My late friend, Dave McCarty, sent an email to friends several years ago with the heading, “The Thanksgiving holiday is dangerous.”
That was an email I had to open.
How could turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, and chocolate chess pie be harmful (except for the obvious caloric impact)? What is the threat of gathering with family to feast and watch football (aside from the rivalry conflicts and interpersonal funkiness that all families experience)? Why does giving thanks have the potential to be dangerous?
Admittedly, the danger is subtle. Almost unrecognizable.
The danger lies in how giving thanks to God may reinforce a worldview that defines blessing as having things go my way, where my agenda is fulfilled, my comforts are supplied, my dreams, desires, will, and wishes are all achieved.
“Thy will be done,” unconsciously becomes, “My will be done.”
We may be tempted to think of God as a cosmic genie whose job is to fulfill our wishes.
When life goes according to my plan, I give thanks. When life doesn’t go according to my plan, I may grow angry and frustrated, eventually denying God’s wisdom, goodness, and love for me. What good is a God who doesn’t give me what I want, right?
Now we see how Thanksgiving can be dangerous.
What is the antidote?
Give thanks for who God is more than for what he gives.
It certainly isn't wrong to thank the Father for what he gives, from rain on the crops to grace for our souls. Scripture is replete with examples of thankfulness for his kind providences and tangible blessings. Ann Voskamp wrote a book several years ago titled, A Thousand Gifts, where she explores how believers are surrounded by more grace than we can imagine.
Gifts are everywhere. If only we had eyes to see.
Nevertheless, the church Father, Augustine, recognized the danger of putting a premium on what we receive from God. While he found great delight in the good things of this world, he came to see them as shadows of a greater gift.
In his famous book, Confessions, Augustine expresses the lesson he learned, saying, "If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them but turn your love away from them and give it to their Maker."
Augustine discovered gifts reveal the Giver, who is, himself, the greatest gift.
Scripture echoes such a sentiment.
Consider a small selection of passages, noting how thanksgiving is offered not only for what he gives but also for who he is—his nature and character.
- "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever." — 1 Chronicles 16:34
- "The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him." — Psalm 28:7
- "I will exalt You, my God and King; I will bless Your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless You, and I will praise Your name forever and ever. Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; His greatness is unsearchable." — Psalm 145:1-3
- "O, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and untraceable His ways! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Who has first given to God, that God should repay him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.” — Romans 11:33-36
- “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” — Psalm 23:4
Whether you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death or not, you will. We all will. For such a journey, we will need to know the Lord as the kind of Shepherd he truly is— powerful, purposeful, sovereign, wise, kind, just, good, merciful, loving, and unrelentingly faithful to his own.
In that context, our prayers may take a new shape.
- Thank you, Father, for your providential purpose in my present troubles.
- Thank you for your sovereignty and power, that as the Creator of billions of galaxies, I can trust your hand to guide my life as a good, wise, gracious Father.
- Thank you for your infinite wisdom, especially when I can’t see through the fog.
- Thank you for your kindness, that you do not treat me as I deserve but according to your mercy.
- Thank you for your faithfulness, that it is not my grip on you that saves and sustains but your grip on me.
The cross confirms these things are true, where the multi-faceted beauty of God’s perfect attributes is on full display, where Jesus walked through our darkest valley in our place, making the way for us to live in the light.
As we behold the glory of such an intentional, sacrificial, redemptive act, we declare, “This is our God.”
His wisdom is unassailable. His love is unrelenting. His mercy is unbounded. His faithfulness is unceasing.
He is with us and will never let us go.
With such a Spirit-empowered confession, we just may find ourselves thankful, even more for who God is than for what he gives.
- Why do you think it's possible for gratitude practices to inadvertently foster a self-centered worldview?
- How do you think giving thanks for who he is, rather than just for what he provides could affect your perspective on life?
- Discuss Augustine's statement, "If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them but turn your love away from them and give it to their Maker." How could this philosophy apply to our lives, especially in a consumer-driven culture?
- Why is the cross the centerpiece of a believer's gratitude?