Come Thanksgiving Day each year, many of us give the nod to Pilgrims and Indians and talk of making ready for a harsh first winter in the New World.
But for the Christian, the deepest roots of our thanksgiving go back to the Old World, way back before the Pilgrims, to a story as old as creation, with a two-millennia-old climax. It’s a story that keeps going right on into the present and gives meaning to our little lives, even when we’re a half a globe removed from history’s ground zero at a place called Golgotha.
You could call it the true story of thanksgiving — or you could call it the Christian gospel viewed through the lens of that often undervalued virtue known as “gratitude.” It opens up a few biblical texts we otherwise may be prone to downplay.
Here’s the true story of thanksgiving in four stages.
Created for Thanksgiving
First, God created humanity for gratitude. You exist to appreciate God. He created you to honor him by giving him thanks. Appreciating both who God is and his actions for us — in creating us and sustaining our lives — is fundamental to proper human life in God’s created world.
As he describes in Romans 1 what’s gone wrong with the world, the apostle Paul gives us this glimpse of the place of appreciation in the created order:
Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans [1:21])
Part of what the first man and woman were created to do was honor God by being thankful. And part of what we exist to do is honor God by being thankful — and thus the numerous biblical commands enjoining gratitude.
Humanity was created to appreciate God. But as we’ve already seen from Romans 1, ingratitude wasn’t far away.
Fallen from Thanksgiving
Second, we all have failed miserably in appreciating God as we should. In her book on gratitude, Ann Voskamp gives memorable expression to the failure of the first man and woman — and the devil before them — to rightly experience and express gratitude.
From all of our beginnings, we keep reliving the Garden story.
Satan, he wanted more. More power, more glory. Ultimately, in his essence, Satan is an ingrate. And he sinks his venom into the heart of Eden. Satan’s sin becomes the first sin of all humanity: the sin of ingratitude. Adam and Eve are, simply, painfully ungrateful for what God gave.
Isn’t that the catalyst of all my sin?
Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what He gives. We hunger for something more, something other. (One Thousand Gifts, 15)
Satan the ingrate spawns unthankfulness in Adam and Eve, who pass it along to all of us. Both before our conversion and after, we are unthankful people. This is so painfully true.
And we not only fail to be thankful like we ought, but we also fail to get the balance right between physical and spiritual. Two obstacles often stand in our way to God-exalting gratitude. You could call them “hyperspirituality” and “hyperphysicality.”
Perhaps hyperphysicality is all too well known in 21st-century Western society at large. A milieu of materialists is so unaware of spiritual reality that even when there is gratitude for the physical, the spiritual is neglected, if not outright rejected. We can be thankful for the temporal, even while we couldn’t care less about the eternal.
But hyperspirituality is often particularly dangerous among the so-called “spiritual” types, even in the church. We can be prone to mute God’s physical goodness to us out of fear that appreciation for such would somehow detract from our thanksgiving for spiritual blessings.
In our sin, we fail again and again to get the proportions right. Only with divine redemption are we able to grow toward a balance that goes something like this: Christians are thankful for all God’s gifts, especially his eternal gifts, and especially the surpassing value of knowing his Son (Philippians 3:8), the Spirit-become-physical.
Redeemed by Thanksgiving
Third, God himself, in the person of his Son, Jesus, entered into our thankless world, lived in flawless appreciation of his Father, and died on our behalf for our chronic ingratitude. It is Jesus, the God-man, who has manifested the perfect life of thankfulness. If you’ve ever tracked the texts where Jesus gives his Father thanks, you’ll know it’s quite an impressive list.