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The God-centered Life Is One of Thanksgiving

My wife makes amazing chicken tortilla soup. I especially enjoy topping it with a big pile of grated cheese. Preparing to indulge the soup one evening, I go to the fridge for the cheese. Just the bottom of the bag is full. “Argh!” I say, “There’s not even enough cheese to feed a roach!” Silence fell on the room for a few seconds, as I had just finished telling Rachel about David Pao’s chapter where he links ingratitude with idolatry.[i]

It was one of those moments where Rachel didn’t have to say anything. You just look around and know, “Oh my! I’m nowhere close to godliness right now.” I’d be a hypocrite to say that I live the life of thanksgiving that I’m about to cover. But I want to. I want to lead us into this life of thanksgiving; and I want you to come with me. In a previous post, we looked at false notions of Thanksgiving in our culture. Now we turn to a more positive development of thanksgiving from Paul's letters.

Of all the thanksgiving words and concepts in the New Testament, over seventy-five percent appear in Paul’s letters alone. Others have observed that “Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving in his letters more often, line for line, than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian.”[ii] What’s amazing is that the man who overflows with thanksgiving, is also the man who suffered greatly for Christ. Some of the letters where thanksgiving appears most are those Paul writes from prison. So when Paul says to “give thanks in all circumstances,” I listen. Here are seven observations from his letters on thanksgiving.

1. Thanksgiving overlaps significantly with worshiping or praising God as the source of all good things.

Paul sometimes interchanges thanksgiving with words of worship. 1 Corinthians 14:16 is a perfect example: “Otherwise, if you give thanks [or better: render praise] with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving is so close to rendering praise, he interchanges them. Or, in Ephesians 5:19 we find thanksgiving right beside “addressing one another in psalms” and “singing to the Lord with your heart.” Giving thanks fits with these corporate expressions of worship.

This shouldn’t surprise us, especially if we’re paying attention to the way the Old Testament often parallels thanksgiving with praise. Psalm 100:4 is a great example: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” Thanksgiving parallels praise and blessing.

On the flipside, ingratitude is a form of idolatry. Romans 1:21 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…” What did they do? They “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:23). Not thanking God plunges humanity into idolatry, or false worship. So we’re getting at the same point—thanksgiving as worship—but now from a negative angle. When we fail to give God thanks for his generosity as Creator and Lord, we become idolaters.

2. Thanksgiving grows out of God’s gracious work in Christ and our ongoing union with Christ.

When Paul calls the church to give thanks, he builds that call on our great rescue in Christ. Thanksgiving is grounded in the gospel of what God did for us. For instance, in Romans 7:24-25 the battle of our flesh rages. The law can’t save anybody. There’s nothing we can do to conquer sin. The law curses us with death. So Paul says in verse 24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Thanksgiving flows from what he knows God achieved for him through Jesus—the curse of the law removed.

Also, Colossians 1:12, “…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” Thanksgiving is grounded in God qualifying us, God delivering us, and God transferring us to his Son. Other examples include Romans 1:8, Ephesians 5:20, and Colossians 3:17.

3. Thanksgiving comes by the filling of the Holy Spirit.

Ephesians is a letter about God gifting the church with his fullness. In Ephesians 1:23 the church is “the fullness of Christ who fills all in all.” In Ephesians 3:19 he prays that the church “be filled with all the fullness of God.” In Ephesians 4:14 we do the work of ministry to mature as Christians, and this is the goal: “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

But how does this fullness of God/Christ come to God’s people? It comes through the filling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit mediates the presence of God in Christ to us. But watch what his fullness produces: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:18-20).

The Spirit’s filling produces speech that edifies others, songs that make melody, and thanksgiving. If you’re not a thankful person, then you’re not a Spirit-filled person. Spiritual maturity will manifest itself in thanksgiving.

4. Thanksgiving is essential to the life that pleases God.

In Colossians 1:10-12, Paul prays the church would know the Lord’s will “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” Then he includes four things in particular that characterize the life that pleases God: “[1] bearing fruit in every good work…[2] increasing in the knowledge of God…[3] being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…[4] giving thanks to the Father…”

Note the importance of thanksgiving for the Christian life. Paul sets it right beside good works, knowing God, and trusting God’s power. Any one of us would say those other three are some of the most basics of discipleship. But how many of us would we put thanksgiving in there? Paul does. David Pao writes, “To live a life worthy of the Lord is to live with the constant awareness of God’s grace.”[iii] 

5. The life of thanksgiving sacrifices the whole self in devotion to the Lord.

In the Old Testament there was something called a thanksgiving offering (Lev 7:12-15; 22:29). The priests would sacrifice an animal and offer the blood along with unleavened loaves and oil. The Psalms then help us see that they offered these sacrifices to thank the Lord, to celebrate his mighty, his saving works (Ps 107:19-22).

But the New Testament reveals Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice. “Christ loved us,” Paul says in Ephesians 5:2, “and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” That sacrifice satisfied God’s wrath (Rom 3:26) and cleanses us from our sins (Eph 5:26). All the sacrifices of old were fulfilled in the one sacrifice of Christ.

What, then, do we bring as our thanksgiving offering? We give him ourselves. Romans 12:1 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” There’s our thanksgiving offering: “your bodies.” How do we thank God for what he’s done for us? We give him everything, everything about us in all circumstances. Ephesians 5:20 adds, “giving thanks always and for everything.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 echoes the same: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Unlike our culture, thanksgiving isn’t reserved only for occasions when we receive something; it’s an entire way of living in all circumstances.

That’s not to say we’re in some chipper emotional state all the time. It’s not calling us to ignore tragedy or paper over pain with fake smiles. He’s saying that God will be our rock in the suffering, and for him we can give thanks. We’re thankful to be walking with him in the suffering and giving ourselves to him no matter what comes. Philippians 4:6-7 are of special importance here: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

6. Thanksgiving helps us fight idolatry (complaining, greed, immorality, etc.)

We observed above from Romans 1 that ingratitude is basically idolatry expressed. If the life of thanksgiving is one where we’re praising the presence and power of God in all circumstances, then what are we saying when we complain? We’re saying that God’s presence and power aren’t enough in that moment. We’re saying God is too weak to provide and not glorious enough to satisfy.

Paul addresses such idolatry head on with thanksgiving. Ephesians 5:3-5 says, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

Sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking—all of them are set against this one command “but let there be thanksgiving instead.” By grasping how thanksgiving truly plays out in the Christian life, all of these vices would be taken care of. Stated differently, thanksgiving is an idol-smasher. It’s an idol-smasher because it expresses the truth about God’s greatness and God’s generosity and God’s glory in Christ. And when we’re full of thanksgiving for God, the false promises of all our man-made idols fall dead.

7. The life of thanksgiving abounds to the glory of God.

2 Corinthians 1:11 says, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” The goal of prayer is for thanksgiving to abound to God for blessing them. The Giver gets the glory. 2 Corinthians 4:15 is even more explicit. The context is one where Paul recognizes that it’s a matter of God’s grace for the gospel spreading through his suffering. Then he says this: “For it’s all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

Gratitude is the proper response to grace; and that gratitude abounds to the glory of God. But what’s important to see is this: the grace that leads to more and more gratitude is manifested in Paul’s suffering and speaking. In other words, Paul’s own life of thanksgiving leads him to give himself wholly to the spread of the gospel, and this grace then leads others to join him in thanksgiving to the glory of God.

Do you want your life to bring God glory? Then walk in thanksgiving for all God is and all he has done for us in Christ.

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[i]David Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, NSBT 13 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002). Pao's book was instrumental in helping me understand thanksgiving in Paul's letters, and I am indebted to his work for the following observations.

[ii]P. T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in DPL (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 69.

[iii]Ibid., 90.