Today is Thanksgiving Day (November 27, 2008). And I am indeed thankful. I have so much for which to be thankful- a healthy family, a saved soul, a deep experience of the love of God and untold relational, material and spiritual blessings. I am grateful to the core. Even though our wonderful son, Mitch, suffered and succumbed to an exhausting battle with cancer only weeks ago, I find myself thanking God for everything that has been, the opportunities we have had with our family and the joy of knowing his present and eternal care for us.
But, I am thinking about the nature of thanksgiving. From where does it come? What prompts it? Is it cause or effect? Is one thankful because they have an orientation that makes them so? Or, is one thankful and, as a result of their thankfulness, changes their orientation? Is it a cognitive decision? Is it a natural response? Is it an emotional reaction? Is it a discipline that takes years of practice and repeated expression to become perfected? Is it something that simply emerges from a heart that bent outward to acknowledge good coming from somewhere else?
Do some deeper virtues produce thanksgiving- love, faith and hope? I believe there would be a very good argument to say that they do. After all, thanksgiving cannot only be about what we know of the past. It also incorporates anticipation in the future, since the past may not give us as much fodder as we would like for thanksgiving. Truly thankful people look both ways. Perhaps that is why the Psalmist says; “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 118:1). In this case, we know and perhaps experience the love of God and as a result, have the ability to give thanks with the assurance that his love will remain. The love and goodness of God provide natural streams of thanksgiving. Colossians 2:7 also tells us that as a result of being strengthened in the faith, we end up overflowing with thanksgiving. So, just as love conjures reason for thanksgiving, faith seems to prompt it as well. Hope obviously is not far behind because hope is a forward thinking virtue that is certain to well up in a heart filled with thanksgiving. Advanced gratitude is its product. Faith, hope and love seem to stimulate faith.
But, perhaps that is not the end of the story for thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, as separated from an effect of virtue is a commanded activity. “Always be thankful” is the instruction of the apostle Paul (Colossians 3:15). Continuing we are reminded, “Whatever you do, do it with thanksgiving. . .” (Colossians 3:17). In fact, it tells us that the tipping point of idolatry is when people stop giving thanks. It is as though faith is only truly activated through a heart of thanksgiving (Romans 1:21)- “they did not worship or even give him thanks.” It seems to be causative in these cases. It is not only effect, but cause. When the well of thanksgiving stops, when the command to thank God stops, apparently equilibrium is gone. Our center is gone. Faith, love and hope diminish. A core activity has disappeared and morality crumbles, self-centeredness takes the place of God-centeredness. Thanksgiving seems to keep the equilibrium in place. It is the spiritual gyroscope that keeps the awareness of God in the first place and acknowledges his goodness. He is not only worthy of receiving credit, but his goodness merits gratitude.
Then again, perhaps thanksgiving is more than just a cause and effect activity. At worship’s core is thanksgiving. In fact, worship generally is at its best when the worshipper is thankful. I wonder at times, are the two (worship and thanksgiving) really separate activities? Aren’t they both inextricably tied? Worship is nothing more than a banal activity if it is done with the depth of seeing in God something worth worshipping.
Mitch’s motivating verses were 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Oddly it is something that is offered to us here in command form. The commands to rejoice, pray and give thanks are effortless exercises for Mitch now. They are not commands, but descriptions that characterize his life. How could he not rejoice, carry out face to face communication and do it all with a heart overflowing with thanks?
But, we can embrace them here as commands to observe. They anticipate that God is worthy of our praise and joy and prayer and thanks. So, perhaps thanksgiving is all of these things. We do it as command to obey. We do it as a natural response as those who have been blessed. We do it as an expression of faith, hope and love. We do it as a discipline, expressing thanks as often as we have opportunity whether it comes naturally or with some labor. We do it when it seems like the thing to do in anticipation of God’s promised action and when we do not see much good on the horizon.