Have you ever wondered how you should express thanksgiving? Christians and secular people will both find themselves with the desire to express thanksgiving, however, this takes a radically different shape when we ask two clarifying questions:
1. When should we express thanksgiving? (This is an ethical question)
2. To whom do we give thanks? (This is a theological question)
Depending on your view of God, answers will vary wildly. Let’s start with the Christian position. Suppose that your daughter is born healthy. Since God gives all good things, and he is the creator and sustainer of all his creation, he is the appropriate object of our ultimate affection.
Yes, we should give thanks to the doctors and nurses, however, only God is due the highest praise that comes up from the bottom of our hearts. (Psalm 19:1–4; 33:6–9; 104:1–24). This is even the case when Christians receive bad news.
Christians assume that God’s knowledge is too wonderful for them, that his ways are often inscrutable, and that he is a just God (Psalm 139:6, Rom 11:33, Job 1:21). Christians are to give thanks in all circumstances to God.
In the New Testament, the expression of thanksgiving is closely tied to faith in Christ:
Ephesians 5:19–20 (ESV) — “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”
We can conclude therefore that since God (a) reveals himself as a person who can receive thanksgiving, and (b) God shows himself by his actions that he is worthy of all thanksgiving, that Christians, therefore, give thanks to Christ for all things.
Specifically, what does thanksgiving look like in the life of a Christian?
Tim Keller writes in “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.”, that “thanksgiving is praising God for what he has done, while “praise proper” is adoring God for who he is in himself.” This occurs chiefly through prayer.
When Christians experience the blessings and trials of this life they give credit to God through prayer. Neglecting to give thanks to God through prayer is like ‘plagiarizing the work of God’, according to Tim Keller. We are totally dependent upon God, who takes the gratitude of his people seriously and keeps it close to his heart.
The Secular Dilemma
For secular people, the circumstances under which gratitude should be expressed mostly overlap. Christ tells us that his Father makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45).
It is unreasonable for a Christian to tell a secular atheist that they have “no reason to be thankful.” Usually, this charge is overly simplistic and needs clarifying. I think what Christians often mean is, “To whom do you give thanks, and what makes that action meaningful?”
For thanksgiving to have a meaning, the object should be able to receive it and be the proper object of the thanksgiving. These are categories of personhood and transcendence.
Since Christians believe that God has personal attributes such as a will, wisdom, thoughts, and a mind, he is able to relate to his creation. This was manifested in the person of Christ, who took upon himself a body and soul in order to dwell among his creation.
In the Old Testament, God used creational media to manifest himself, revealing his will and mind to his people. God can and will receive gratitude, appreciation, and love. To put it anthropomorphically, God hears thanksgiving.
We must not stop there, God not only hears us when we thank him but he is the proper object of it because he is above all. Some secular people will attribute luck or a general sense of awe at the accomplishments of mankind to their good fortune.
This may be fine as a coping mechanism, but it is not an exchange of thanksgiving. The universe is impersonal, luck is an abstract idea, and the accomplishments of man are far too small to contain the thanksgiving man has in his heart.
The problem here is that all of these concepts are elevated to a transcendent status, but when they are, they can no longer personally receive the thanksgiving the secular person wishes to communicate. For this reason, it has become an abstraction in and of itself; it describes a feeling more than an action.
The secular person is put in a dilemma – Why is thanksgiving meaningful if there is no one there to receive it?
G. C. Berkouwer wrote, “Grace is the essence of theology and gratitude is the essence of ethics.” Christians believe that the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people (Titus 2:11).
This revelation is Jesus Christ, who has come as, the Lord, with total power and reign over all creation. Christ is not only the ‘revelation of the grace of God’, but he is also the ‘goodness and loving kindness of God’.
Christian Thanksgiving is the only proper response upon hearing that God has come down to meet us in his Son and that not a hair can fall from our heads without the will of the Father. Amen.
By Mark Russell
Mind On Jesus