Although I have celebrated Thanksgiving every year of my life, I do not think I grew up understanding the importance of giving thanks. Thanksgiving was about Pilgrims, Indians, turkey, and football; the only part I cared anything about was the turkey. As a Christian, then, I have been slow to see the central place that giving thanks is supposed to play in my life. Gratitude is a fundamental issue: so much so that one difference between the elect and the lost is that one group gives thanks and the other does not. To understand, then, what the Bible tells us about giving thanks is essential.
The idea that there might be a moral imperative involved with gratitude should not surprise us. If we think about our own experience, we can see that ingratitude can be fundamentally unjust. Suppose I were to invest hours of my own time helping a coworker prepare a presentation. Without so much as a mumbled “thanks,” that coworker takes my material and successfully makes the presentation; worse, he takes all the credit for the presentation himself. Even if my motives were entirely selfless in helping him, I could not help but feel a certain injustice at the way my coworker ignored the effort I made for him and took all the credit himself. I am not asking for a parade, but I cannot help seeing that it is wrong for my coworker to be ungrateful in that situation.
The Bible confirms our intuitive sense of the injustice of ingratitude. In Romans, chapter one, for example, Paul gives the grounds for which God’s wrath is poured out upon mankind:
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:21)
All human beings, whether we are raised knowing the Bible or not, have enough evidence as we look at the created order to know that God is there. The fact that so many of us do not know God is not because He cannot be known, but because we refuse to know Him. More than that, in putting aside the knowledge of God we have refused to respond to Him as He deserves. We have not honored Him as the wise, powerful Creator He has revealed Himself to be. And just as wrongly, or perhaps even more so, we have refused to thank Him.
Romans, chapter one, exemplifies a truth that leaps from almost every page of the Bible: knowledge is ultimately a moral issue. God is absolutely determined to hold us accountable for what we are willing to know and believe. Atheism is not an innocent intellectual error; it is a turning away from what we could and should know. And if we are willing to know God as He is, then certain attitudes follow necessarily. His wisdom and power find testimony in the world around us and in every aspect of our minds and bodies. How, then, could I not honor the One who made me? Just as importantly, how could I not be grateful to the One who gave me everything? Am I able to think, to feel, to choose between right and wrong, to experience pleasure? Where does any of that come from if not from the One who made me what I am?
Gratitude toward God, therefore, is the appropriate and necessary result of being willing to know God as He is. The order is important: I am willing to know God; I come to know God; and then I am grateful for who God is and what He has done. In fact, gratitude that is not rooted in a willingness to submit to the truth about God is of little value to God. Neither words of gratitude nor feelings of gratitude are desirable to God if they are based on a lie. We see this in the famous parable Jesus tells about the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer:
The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.” (Luke 18:11)
Although the Pharisee is thanking God, Jesus tells us that the Pharisee goes home unjustified before God; God is not pleased with the Pharisee’s gratitude. The Pharisee may, in fact, have genuine feelings of gratitude to go with his words, but so what? Those feelings are based on a willful ignorance about God and about himself. He has refused to see the towering holiness of God and his own moral inadequacy, and thus his so-called gratitude is little more than self-approval. The Bible’s emphasis on giving thanks, then, is not about the mere act of giving thanks or even the feeling of gratitude; what God cares about is that we submit to the truth of who He is and who we are. Bowing to the truth of God’s greatness and the truth of our own need leads us to the appropriate response: we have much to be thankful for.
If gratitude is the appropriate response for every human being, it is even more essential for Christians. After all, Christians are those who have heard in the gospel the full story of God’s love. We know how far God has gone, how much He has done and will do for His people. Indeed, one of the strongest themes in Paul’s letters is thanking God. For example, as Paul recounts to the Colossians (1:9-12) his prayer that God would grant them wisdom, strength, patience, and knowledge of God, he adds a final request: that they might be people “joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Paul understands where a strong and mature faith will lead us. The God we know has promised us an inheritance; He has promised to rescue us from a world filled with darkness, including the darkness in our own souls, and to replace that darkness with light forever. When that great truth is clear to us, we will give thanks with joy. Paul prayed, then, that God would give his readers a powerful understanding of what God was promising them in the gospel and that they would have grateful hearts as a result of that understanding.
But here, of course, is the rub. As I look at the lives that I and my fellow Christians live, we are often far from grateful—harassed, dissatisfied, grumbling, yes—but not grateful. Life is often hard, and we usually reserve the right to be dissatisfied until something comes along that makes us feel grateful. We do not really mean to disagree with Paul; we know that he is right to call us to gratitude. But it is hard to feel grateful when life hurts.
Undoubtedly Paul would sympathize with our struggle, but he would not relent in his demand that we thank God. In I Thessalonians 5:18 he tells us to give thanks in everything, and it is clear that by everything he means everything. Sure, it is easy to feel grateful when life is sweet, but Paul expects us to be grateful when life is sour, as well. How can Paul expect such a thing? Is he asking us to suppress our feelings and just smile anyway? Wouldn’t we be insane to become the sort of people who felt good about bad things?
Let us be clear from the outset: neither Paul nor anyone in the Bible is asking us to stuff our emotions in the midst of suffering and pretend we feel something else. The picture of Jesus at Gethsemane should forever dispel such a thought from our minds. Jesus was sinless and entirely holy, and yet He faced a time of great torment, and his emotions were in turmoil because of it. Being righteous is not the same thing as being emotionally neutral. What was true of Jesus is true for His followers, as well. Paul tells us that Christians groan in this life, and he does not rebuke us for doing so.
When Paul tells us to be grateful in everything, he is not telling us to forget our hardships; he is reminding us to remember our hope. Our calling as Christians is to continue to believe the gospel, and the gospel is very good news. Whether my experience at the moment is pleasant or difficult, the promises of God stand unchanged. If I have indeed put my trust in God, then He is on my side; and if He is for us, who can be against us? He is using everything in my life to work together for my good so that the sufferings of this age are not worthy to be compared to the glory that awaits us. I stand to inherit everything that will make life rich and worth living, and I will have it forever. Death cannot steal it from me, nor can any of death’s shadows I encounter in the world. Since nothing can stop God from blessing me as He intends to do, I truly have nothing to fear. If my faith holds, if even in the midst of troubles I remember my destiny, then gratitude becomes a reasonable and necessary response.
We see, then, that gratitude is not a simple emotion I feel when things are going well; gratitude is the outcome of a great spiritual battle. What I have to be thankful for depends on how I see my world, and seeing my world rightly is the great struggle of the Christian life. At the moment, perhaps, I feel harassed and overwhelmed. Will I remember that God’s love cannot fail me? Maybe I am concentrating all my attention on the project in front of me today. Will I remember that the great project of my life is steering my boat into the harbor of God’s kingdom? Maybe I am filled with regret over the career, the spouse, the family that I never had. Will I remember that God takes His people through trials for a reason, and that all who follow Him find fulfillment in the end? Such rememberings are, in fact, what God seems most concerned about.
Since being a person of unshakable thankfulness is the outcome of a great spiritual battle, it is not surprising that we may fail at gratitude while we are in the middle of that battle. What should we do if, looking into our own hearts, we find cold gratitude and even ingratitude toward God? On the one hand, we should forgive ourselves for our failure to be grateful, as God Himself forgives us. We are weak, foolish people, and it is very easy for us to be carried away emotionally by whatever problems are immediately in front of our noses. That is why Jesus died for us. That is what He is rescuing us from. And yet we cannot rest there. Our ingratitude is based on weak faith and cloudy vision. We cannot rest with our own lack of gratitude. We must fight to see things as God has told us they are; we must call out to God to give us ever-clearer vision of what He is doing for us. Ingratitude is a spiritual disease, and we must keep going back to the Doctor for our cure.
There is a reason Paul so often commands us to be thankful; indeed, I am not sure that he ever commands anything else more. Gratitude is a part of faith made strong and lived out. Although God has given His people eyes to see, to see clearly is still a great battle in a dark world. When clear vision sees past the struggles of today to the strong hand of God, the hand that will not let us go until He blesses us as He promised, the result is gratitude. Having a day in November dedicated to thanksgiving is very appropriate, but, in the end, God is not concerned with the ritual. Perhaps I couldn’t see past the turkey before, but now I know that the calling of my life is to see the love of God clearly and to know how much I have to be grateful for.