Thursday brings another Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving begins the end of another year. The United States will collectively pause over turkey and stuffing to ponder the good things in life, and many of us will give thanks to God. And it is always good to give thanks to God (1 Thessalonians 5:18). After all, he “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).
The holiday presents itself as a fitting resolution to the year’s highs and lows, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. It’s timed perfectly to allow for restful reflection before the generally happy chaos of Christmas. But what if Thanksgiving was meant to be a beginning, and not just another over-fed ending?
Thanksgiving isn’t ever the end in the Christian life because gratitude cannot bear the weight of that responsibility. Gratitude is good — and a means to something greater. It’s meant to fuel our faith in God and deepen our love for God, the Giver. Gratitude does look back, but it’s only a matter of time before it has the Christian looking forward. John Piper says,
The Bible rarely, if ever, motivates Christian living with gratitude. Yet this is almost universally presented in the church as the “driving force in authentic Christian living.” I agree that gratitude is a beautiful and utterly indispensible Christian affection. No one is saved who doesn’t have it. But you will search the Bible in vain for explicit connections between gratitude and obedience. (Future Grace, 3)
God means for our appreciation for all he has done to propel us to believe in all that he will do, and to live more fully for his glory as your greatest treasure. It’s the whole shape of the Christian heart and life. God does not bless you simply so that you’ll be filled with thanks and give him recognition, but so that you’ll be filled with faith and joy in him.
Receiving Is Believing
One great danger in gratitude is our temptation to thank God and then attempt to pay him back. Piper writes elsewhere,
First, it is impossible to pay God back for all the grace he has given us. We can’t even begin to pay him back. . . . Second, even if we succeeded in paying him back for all his grace to us, we would only succeed in turning grace into a business transaction. If we can pay him back, it was not grace. (Godward Life, 36)
What does Thanksgiving do to shape your view of God’s grace? As you look back, remember that every single thing you’ve received is another undeserved gift from the well of God’s mercy toward you (James 1:17). Have thoughts of entitlement or familiarity or indifference crept in to diminish or color your gratitude? If we knew how much we have sinned against God, and how little we deserved from him, and how much good he has lavished on us — from the smallest, least memorable provisions to the largest, unforgettable answered prayers — we would thank him differently.
And as you look forward — and you should on Thanksgiving — remember that any good that lies ahead rests entirely on that same grace. You will not deserve anything you receive in the next year anymore than you ever have. Nothing you will do next year will make you any more saved. You cannot meet any of God’s needs, because he has none (Acts 17:24–25). Our gratitude should inspire us to move forward in throwing ourselves more fully on his grace, rather than to try and rebuild or repay on our own what he’s already freely given us. Receiving is believing, not achieving.
Better Than All His Gifts
Faith in God for the future is not enough, though. Many of Thanksgiving celebrations will express real, genuine gratitude on Thursday, and yet will be horrifically offensive to God. Why? Because the gratitude has nothing to do with God at all. Even when it’s offered to him — often in some trite, ambiguous, once-a-year way — it has little, if any, regard for him beyond his gifts. No affection, and no allegiance.
Piper writes, “God is not glorified if the foundation of our gratitude is the worth of the gift and not the excellency of the Giver. If gratitude is not rooted in the beauty of God before the gift, it is probably disguised idolatry” (Godward Life, 214). He goes on to say that appreciation without devotion treats God “like a tool or a machine to produce the things I really love.”
As you give thanks, ask where your deepest affection and appreciation lie. Is it with God himself? Is he the greatest gift you received in the past year? Or is it with your family — your spouse, or children, or children’s children? Or is it your career — the one you have, the one you want, or the one you had? Or is it comfort — the size of your bank account, or the condition of your home, or the technology in your pocket? God gives us a lot of good things laced (because of our sinful hearts) with a poisonous potential to become gods.
With our gratitude, let’s keep the gifts as gifts, and God as God. Be specific with your gratitude —child, home, food, and phone — but also be personal. Follow every gift back to God himself, and let it be a reason to fall further in love with the Giver.
Plead for More (of Him)
This Thanksgiving, see your gratitude to God through to greater faith in him and greater love for him. We’re prone to a wait-and-see kind of gratitude, instead of a see-and-believe kind. Instead, receive God’s grace and plead for more — more of his grace, and more of him.
Here’s one biblical pattern for gratitude that pleases God: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:12–13). Ask him for more. He’s the kind of Father who loves to give good gifts to his kids (Luke 11:13), and he always knows exactly what you need (Matthew 6:32–33). He created the universe and governs your life “to show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward [you] in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
Let your gratitude to God this Thanksgiving be just a window into the storehouses of all he’s offered you through Christ. And let this be an occasion to lift your eyes in faith above every gift to your all-satisfying, never-failing Father in heaven.