In a week, most of us in the United States will gather as family and friends around a table and share in the lavish feast we call Thanksgiving.
The tradition of setting aside a day to give thanks extends back to the earliest days of the U.S. The Continental Congress proclaimed a day of national thanksgiving in 1777, and President George Washington proclaimed one in 1789. After 1815, the practice disappeared until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln established an annual national holiday of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday in November.
This tradition is a merciful common grace from God. It’s for our joy! So before the flurry of housecleaning and feast preparation, before we switch into the autopilot of our familiar food and football traditions and the day passes in a caloric, but largely thankless blur, let’s think about the feast of Thanksgiving so that we eat the right things.
The Real Feast
The traditional American Thanksgiving meal featuring turkey and all the fixings that go with it is my favorite meal. Period. That may or may not be true for our American readers. But eating something you love on Thanksgiving is exactly what you should do because Thanksgiving is not about the feast of food. Thanksgiving is about feasting on the manifold, abundant, overflowing, all-sufficient grace of God in all that he is for us and all that he has done, is doing, and promises to do for us. An abundant, delicious feast of food is intended to be a symbol, a small picture, a momentary experience of what God’s grace is like. It is to help us “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
In other words, the food is meant to fuel our thanksgiving, not be the focus of thanksgiving.
Remember to Say “Thank You”
For Thanksgiving to really be about thanksgiving requires the intentionality of remembering on our part.
We are not, by fallen nature, thankful people. We are naturally very selfish. This was evident when we were children. We didn’t naturally recognize that the thousands of ways we were served by our parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, neighbors, teachers, and others were grace-gifts. It came naturally to us to largely assume that it was their job to serve the all-important us. And if they didn’t, out of our mouths came complaints and accusations that, looking back, we wish we had never said.
We had to learn gratitude. This usually began with our parents. They had to remind us to be thankful. When grandma gave us a gift or we were on our way to our friend’s house, a parent would often say, “Remember to say ‘thank you.’” And there is our condition illustrated: “Remember to say ‘thank you.’”
Being Fake Thankers Is Not Okay
Being reminded to give thanks is very biblical. In the book of Psalms alone we’re reminded nearly 50 times to give thanks. The New Testament also reminds nearly 50 times, including the all-inclusive “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
God reminds us frequently because we need to be reminded. But we can tune his reminders out just like we used to do with Mom. And we can do with God what we learned early to do with everyone else: become a fake thanker.
Being self-absorbed sinners, and modeling off the self-absorbed sinners we observed, we learned early to use expressions of gratitude often more as social gear-greasing courtesies and reputation-enhancers rather than real, heart-felt expressions of amazement that someone showed us kindness or generosity or sacrificed on our behalf.
Biblical thanksgiving is no obligatory expression of spiritual courtesy.
And now when we hear the Bible tell us to “be thankful” (Colossians 3:15), we can do the same thing and turn it into an obligatory expression of spiritual courtesy toward God rather than an expression of an astounded, overwhelmed realization that we have received mind-blowing grace from him.
We’ve learned to say thank you without feeling thankful and to think it’s okay. It’s not okay. Thankless gratitude is like affectionless love. It’s like joyless happiness. It’s like the form of godliness without its power. It’s not okay. It’s not the real thing. And as long as we practice it we are missing out on the joy God intends to give us through thanksgiving.
Feast on Thanksgiving
When God commands us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), he does not want some mere spiritual courtesy from us. It’s not like he needs our meager words of thanks or he’ll feel bad, like grandma might have. I believe God does feel bad if we don’t express gratitude. But what he feels is not self-pity because we didn’t make him feel good for doing something nice for us. He feels grieved for us because we are missing the point and therefore missing true joy.
God’s command for us to be thankful is a prescription of healing for the disease of our soul-crippling selfishness. It is an invitation to us to see the glory of God’s grace that is everywhere and, for the Christian, is infused into everything (Romans 8:28). It is an invitation for us to leave behind the spiritual poverty of our sin and selfishness and receive, through the cross, “the immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). The command for us to be thankful is God commanding us to experience the deep joy of true gratitude for all God promises to be for us in Christ forever. It is a profoundly kind command.
Christian thanksgiving is a feast of joy for the soul. It is savoring what is most satisfying to us. It is eating “the food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).
That is what next week’s feast of food is all about. The food many of us will enjoy is not meant to be the focus; it is meant to be a finger pointing to the abounding grace of God (2 Corinthians 9:8) that is enveloping us like a flood. The food is meant to help us really taste joy. The feast is meant to help us really feast.
So, in the words of the old table blessing, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.”