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Confronting False Notions of Thanksgiving

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s letters serve as a great place to discover what true thanksgiving entails. The next post will develop Paul's theology of thanksgiving in a positive sense. At the same time, God’s word also confronts false notions of thanksgiving common to the American culture; and I'm indebted to David Pao's book, Thanksgiving, for helping me discern them more readily. The present post highlights four ways our culture is often out of sync with a biblical view of thanksgiving.

The Triune God should remain the object of our thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving will be the talk of America this week from Butterball commercials to the Macy’s Parade. Writing for The Atlantic in 2014, Emma Green observed that “The entire country stops working and gathers together, because being thankful is something we should do.” But she also observes that while “gratitude is the animus of these secular rituals,” “the object of the gratitude is unclear…You can thank your grandma for making delicious pie, but who do you thank for the general circumstances of your life? This is why secular, Thanksgiving-flavored gratitude seems so fuzzy.”[i]

Green brings up a great point: gratitude in our culture is often disconnected from its object. However, in Paul's letters we find that the object of our gratitude is never fuzzy. Thanksgiving always belongs to the only, true, and Triune God who reveals himself in creation and redemption. So we hear Paul begin Romans with “I thank my God through Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:8). Or, he begins Colossians with, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3).

The goal of thanksgiving looks beyond the gift to deeper joy in the Giver.

Something else about thanksgiving in our culture is that thanksgiving often focuses on the gift received. But for Paul thanksgiving is so much more. It actually flows from our relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ: "giving thanks to God the Father through [the Lord Jesus]" (Col 3:17). Thanksgiving even deepens that relationship. The gift itself isn’t the goal in true thanksgiving, but deeper joy in the Giver. Sure, enjoy the gift, too (1 Tim 4:4-5). But, to use an illustration from C. S. Lewis, enjoy the gift as but a "shaft of glory" pointing to the Glorious One, a sunbeam pointing to the sun. That’s one reason why thanksgiving appears so often in the context of Paul’s prayers (e.g., Phil 1:3; Col 1:3; 2 Tim 1:3). Thanksgiving is relational; it’s about knowing the Giver in and through his gifts.

Thanksgiving is no mere etiquette but a matter of worshiping the God we can never repay.

Another way Paul challenges our culture: thanksgiving can often be reduced to mere etiquette. It’s a respectful gesture to keep relationships balanced. Even when there’s a gift you didn’t really want, mom and dad say, “Tell your Aunt, ‘Thank you.’” And through a long sigh it comes out, “T-h-a-n-k y-o-u.” But when Paul calls the church to thanksgiving, he’s not teaching proper etiquette.[ii] He’s not calling us to balance the scale in our relationship with God. He’s calling us to worship. He’s calling us to adore the God of infinite worth whose generosity we can never repay. (More on the relationship between thanksgiving and worship will appear in the next post.)

God is worthy of thanksgiving even when we're not the direct recipients of his gifts.

Also, our culture has the tendency to reduce thanksgiving to times when we’re the direct recipients of a gift. Person A gives something to person B, and then person B thanks person A. But nearly all of Paul’s letters begin with Paul thanking God, not for something God gave him but for something God gave to others. 1 Corinthians 1:4 is a great example: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.” Do you see it? God is worthy of thanksgiving even when we’re not the direct recipients of his gifts.

Stated differently, thanksgiving is a God-centered matter. It hinges on who God is as Creator and Lord of all. No matter what happens to us, he’s worthy of thanksgiving and praise.

These are but a few ways God’s word confronts the false notions—or at least the inadequate notions—of thanksgiving in our culture. As we move forward in the next post, God’s word will confront us, correct us, and even better, construct for us a proper view of thanksgiving.

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[i]Emma Green, “Gratitude without God: If giving thanks isn’t inherently religious, where does it come from?” in The Atlantic (November 26, 2014). Accessed on November 16, 2017 from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-phenomenology-of-gratitude/383174/.

[ii]David Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, NSBT 13 (Downers Grove, IVP: 2002), 28.