Happy Thanksgiving to all of you here in the States. Thanksgiving is a Pauline theme, ever relevant for all of us on any day. This national holiday is a fitting time for a question on Romans 1:21, and how Godward thanksgiving — or a lack of it — shapes the trajectory of our whole lives. How is the story of your life told by your thanksgiving?
This is a great question from a listener named James, who likely isn’t celebrating Thanksgiving Day because he lives in the beautiful, rugged peninsula of Cornwall, England. Here’s his email: “Pastor John, thank you for your ministry and for this podcast. I was wondering if you can explain the logic of the trajectory Paul talks about in Romans 1. Specifically, I want to better understand the role of God-centered thanksgiving in verse 21: ‘For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.’ This failure to thank leads to deeper and deeper sin-bondage and greater and greater judgments from God on sinners. Negatively, how does thanklessness help us understand what sin is? Positively, how does thanksgiving shape the trajectory of our lives?”
This really is an astonishing text. I thought about it all over again. I spent a lot of time just soaking in the amazing statements of this text, especially because of its claim that every human being knows God. They know his eternity. They know his power. They know his being Creator of all. They know his deity. Everyone knows God. Atheists know God. Agnostics know God. Animists know God. Every person you meet on the street knows God.
Apart from God’s saving grace, Romans 1:18 says, every human being suppresses that knowledge. The reason we do is because every human being finds other things preferable to God, which is the very essence of evil, the essence of sin. Jeremiah 2:13 says, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” This is the arch evil, the primal sin, the root of all other evils: humans find things, people, the creation preferable to God.
Even though those other things are like dirt by comparison, we don’t prefer God. We don’t find God attractive. We don’t find God desirable, beautiful, satisfying. That’s the evil of all evils, and that’s why, Paul says, we suppress the knowledge of God that we have — because that knowledge shows him as preferable to all things.
Heart of the Problem
So, we claim not to know God. We claim not to know him, but we do know him. We get angry at him for not making himself more plain, but Paul says that God made himself perfectly plain to everyone (Romans 1:19). Our problem is not lack of revelation; our problem is that we don’t want to see. We don’t want to see, and so we suppress and pretend that we don’t see. Paul says that’s our darkness, that’s our foolishness, that’s the futility of our minds (Romans 1:21).
“Every single thing that gives us any pleasure at all in this world is a gift of God.”
We find God unattractive, distasteful, offensive, even abhorrent. Then, in all kinds of ways, we exchange his infinitely beautiful, all-satisfying glory for pitiful substitutes, like images of ourselves or cultural artifacts that exalt our ingenuity and intelligence and creativity and vaunted independence. The result is that humankind is under the just wrath of God, so that he hands us over to more and more, greater and greater degradation, which we see happening all around us.
In the middle of this dreadful description of our human condition, Paul mentions the positive alternative to that darkness and foolishness and futility and suppression of the truth — namely, glorifying and thanking God precisely as God. That’s what’s missing: glorifying and thanking God. That would change everything.
Glory and Gratitude
Let me read the text so that people can hear for themselves everything I just said.
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them [or made it plain]. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made [he’s our Maker, and we know it]. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God [that’s probably the most amazing statement in the text], they did not honor [or glorify] him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18–23)
So, James is right. He is asking about the place and function of thankfulness in this text: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” I think Paul mentions both “honor,” which is like “glorify,” and “give thanks” because he knows that they are overlapping realities. When we thank God, we are showing him to be glorious, and no one can truly glorify God with a heart of ingratitude.
To glorify and to thank are overlapping realities, but they’re not the same. There are ways to feel and think and act that glorify God, but we wouldn’t call them thankfulness. The reality of glorifying God is wider, bigger. It’s a bigger reality than thanking God. Thanking God is a subset, a subspecies, of glorifying God. And yet Paul, of all the ways to glorify God that he could have said, chooses to mention thankfulness alongside glorifying God. Why is that?
Made to Thank
First, I think it relates to the fact that Paul has just said that what can be known about God is known through the things he has made. In other words, everywhere a human being looks, whether the sky, the forest, the mountains, the rivers, the sea, the land, family, the mirror — all of it — everywhere you look is made by God and is a gift of God, from the Maker to humanity. Every single thing that gives us any pleasure at all in this world is a gift of God.
The heart-response that God created for glorifying him for his gifts is thankfulness. That’s what he created, that’s what he designed, in the human heart as a response to this vast, vast array of made things, of gifts. Of course, it’s not wrong to speak of being thankful to God for God. That’s not wrong, but in the Bible thankfulness mostly relates to God’s gifts and his deeds to bless us. For sure, God himself is the gift, and if we don’t arrive there, we haven’t arrived.
Still, it is right and good that our hearts brim, they just brim, with thankfulness that God is a Maker. Everything that is not God was made by God. Therefore, at every turn, everywhere we look, all the time, 24-7, we should feel profoundly, continually, earnestly thankful for God’s gifts. I think that’s one of the reasons why he lists thankfulness as the counterpart to “honor” or “glorify” in this text.
Made to Depend
Secondly, I think Paul calls out being thankful to God alongside glorifying God because built into thankfulness is humility, a sense of dependence and gladness in needy receiving. Humility, dependence, glad neediness — not surprisingly, these sound a lot like faith.
I think if you pressed Paul, he would say true thankfulness toward our all-glorious, all-powerful, all-providing Creator includes humble, dependent, glad trust. Thankfulness and trust may not be the same thing, but they are so intimately and integrally connected that Paul thinks thankfulness is a good thing to mention here, where he also wants to call attention to trust.
Can anyone truly say, “I am joyfully thankful to God for his all-satisfying beauty and his all-governing power and his all-providing goodness to me — but I don’t trust him”? Nobody can talk like that. Something is inauthentic if that kind of sentence is spoken. Thankfulness, when oriented on God, is a deep and powerful experience.
“The heart-response that God created for glorifying him for his gifts is thankfulness.”
And so, when thankfulness fails, Paul describes its absence like this: “They became futile in their thinking. Their foolish hearts were darkened. Their claim to be wise was shown to be foolishness, and they fell into the sacrilege of exchanging God for images, especially the one in the mirror.” That’s the absence of thankfulness. It’s a horrible, horrible description.
World’s Desperate Need
So yes, I think James is right. The absence of thankfulness as the absence of humility, dependence, glad neediness, and trust is one way of describing the darkness and folly and futility of our own times.
It’s the opposite, you could say, of Pride with a capital P, the very Pride that calls our shame “glory,” exactly the way Romans 1 describes it, when they exchange God for the person in the mirror. The exchange of the opposite sex for the same sex in our passions is an outflow, Paul says, of that very exchange of God for the person in the mirror.
There are many ways to describe the desperate need of the world, and according to Romans 1, one way is repentance from pride and independence and self-sufficiency toward a humble, dependent, happy, trustful neediness for God as he has revealed himself in Jesus, which we call thankfulness.