Long ago the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about the reality and consequences of unbelief and disobedience towards God. He described how humanity had fallen away from its creaturely mandate by denying the power and reality of God. He went on to write,
20 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. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools.
There is much theological richness to this passage, but one thing is striking: at the center of this indictment against the sinfulness of Mankind lies thanklessness. “They did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him.” In Paul’s eyes the lack of thankfulness (along with lack of honor) for God gets to the root-system of human primal sin. In God’s eyes unthankful people are sinful idolatrous ridden fools. Unthankful people are self-centered people, arrogant people, people who lack any capacity of self-awareness or introspection, and people who are disgruntled and fault-finding. All these things are precisely the kind of person Adam and Eve became when they opened their souls to the words of the Serpent.
Consider almost any sin and you will find weaved into its tapestry a lack of thankfulness.
Thankfulness is something the Adversary works double time to destroy in our lives. He seeks to throw so much abundance our way, so much excess, so much business, so much drama, that in the end we become a disgruntled ungrateful lot of eye-rollers and complainers. Therefore, in a very real sense thankfulness is one of the most powerful weapons we have to combat the Adversary and our fleshliness. It is a means by which we slay sin in our lives. God declared through the Psalmist, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies Me” (Psalm 50:23). Later the Psalmist declared, “You oh God will not delight in sacrifice . . . You will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16–17).
Thankfulness slays unbelief, for an unbelieving person naively sees all of life’s blessings as taken from the blind forces of nature rather than being received as gifts through faith from above. Thankfulness slays pride, for a prideful person is self-absorbed with the illusion of self-achievement rather than humbled by grace unmerited. Thankfulness slays anxiety, for an anxious person is consumed with the indeterminacy of the future rather than at peace in the providential promises of the now and hereafter. Thankfulness slays hate, for a hate filled person is enslaved to unforgiveness rather than overwhelmed by love undeserved. Thankfulness slays indifference, for an indifferent person is sluggishly disenchanted by anything and everyone in the world rather than awakened to the beauty and meaning that inhabits all things.
Thanksgiving is Deeply Theological
Thankfulness is that recognition that there are “givers” in our lives. That we receive benefits undeserved and unbeknownst all the time. It’s the megaphone used to rouse us to the fact that we are not islands unto ourselves. We are not rugged self-made men and women who have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, contrary to what American individualism teaches us. We are finite agents always interrelated and reliant on others. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote from a Nazi prison cell,
“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others.”
It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. This is truth. Thankfulness stands as the moral memory of who we are, reminding us of our limitations and inability to control all the forces that have shaped and affected our lives. In a very real sense thankfulness reminds us of our nothingness in the face of countless uncontrollable benefits and blessings. It obliterates our self-importance.
The great Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had argued that man does not exist and then become thankful bur rather “his God-relationship gives birth to a self-awareness and a neighbor-awareness which together constitute him as a self.” Don’t be taken aback by these seemingly abstract words. There is wisdom here worth mining. What Kierkegaard is arguing is that we cannot become our true selves, truly human, until we have come to terms with thankfulness. True thankfulness is as theological as it is anthropological – God centered and Man centered. True thankfulness directs us outward away from ourselves and upwards into worship to the Supreme Giver of all things while at the same time directing us outward unilaterally in humility and loving service to those before whom we call our neighbors. In both cases there is an “other directedness” in which we get out of our skin – we step out of our fleshly ways of self-absorption – and begin to live more for others, both for God and Man. This kind of living for others is precisely what we were made for, it is precisely our calling. Therefore, in a very real sense, thankfulness, which ends in worship and loving service to others, is a central element in crafting us into our True Humanity. This is why the Adversary of our souls fights to make us an ungrateful lot so much.
This understanding brings up the deeper nature of thankfulness all too often overlooked during the season of Thanksgiving. Most of us when asked around the table of bounty what we are thankful for focus upon people in our lives, for the gifts (both material and emotional) we receive from them and for the acts they have bestowed. Nothing is wrong with this at all! It is good and just. We should do such a thing! But far too often we fail to look further behind these goods. What about those blessings and benefits not touched by human hands, these outweigh all the treasures of human gifts. Not to get too far afield with this but consider but a few blessings that no human agent is responsible for: life itself as an example; or ponder on our health; consciousness is another example; or contemplate our cognitive and physiological capacities; the growing of our food; the availability of vast natural resources by which we produce clothes, goods, and services; the opportunity to observe and appreciate beauty in music and art; the capacity to taste and enjoy food; the weather and climate; and the sustainability and cosmological location of our planet. All these are but a few noteworthy blessings and benefits beyond the abilities of human agency.
The point is that all too often our thankfulness becomes one directional. We forget the deep theological sacredness lying behind and above these great goods of life. We forget that all these goods are but second-tier thanksgivings that can never be self-sufficient nor ends in themselves because in reality each blessing and benefit is itself (or themselves) a benefactor of blessings and benefits. James said it this way,
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)
In other words, we need to look behind and above all the blessings and benefits we are thankful for and see the True Giver of givers. True Thankfulness, at its root source, is fundamentally sacred and transcendent. It is theological. It rises above the mere physical gifts and givers in all their temporal frailty towards the Ultimate Good and Giver. This recalls the words of the Psalmist,
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
This opening doxology builds and builds into an ever-growing bounty of blessings that cannot be formed or fashioned by the hands of Man: from great wonders, to the making of the heavens, to the spreading of the earth’s waters, to the giving of light, to preservation from evil nations, to His giving of food to all flesh. In each case the same rhythmic pattern emerges, the linkage between thanksgiving and the enduring everlasting love of God. “Give thanks to the Lord… for His steadfast love endures forever.”
For this Thanksgiving remind yourself that genuine thankfulness is not a onetime a year event, it is not a mere declaration from our lips around the dinner table, a quaint thought gracing our minds on the holidays. True thanksgiving is a mode of living, it is the emblazoning of humble gratitude in the conduct of our character, it is the conscious acknowledgement of the blessings and graces we have been given. It is true worship.
Thanksgiving is an acknowledging our creatureliness, that we cannot and will not survive or flourish or grow in this world without the steadfast loving kindness of a God who provides for us, redeems us, empowers us, and sustains us in and through all things. When that is acknowledged, when that is seared on the walls of our hearts, when that becomes the natural mode of our living, then we are truly beginning to live in the delight of a God who is glorified when we delight in Him.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943-45)
 Paul Minear, Thanksgiving As a Synthesis of the Temporal and the Eternal (ATR, 1956), pg. 9, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/http://pmoser.sites.luc.edu/paulsmineararchive/Minear%20Thanksgiving%20ATR%201956.pdf
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.