksgiving-full book).

In God’s word, “thanksgiving” is something brought, produced, given, found…  It’s associated with telling, calling, singing, praising, honoring, offering; with voice and melody; with sacrifice and prayer; with joy and gladness; with celebration and charity.  Giving thanks in the bible is clearly a rich and blessed practice!  But we’d be blind not to see that it is unequivocally about recognizing God’s goodness and provision, not merely making lists, conjuring up a feeling, or promoting our own or others’ well-being.

With Lifted Eyes

How then does this affect the way we celebrate Thanksgiving?  The way we approach having an “attitude of gratitude” year-round?

For starters, we ought to see that our motivation for giving thanks isn’t just for our own benefit, or because it creates a pleasant atmosphere for other people, or because it’s good to be mindful of our blessings so that we don’t become grumpy and materialistic.  While those things are certainly good and true, we ought not confuse the effects of giving thanks with the reason for doing it in the first place.

For Christians, and ultimately for all people whether they realize it or not, we ought to give thanks because it is the right response for creatures made in the image of a benevolent Creator.  Because God is worthy of our praise and thanksgiving–for who He is and for all that he has made, all that He sustains, and all that He supplies.  Everything we have to be thankful for flows from Him.

God isn’t just another thing on my gratitude list.  He’s the one I submit my list to in praise and worship and thankfulness.

What if?

What if our thanksgiving was characterized by what we see in scripture?  Giving thanks for all kinds of things—spiritual, physical, relational—first and foremost and overwhelmingly to our good and gracious God?  And what if we communicate that thanks that we offer to God to those whom He has used to be a vehicle of blessing to us?  As Paul opened many of his letters, “I thank my God for you!”

Let’s begin our Thanksgiving in the right place:  aiming our gratitude at the Lord rather than at our own idols of well-being–and thanking Him again and again when we find that doing so brings blessing.

Our pursuit of thankfulness amounts to more than mere self-care and self-improvement.  Let’s give thanks to God who is good and who is the Giver of all good things.  And let’s give thanks to those whom He has used to bring that good to your life.  In this way, we can joyfully celebrate Thanksgiving, knowing that we are living out the two greatest commandments:  by turning our own blessings into a blessing to God and to others.