A Theology Of Thanksgiving

…. give thanks every day for everything” (Ephesians 5:20 NEB).

It is easy to let triteness enshroud the special times of the year – times such as the Fourth of July, wedding anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas. It’s often hard not to write about them in clichés. Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday – a special family time – and I resent the way Christmas business has encroached upon it.

There are two classes of people – those who take things for granted and those who take things with gratitude. Even among those who would insist that they belong in the later classification the gratitude may be at a very superficial level. Thanksgiving Day is a timely occasion for exploring the higher range of Christian gratitude.

At the lowest level, there is thanksgiving for obvious material things. This is the note that is sounded in the usual Thanksgiving Day proclamation. It summons us to appreciate our prosperity as a nation and the abundance of things showered upon us. With this often goes blindness to the contrast between our own affluence and the poverty of less favored peoples.

At a somewhat higher level, there is gratitude not only for material benefits, but also for the many-sided richness and graciousness of human life. This is the note that is heard in a conventional Thanksgiving Day sermon. We are reminded to count our many blessings, “name them one by one,” and to think of them all as gifts of the Creator.

This, however, does not yet carry us to the level of thanksgiving that St. Paul has in mind when he bids us Christians to “. . . give thanks every day for everything.” This injunction is bound up with his insight that “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28 RSV). When we reach this level, we are able to accept with unshaken trust even the painful experiences of life. We cannot understand them but we have faith to believe that they are not wholly removed from God’s providence. So Martin Rinkart could compose the glorious hymn, “Now thank we all our God,” at a time of pestilence and famine.

Beyond this, there is still a higher and more theological level of thanksgiving where we begin to see that gratitude is the very heart and center of the Christian life. The Christian life might even be incisively defined as a grateful response to what God in His love has done for us. His redeeming love is a gift which I can never merit but which I joyously accept. Gratitude is the one appropriate reaction for one who knows themselves to be the undeserving recipient of divine grace which has done for them what they cannot do for themselves.

If gratitude is thus the great quality of the Christian life, the great sin is ingratitude. Whatever else sin may be, it is always a manifestation of thanklessness in the face of God’s grace. The thing for which we most need to ask forgiveness is our failure to respond to the love which has come to us in Christ and which for us would go even to the cross.

[Reprint from McDowell, There’s Good News in the World, pp. 96-98]

[Week 13 of my blog of The Story will appear on Friday]