The family sits down, lights the candles, admires the turkey, and begins the generations-old family liturgy: I’m thankful for family. I’m thankful for friends. For a house and a job. For this delicious food. But what if, in addition to naming our blessings, we also went around the table and asked God for the things we still want? I long for a husband. I need wisdom. Reconciliation with my neighbor. Healing from this cancer.
Would the act of asking contradict the spirit of Thanksgiving?
Frequently, I notice Christians trying to separate thanks from asking. We fill blogs and notebooks with lists of nothing but thanksgivings, numbered in the thousands. We write articles urging readers to focus on thanks and to save their requests for another day. We urge ourselves to appreciate what we have been given, and especially on Thanksgiving, it feels ungrateful to ask for more.
When we pray, we often compartmentalize our prayers in some variation of the ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) formula, and give our prayer group instructions like these: Okay, everyone, we are going to thank God now. Please don’t pray any requests during this time. First praises, then prayer requests.
I think we set up this artificial separation because of the ingratitude we see within and around us. CT's Mark Galli correctly describes the ambient ungratefulness of our culture this way: “Anyone with half an ounce of self-awareness recognizes how much we whine about what is missing in our lives... and how often we are just indifferent to the many divine gifts showered upon us hour by hour.” We are thankless people living in a greedy world, and we often respond by promoting thanksgiving without considering how we can redeem whining. Thanksgiving seems holy. Asking just seems worldly.
But thanksgiving and petition are not at odds. In fact, they flourish when they are together—the twin children of our dependence on a gracious God.
Anyone who has read to a child is probably familiar with Laura Joffe Numeroff’s now-classic picture book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. In the story, a boy sits in his yard, eating a bag of cookies. A mouse comes by, and the boy shares a nibble. Having eaten the cookie—and emboldened by the boy’s obvious inclination to be generous toward him—the mouse asks for some milk to wash it down. The boy kindly gives it. The mouse then asks for a straw, which he receives, and then for a napkin, and on and on. Through the kitchen and into the bathroom and down the hall and back again. Each kindness from the boy inspires the mouse to ask him for something else. In the final scene—surrounded by evidence of gift after gift—the mouse once again turns to the boy and asks for a cookie.
Reading this book to my children always reminds me of how, when we understand our human frailty before a kind God, thanksgiving for God’s past kindness compels us to ask for future blessing.
Father, thank you for that cookie. It was just what I needed. But now I see that I also need some milk. Which I can’t get for myself. I’m dependent on you for everything, and since you were so kind to give me that cookie, I have every expectation that you will also give me the milk I need. Thank you.
Like Numeroff’s story, the Bible also links thanksgiving and petition. Philippians 4:6 tells us to do just that: “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And the Apostle Paul models it in his opening prayer, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you… And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more… to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:3, 9, 11).
Thanks leads to petition, and petition gives rise to thanks. As David Pao writes in Thanksgiving:
When thanksgiving is understood as establishing the fact that God is a powerful and faithful God who can and will fulfill his promises, thanksgiving becomes the basis for trusting God in the face of an uncertain future…When the past is remembered in thanksgiving, trust for God to act again is developed and nurtured. If thanksgiving looks back to God’s faithfulness ‘it almost spontaneously becomes at the end asking for the future.’
Even the Psalms are frequently less One Thousand Gifts and more If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. In Psalm 9, for example, David begins by thanking God for past deliverance from his enemies and then moves immediately to asking God to save him from his present troubles. Thanking God reminds David of his dependence on God. And remembering that God previously delighted to rescue his children gives David confidence to ask him to do it again.
Thanksgiving and petition stand together against a common foe: pride. Jen Pollock Michel writes in Teach Us to Want, “There’s obviously something about petition for earthly needs that is meant to humble us. In asking for God’s provision, we’re admitting our inability to self-sustain.” Petition ought to be humbling, but, without thanksgiving, it can quickly become a list of personal demands: nicer circumstances, better stuff, happier me. We proudly assume our own knowledge of what is best, rather than trusting a God who always does right. Like Old Testament Israel, we insist on meat without appreciating the miracle of manna.
And thanksgiving, too, can be prideful on its own: Thanks for that gift, God. I can take it from here. Without petition, we begin to imagine that God is a God who occasionally cares for us—who handed out candy or sunshine last week or last month—but whose constant provision is not vital to our life. When we petition God, we acknowledge that our God is a God who must hold us in his hand at every moment.
Separated, thanks and asking can lose their context. Apart from one another, they can become disconnected from a continued sense of our own weakness and from the character of our unchangingly kind God.
On Thanksgiving, seemingly everyone acknowledges a blessing or two, but, for Christians, the holiday is different. We know that we are dependent, needy people talking to our God. We savor who he is and what he has done, we are thankful for his care for us, and every day we ask him to do it again. Joined together, thanks and asking humble us before our sovereign God.
Enjoy the turkey and tell God what you are thankful for. But don’t be surprised if thanking him for one gift reminds you to ask him for something else, too.