Thank God it’s Thanksgiving!

Gratitude as an outline of the gospel

Once again, we’ll do our turkey and football thing for Thanksgiving. And church leaders may complain about how this holiday misses the mark: It’s not really about gratitude but about plenitude. We celebrate our excess. Too much food and a house full of relatives.

Maybe so, but somewhere in that day a tiny miracle might happen. A closed heart might open up to genuine thanks. And this is the core response that God looks for from human beings.

Scripture gives us many ways to respond to God—worship, fear, obedience, love, even curiosity—but one of the most basic responses is thankfulness.

The Israelites had a “thank offering” as part of their worship rhythms ( Leviticus 7:11-15), and the Psalms bubble with gratitude (7:17; 16:9; 63:4; and more). The apostle Paul expresses his thankfulness for several different congregations: “I thank my God for you every time I think of you” (Philippians 1:3). At the Last Supper, Jesus offered thanks for the bread and wine (Matthew 26:26-27), giving his followers a name for their continuing observance of this sacred meal. (The Greek word for giving thanks is eucharisteo.)

Thankfulness is prominent in several summary statements in the New Testament. Those who are growing in their relationship with Christ are asked to “live in union with him…build your lives on him…and be filled with thanksgiving” ( Colossians 2:7). Thanksgiving should accompany “everything you do and say’ (Colossians 3:17).

A series of mini-verses at the end of one letter reveals “what God wants from you.” And what are those essential behaviors? “Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Cutting to the Core

So gratitude is clearly a good thing, an important thing, but there’s one passage that suggests thankfulness is more than that. It’s a core impulse of human worship. In Romans 1, where Paul describes the depravity of the Gentiles, he first establishes the idea that God's identity can be recognized in creation, and so humans have no excuse. “They know God, but they do not give him the honor that belongs to him, nor do they thank him” (Romans 1:21).

Is this saying that a lack of gratitude is at the heart of rebellion against the Creator? On the flip side, then, could we say that thankfulness is an essential characteristic of a faith-response to God?

Embedded Grace

Why would thankfulness be so important? It might be helpful to look deeper at what it is.

The Greek word for thanks embeds the word for grace ( charis). That’s no linguistic accident. We are grateful when we receive blessings we don't deserve. And that makes the act of giving thanks a sort of outline of the gospel. God has blessed us; we recognize his grace; we respond with a thank-you. Of course the details of sin, sacrifice, and salvation need to populate that outline. Yet the grateful person, long before hearing the gospel, already has a grid for it.

That makes the Thanksgiving holiday in America a unique opportunity. It might be considered a semi-religious holiday, with no specific biblical event to commemorate. But amid all the feasting there could be something very important going on. The nation is pausing to be thankful, to acknowledge the blessings we don't deserve. That is a first step of faith—maybe just a first step, but at least it's something to build on.

This might be a chance for you to shepherd people from the edges of faith into the center of a biblical encounter with their Creator.

“Enter the Temple gates with thanksgiving,” the psalmist sings ( Psalm 100:4). Perhaps, for some, thanksgiving can be the gateway to a new relationship with God.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is a free-lance writer and former Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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