The God-centered Life Is One of Thanksgiving
November 19, 2017 Speaker: Bret Rogers
What a grace to rejoice together in the Lord. In Christ, we belong to a generous Father. He lavishes kindness on us every day. Of all people in the world, Christians should be the most thankful people. By the end of today’s message I hope we see why that’s so; and I hope we become such people all the more.
I want to spend the time studying “thanksgiving” in Paul’s letters—not the holiday, of course, but the expressed gratitude that overflows the heart of those belonging to Christ. 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.”[i]
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 he says things like “give thanks in all circumstances,” we listen. What so satisfies this man that he abounds with thanksgiving behind bars, in sufferings, before enemies?
On Monday, I’d been reading a great book on thanksgiving by David Pao—some of what I learned from him, you’ll hear today.[ii] But I’m saturating myself with thanksgiving in Paul, and Rachel made some chicken tortilla soup. I love this soup. But I especially love it with a big pile of grated cheese topping it off. And I go to the fridge, pull out the cheese—just the bottom of the bag is full—and I say, “Ah, there’s not even enough cheese in here to feed a roach!” Silence for a few seconds. I’d just finished Pao’s chapter where he connects ingratitude with idolatry—I was telling Rachel about it.
It’s one of those moments, where you don’t even have to say anything. You just look around and know, “Oh my, I’m nowhere close to godliness right now;” and the Holy Spirit is convicting your heart. I’d be a hypocrite to say that I live the life of thanksgiving that we’re 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.
Confronting False Notions of Thanksgiving
Paul’s letters are inspired by the Holy Spirit. They serve as a great place to discover what true thanksgiving entails. But God’s word also confronts false notions of thanksgiving in our culture.
Thanksgiving will be the talk of America this week from Butterball commercials to the Macy’s Parade. Writing for The Atlantic, Emma Green observes 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.”[iii]
She brings up a good point. But in Paul we’ll 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 Colossians with “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3).
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. Thanksgiving even deepens that relationship. In other words, the gift isn’t the goal in true thanksgiving, but deeper joy in the Giver. That’s one reason why thanksgiving appears so often in the context of Paul’s prayers. It’s relational; it’s about knowing the Giver in his gifts.
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.[iv] 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.
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.” You see it? God is worthy of thanksgiving even when we’re not the direct recipients of his gifts.
Thanksgiving is a God-centered matter. It hinges on who God 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 along, God’s word will confront and correct us even more in the area of thanksgiving. So let’s get started.
1. Thanksgiving overlaps significantly with worshiping/praising God.
I want to make seven brief observations about thanksgiving in Paul’s letters. First, thanksgiving overlaps significantly with worshiping or praising God as the source of all good things. Paul will sometimes interchange thanksgiving with words of worship. 1 Corinthians 14:16 is a perfect example. It’s harder to see in the ESV, but here it goes: “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 to God fits with these other corporate expressions of worship and song. 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, which was actually the children’s memory verse week, 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. We see this most clearly in Romans 1:21—“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. Think about that: ingratitude and grumbling is the outward fruit of idolatry in the heart; thanksgiving is the fruit of true worship in the heart. We’ll return to thanksgiving in the fight against idolatry later, but for now let’s keep moving along.
2. Thanksgiving grows out of God’s gracious work in Christ & our ongoing union with Christ.
Second, thanksgiving grows out of God’s gracious work in Christ and our ongoing union with Christ. In the Old Testament God rescues a people out of slavery—we call it the Exodus. That people then praises God for his mighty deeds in Exodus 15. But that’s not the end. God inspires many Psalms that shape the community’s worship. And these Psalms call the whole assembly to remember that great rescue and give thanks to the Lord for his steadfast love.
Likewise, 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. Listen to just a few of these. Romans 7:25—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 7:24, “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.
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, and God delivering us, and God transferring us to his Son. In other words, if you want to grow in thanksgiving, remember the glories of the gospel, and your participation in the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The Lord’s Supper today is a great opportunity to renew this heart of thanksgiving. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). What a time to remember God’s blessings in Christ! It’s Christ who opened the way for us into fellowship with God. He’s why we can even thank God to begin with. Even thanksgiving to God comes through Jesus.
Listen to Romans 1:8 again: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.” Or Ephesians 5:20, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Or Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Jesus opened the way for us to approach God with thanksgiving. The holy of holies is open for us. Come and give him thanks, Christian!
3. Thanksgiving comes by the filling of the Holy Spirit.
Third, thanksgiving comes through the filling of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians is a letter about God gifting the church with his fullness. In 1:23 the church is “the fullness of Christ who fills all in all.” In 3:19 he prays that the church “be filled with all the fullness of God.” In 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.”
How does this fullness of God, this fullness of Christ, come to God’s people? It comes through the filling of the Spirit. The Spirit mediates the presence of God in Christ to us. But watch what his fullness produces in 5:18-20…
“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.” These aren’t instructions for Sunday morning; this is for every day. The Spirit’s filling produces speech that edifies others, songs that make melody, and thanksgiving.
This was one of the most convicting verses for me. If you’re not a thankful person, then you’re not a Spirit-filled person. When we complain and gripe and moan and whine and nitpick and grumble, we’re in sin. We’re giving in to sin and we’re not walking in the Spirit. I wasn’t walking in the Spirit at the fridge, when I said what I said. Spiritual maturity will manifest itself in thanksgiving.
4. Thanksgiving is essential to the life that pleases God.
Fourth, thanksgiving is essential to the life that pleases God. Let’s go to Colossians 1:10 for this one. Paul is praying the church would know the Lord’s will “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” How do we walk in a manner worthy of the Lord? We please him in all that we do.
Then he includes four things in particular that characterize the life that pleases God: “[one] bearing fruit in every good work…[two] increasing in the knowledge of God…[three] being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy [we’re not doing this on our own]…[and then number four comes in verse 12] giving thanks to the Father…”
Notice the importance of thanksgiving to 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.”[v] That’s the life of thanksgiving—living with the constant awareness of God’s grace.
5. The life of thanksgiving sacrifices the whole self in devotion to the Lord.
That awareness of grace then produces a rather remarkable life; and that brings us to a fifth observation: 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? How do we express our thanksgiving under the new covenant in his blood? We give him ourselves. Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God [that’s everything he gives us in Christ], to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” There’s your thanksgiving offering. “Your bodies.” How do we thank God for what he’s done for us? We give him everything.
And not just everything on Sunday morning, but everything about us in all circumstances. Ephesians 5:20, “giving thanks always and for everything.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “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 huge here: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything [the man is in prison!] by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We have God in everything to cry to and depend on and trust in; and never ever do we have to doubt his love for us. Just look at the cross! Look what he gave. And never stop looking at him when you hear you have cancer, or when your marriage didn’t go the way you wanted, or when this Thursday won’t be what it used to be without your mom there. God is with you, and he is everything for us in Christ. We can thank him and give ourselves to him. In all circumstances, God is more than enough for us. Be thankful you’re known by him.
6. Thanksgiving helps us fight idolatry (complaining, greed, immorality, etc.)
Sixth, thanksgiving helps us fight idolatry. So we’re circling back to what we observed earlier from Romans 1, where 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 he’s too weak to provide and not glorious enough to satisfy.
Or when we’re greedy for gain—what are we functionally saying when we must have that car or that bike or those shoes or that job position or that quiet evening or “I’m just mad”? We’re saying that God isn’t enough; we’re not thankful for what he’s given—“I want more of something other than him.” Idolatry.
Or what’s going on in situations of sexual immorality—pornography, sinful intimacy, lust of the eyes, immoral thoughts, wondering eyes? We’re saying that God isn’t truly Lord of my body. What he did for me in Christ, doesn’t deserve the offering of my body as a living sacrifice—I’m not thankful for what he did for me. Yes, brothers and sisters, our complaints and grumbling and greed and immorality are that horrific.
I mean think of the way God condemned Israel for grumbling against him in the wilderness. He rescued them from slavery, he’s with them in the wilderness, and they grumble—they’re ungrateful and they build idols and sleep around. What were they saying about God? “We’re not thankful for who you are and what you did! You’re not enough for us. We want our own gods instead!” That’s the heart of ingratitude.
Paul addresses these various kinds of idolatry head on with thanksgiving. He says this in Ephesians 5:3-5: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” This is Old Testament language of not even mentioning the names of the nations’ idols on your lips.
He goes on: “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 those which don’t belong in the kingdom of Christ, not even named in our midst—all of them are set against this one command “but let there be thanksgiving instead.” It’s like all of them would be taken care of if we got how thanksgiving truly plays out in the Christian life. 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 you’re full of thanksgiving for God, the false promises of all our man-made idols fall dead. His presence and power is enough for us in all circumstances; his grace toward us is amazing; and so we give him our bodies.
7. The life of thanksgiving abounds to the glory of God.
This life of thanksgiving then abounds to the glory of God. That’s our seventh and last observation: the life of thanksgiving abounds to the glory of God. We see this most clearly in 2 Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 1:11 he 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.” So the goal of prayer is for thanksgiving to abound to God for blessing them. The Giver gets the glory, in other words.
2 Corinthians 4:15 is even more explicit. He’s talking about his suffering and the gospel spreading as he suffers—and he refers to these two inseparable things as God’s grace. It’s grace that the gospel is spreading through his suffering. And 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 let’s walk in thanksgiving for all God is and all he has done for us in Christ.
[i]P. T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in DPL (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 69.
[ii]David Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, NSBT (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002). I am indebted to Pao's insightful book throughout this sermon, but especially for observations 1, 4, and 6.
[iii]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/.
[iv]Pao, Thanksgiving, 28.