Thanksgiving as a Spiritual Discipline
In this day and age, Thanksgiving often only represents the waiting season between Halloween and Christmas and true gratitude takes a back seat. We might extend a polite thank you for a gift or take a day each year to acknowledge God as the ultimate source of our health, family, and church, but biblical thanksgiving is meant to be so much more. In Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, David Pao writes, “Thanksgiving…is an act of worship. It is not focused primarily on the benefits received or the blessed condition of a person; instead, God is the center of thanksgiving.”
Thanksgiving as a Spiritual Discipline
Giving thanks should take us beyond acknowledging God and into enjoying God. As we give thanks to God, we not only confess that we have nothing good apart from him—which is true and right—but we also consider who he is. Thanksgiving in the Bible is a response to more than God’s gifts and acts. It’s a response to what we perceive to be true about him through those gifts and acts.
I’m suggesting more than considering the giver as more important than the gifts—I’m suggesting that as we give thanks for the gifts (which we can truly and deeply enjoy) we should also look through the gift to learn more about the one who gave it. In doing so we will enjoy and love the giver even more. Giving thanks should make us pause and ask questions like: “What does the nature of this gift tell me about the giver? What does it tell me about what they want for me or how they are seeking my good?”
For example, if my wife gives me a gift card, I won’t complain because gift cards can be useful. But as much as I appreciate a gift card, if my wife—the person who should know my wants, things I enjoy, what I need, what I’m looking for—gives me a gift card, rather than a gift, it might convey a lack of thoughtfulness or care. However, if she purchased a book I wanted or gave me a card to a specific restaurant I wanted to try but was unwilling to spend money on, I would be more thankful because she would have thoughtfully picked out something I really wanted.
In this scenario, I’m thankful for the gift itself. Yet, the gift also revealed and reminded me of specific things about my wife. As I recognize this and thank her for it, expressing thanks becomes a unifying relational act.
Thanksgiving in the Psalms
In the Bible, when people give thanks to God they do so with one eye on the gift they’re grateful to receive and the other eye on the giver they’re grateful to receive from and know through the gift. This kind of God-centered, worship-filled thanksgiving shows up throughout the Psalms (Ps. 9; 30; 100; 103; 138).
In Psalm 103, David begins by blessing God for his specific actions on behalf of his people (vv. 1- 5). As David continues, the actions he ascribes to God reveal both God’s attributes and his heart toward his people. David thanks God for his actions but also worships God in thanksgiving, as those actions reveal a God who is righteous and just (v. 6), merciful and gracious (v. 8), unswerving in love (v. 8), compassionate as a father (v. 10), and understanding of our weaknesses (v. 14).
The gifts, works, and actions of God that call for thanks are windows to show us new things about who God is and who he is for us. Having a theology of thanksgiving is a conduit of communion with God. Or, to say it another way, gratitude for what God has done produces worship because of who God is. As we seek to grow in gratitude, we might think of it as a two-part process.
- First, we recognize God as the source of what we are grateful for
- The second step—often neglected—is that we pause and think about what these gifts tell us about God himself. True thanksgiving moves from recognition of what God has done to revering him as a God who would do such things.
It’s good to give thanks to God for a blessing he has given you. It’s even better to recognize that the blessing comes from a God with a generous heart towards his children. It’s good to give thanks to God for a spiritual blessing, such as your adoption in Christ, but it’s even better to let that thanks lead to worship as you delight in a God who clears your charges and embraces you in his loving arms.
How to Live a Life of Thanksgiving
Cultivate a habit of looking into the Word and looking around to notice God at work, God speaking, God protecting and providing, God helping and sustaining you, and God showering you with gifts. When you spot these gifts, don’t wait! Immediately thank him. Write it down so you can remember his kindness. Tell others so they can share in the joy or appreciate God as a good and generous Father. Take time to consider what the gift tells you about the giver, what he wants you to receive with the gift, and what he wants you to know about him through it.