By David Mathis
Giving thanks is no small thing for the Christian. But far too many of us have the wrong impression. Deep down we may see the summons to thanksgiving as pretty peripheral. Giving thanks — whoop dee doo — What really excites me is fill-in-the-blank.
It is tragic when gratitude seems obscure to the very people who have the most to be thankful for. To sinners forever saved by grace, thanksgiving should be significant. Even central. Healthy Christians are thankful Christians.
Central to Honoring God
In fact, Romans 1:21 shows us that thanksgiving is what we were created for, and it is “at the heart of what it means to be a Christian,” says Tremper Longman.
Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)
There it is. Side by side with honoring God is giving him thanks. Don’t underestimate the centrality of thanksgiving. Gratitude is essential in doing whatever we do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), and thanklessness is deeply intertwined with what it means to “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This no small thing.
So Longman gives us this jarring angle: “The real difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that the former gives thanks to God” (How to Read the Psalms, 144).
In A Praying Life, Paul Miller adds some similar reflections about the centrality of thanksgiving for the Christian. While it was thanklessness that was “the first sin to emerge from our ancient rebellion against God’ (Romans 1:21), in our ongoing redemption, it is thanksgiving that “replaces a bitter spirit with a generous one” (89–90). (For a strong couple of pages on “Cultivating a Thankful Spirit,” see Miller’s Praying Life, 89-91.)
Thanksgiving is important—essential—because the Christian life, from the beginning to end, is a life of extraordinary grace.
Created to Echo Grace
Thanksgiving “exults in grace,” writes John Piper. Gratitude was “created by God to echo grace.” We were created by God to echo his grace, and we’ve been redeemed by Jesus to echo his astounding grace all the more. Piper continues,
I exalt gratitude as a central biblical response of the heart to the grace of God. The Bible commands gratitude to God as one of our highest duties. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name” (Psalm 100:4). God says that gratitude honors him: “He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me” (Psalm 50:23). (Future Grace, 32)
There it is again. Note the close connection between thanksgiving and the massive biblical reality of honoring and glorifying God. Thanksgiving is big time.
Echoing Grace Without Nullifying It
But a danger lurks. The Bible doesn’t have much, if anything, to say about obeying out of gratitude. Giving thanks to God for what he has given to us is precious and essential—and so is trusting him for his ongoing provision in the future. Thanksgiving is beautiful, but it can go bad on us, if we try to give it Faith’s job.
There is an impulse in the fallen human—all our hearts—to forget that gratitude is a spontaneous response of joy to receiving something . . . . When we forget this, what happens is that gratitude starts to be misused and distorted as an impulse to pay for the very thing that came to us “gratis” [free]. This terrible moment is the birthplace of the “debtor’s ethic.”
The debtor’s ethic says, “Because you have done something good for me, I feel indebted to do something good for you.” This impulse is not what gratitude was designed to produce. God meant gratitude to be a spontaneous expression of pleasure in the gift and the good will of another. He did not mean it to be an impulse to return favors. If gratitude is twisted into a sense of debt, it gives birth to the debtor’s ethic – and the effect is to nullify grace. (32)
Thanks for the Past, Trust for the Future
Thanksgiving must learn to delegate, and not attempt to do all the work itself. Thanksgiving has an indispensable ally named Faith, and they need to stay in good communication.
Gratitude exults in the past benefits of God and says to faith, “Embrace more of these benefits for the future, so that my happy work of looking back on God’s deliverance may continue.” (38)
And Faith is eager to respond, “Thank you, Thanksgiving, for sending me your impulses of delight in what God has done. I’ll happily transpose those into faith and keep on trusting him. I’ll keep believing in Jesus for more grace.”
More Grace to Come
May God be pleased to fill us to overflowing with thanksgiving for his amazing graces—the greatest of which is the gift of himself in the person of his Son. And may thanksgiving give rise to great hope that the God who has so richly provided for us to date, will most certainly give us everything we need for our everlasting good—and increase for all eternity in showing us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
The grace we’ve seen so far is only a taste of the grace that is to come. Have your thanksgiving ready. There will be much more echoing to enjoy.