Many people lose their way in life because they are not grateful to God. Historically, Paul associated the most serious spiritual and moral losses with an unthankful spirit. He wrote the Christians at Rome that ungodly men were without excuse; “for 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 senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:21, RSV). The context reveals that failure in thanking contributes to failure in thinking. Awareness of God becomes blurred. Wisdom turns to folly. Worship is transferred from the Creator to the creature. Values are so distorted that the possibility of sanctity and beauty in sex and the hope of social justice and domestic happiness may be wholly canceled.
Some of our most celebrated theologians could have brightened their somber treatises with some chapters on praise, gratitude, and joy. One introduction to Thomas Aquinas which contains seven hundred pages of excerpts from the Angelic Doctor yields very little on Christian gladness. Aquinas thinks that man will find ultimate happiness in that knowledge of God which the human mind will possess after this life. Such stalwarts as Charles Hodge and A. H. Strong have no place in index headings for thanksgiving. Theology would be better written with some thankology.
As a pastor, I have often found church members startled by the simple question: “Have you ever in your life specifically thanked God for Jesus Christ?” Usually the answer has been, No.
Fundamentally, we begin to fulfill God’s purpose for us by offering up our praise:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the Lord is God!
It is he that made us, and we are his;
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
And his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him, bless his name!
For the Lord is good;
His steadfast love endures forever,
And his faithfulness to all generations.
While many of the psalms celebrate God as Redeemer, this one (Psalm 100) sings of him almost wholly as Creator. Man was made to rejoice in his Maker. Some who may suppose that John Calvin never smiled will be astonished to learn that he attached to the first three commandments these positive cognates: adoration, trust, invocation, and thanksgiving.
While logically we may think of God in separate ways as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, experientially we know him in all these ways together if we are Christians. William Law, one of the outstanding men of prayer in the eighteenth century, was writing as creature and Christian when he urged: “If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and perfection, he must tell you to make a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you” (quoted in Prayer and Personal Religion, Coburn, Westminster Press, p. 35).
In brief compass in a pastoral letter Paul indicates that man’s chief end includes sharing gratefully in the gifts of the Creator. “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits … who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1–5, RSV). A coercive asceticism may wear the garb of spirituality, but it is really an apostasy from the purpose of God for his creatures. But we must note that selfish enjoyment does not glorify God. Conscious recognition of the Giver’s goodness consecrates both gifts and enjoyment. In other words, man was put on earth to give thanks to God.
The crisp freshness of each new day, the smell of the good earth newly turned for winter wheat, a golden carpet of leaves in the woods, bulging bins of fruit and grain, and tables loaded for a feast excite our wonder and gratitude.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below.
Deliverance From Cynicism
If thanksgiving is a clue to life’s meaning, it must be relevant to pain, frustration, and loss. Unless it can stand up to life’s cruel blows and denials, it is as frothy and transitory as the foam on an ocean wave.
Let us consult William Law again. “For it is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing. The true saint is not he who prays most, or fasts most …, who gives most alms or is most eminent for temperance, … or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God wills, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness, and has a heart always ready to praise God for it” (Coburn, op. cit., p. 35).
We know life too well to suppose that the Hebrews were exempt from suffering. They were often afflicted—especially for disobedience. Yet listen to this ringing affirmation: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11, RSV). Try to find that in Greek philosophy! William James once said that the notion that the ancient Greeks were gaily joyous is a modern fiction and that whenever they were truly thoughtful they were sad.
Paul in chains wrote his epistle of joy, the letter to the Philippians. He saw calamity as serving to advance the Gospel. This proved the possibility of remaining thankful and unembittered under trial. He practiced what he had written earlier to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16–18a, RSV). Commenting on this, John Wesley says: “This is Christian perfection. Further than this we cannot go; and we need not stop short of it. Our Lord has purchased joy, as well as righteousness, for us.… Thanksgiving is inseparable from true prayer; it is almost essentially connected with it. He that always prays is ever giving praise, whether in ease or pain, both for prosperity and for the greatest adversity. He blesses God for all things, looks on them as coming from Him, and receives them only for His sake; not choosing nor refusing, liking nor disliking, anything, but only as it is agreeable or disagreeable to His perfect will.”
I recall a very helpful distinction made once at a union Thanksgiving service in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Dr. John Calvin Reid was preaching on First Thessalonians 5:18. He pointed out that there is a difference between giving thanks for something and giving thanks in something. It may be impossible to be grateful for some towering tragedy; it is not impossible to be grateful in it. This is the crucial test of the thankful approach to life and the deathblow to cynicism.
The Corrective To Anxiety
Worry is a besetting weakness of most Christians, and clergymen are notoriously assailed by it. A busy pastor has problems thrown at him day and night. Some parishioners feel they are rendering high service by reporting as many problems as possible to the minister. It takes some doing to avoid being a parish trash can.
Bishop Stephen Neill in a beautiful book for ministers (Fulfill Thy Ministry, Harper and Brothers) urges clergymen to manifest the grace of ataraxia. “It is the life that is free from strain and worry and anxiety” (p. 60). He comments: “You will find, I think, that worry is almost always connected with an error about time or place, wanting to be somewhere else, or wanting to be in some time other than the present” (p. 62). He suggests three rules for effective living: “Live here and now. Recollect always that underneath are the everlasting arms, here and now. Do what you can.… In my experience God deals wonderfully gently with the honest mistakes, such as all of us are likely to make, and guards our people from being harmed by them” (p. 63). Another way to say what this gifted Anglican says is: “Practice a grateful faith moment by moment.”
This is Paul’s point in Philippians 4:6 and 7: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (RSV). The words “with thanksgiving” are central, suggesting that gratitude opens the windows of the spirit to the inpouring of God’s peace.
The sublime scenes of heaven in the Apocalypse resound with the praises of all creatures. We are in training now for unhampered participation in the unending chorus of joy.
Cary N. Weisiger, III, pastor of the Menlo Park (California) Presbyterian Church, holds the degrees of A.B. (Princeton University), Th.B. (Westminster Seminary), and D.D. (Muskingum College). He has served on the General Council of the United Presbyterian Church.
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