We are now only a few days from Thanksgiving Day, a national heritage. As he has done in the past, the President of the United States has declared that all the citizens of America should pause on the twenty-second of November to offer thanksgiving to God. In response to this tradition most American churches will reflect upon thanksgiving in some special way. Many will even hold special services on this day.
But there is something strange about all this. I am sure that there will be many people who will go through the formality of offering prayers and expressing thanks to God while at the same time they have no right to do this, nor should they be so hypocritical to imagine that they even can. This may sound strong to many, yet this is the Scriptural truth. As can be seen from several passages in Holy Writ, thanksgiving is a spiritual exercise which only the believer in Christ can perform. One such passage is Ephesians 5:20 where we read: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Another is II Corinthians 4:15: ‘For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.” And in Philippians 4:4, 6we read; “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice. Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” Then one more, this time I Thessalonians 5:16-18 where Paul once more instructs: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
From these passages three ideas stand out very clearly: 1) that thanksgiving is not a matter of particular occasions, but must be the characteristic of our constant attitude, 2) that it is not concerned with some things while others are excluded from the thanksgiving, 3) that it is the fruit of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord. In connection with this national holiday, the Church surely is reminded of the three great truths just mentioned. But because Thanksgiving Day is national we are in danger of imagining that on that day, at least, to give thanks is a national affair. That it is something in which all the citizens can participate for all are the recipients of the “common grace” of God in one form or another. Yet this is not true on Thanksgiving Day any more than on any other day.
There was a time when the nation, Israel in the Old Dispensation, was also the church of God. However, this is no longer true, for the middle wall of the partition is broken down. The church is among all nations, but no nation is the church. Thus, even on Thanksgiving Day it is only those within the nation that are in Christ Jesus that are able to give true thanks.
Originally, Thanksgiving Day was instituted as a harvest feast. Consequently, two erroneous ideas concerning this day immediately arise. First, because it only comes once a year people regard thanksgiving as a matter for only special occasions. Secondly, because with a view to harvest we concentrate on material things, we set aside that which we consider evil in order to give thanks only for the good. The Word of God, however, as we saw in Eph. 5:20, says that we must give thanks always. This means that giving thanks must be characteristic of our entire life and walk, every day of our life and every moment of our existence. It also means that giving thanks must not be centered in things, for true thanksgiving is joy in the Lord. This does not mean that we cannot and may not be thankful for things, but that in giving thanks for things we may not give thanks for some things and exclude others. It must include everything: all our experiences in life no matter what they may be, regardless of whether they be pleasant or unpleasant according to the flesh.
Specifically, we are thankful for all that is good. This includes our earthly life and all its gifts and powers and talents, health and strength to labor, daily bread, clothing, shelter, prosperity and abundance. In addition there is the home and family, our place in church among the people of God. And we must not forget the rain, sunshine, fertility of the soil, growth of the seed, the grain of the fields, and the fruit of the trees. But there is also the other side of life described by the Baptism Form as “nothing but a continual death” for which we must be thankful. Death surrounds us on all sides, for there is not only joy, but also sorrow; not only health, but sickness, pain, suffering, and agony; not only abundance, but also scarcity and want; not only peace, but wars and rumors of wars; there are fruitful and barren years; rain and sunshine, but also hail, fire, and scorching heat. All these are included in the exhortation to give thanks. Seemingly it is a paradox. How absurd it would seem if our President would enumerate all these things as ground for thanksgiving! Instead we hear “Kind Providence has supplied us with an abundance of good things.” Or “the Almighty” has filled our barns with plenty, the wheels of industry are spinning. And the war which we wage is abundant proof that we have not yet reached the perfection of “the more abundant life.” Then he may end his speech, saying, “In spite of many sorrows and sufferings, troubles and anxieties, there are many things to be thankful for.”
Yet before we become too critical of one who makes such statements, we must look at our own life. Who of us would give thanks for Viet Nam, the Middle East crisis, or Watergate? Which one of us that has been sick for weeks gives thanks to God for the very bed of languishing? And when God comes and takes our dear child from our bosom, do we look at it in such a way that we give thanks? What farmer praises the Lord for the hailstorm which destroyed his crops in a matter of minutes? Indeed, it seems paradoxical to be thankful for such things since “to give thanks” presupposes that we have received good things, and implies that we are conscious of them, that we count them, name them one by one. Moreover, it presupposes that we rejoice because of the good we have received and do receive. At the same time it implies that we know that they are all gifts, gifts of God, and that we merited none, yea, that we are unworthy of the very least of them. To give thanks is to point to the Giver of all these good things, and praise his holy name for all the goodness, grace, mercy and lovingkindness to us, as they become manifest in all his benefits. But to give thanks in everything implies more. First that we give thanks on the ground of everything, because of everything; secondly, that we rejoice because of everything that we receive; and finally, that we acknowledge our God as the giver of it all.
Such giving of thanks for the natural man is impossible for he is rich in things, but not in God. Consider, for example, the parable of the rich fool. Here was a man of abundant wealth who did not acknowledge the fact that it came only from God. He was rich in the things of this world but not in God, and failing completely to acknowledge the fact that corn is in no way food for one’s soul. To such men thanksgiving to God in everything is foolishness, for they are “men of this world, which have their portion in this life,” Ps. 17:14. They are men “whose god is their belly, whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things,” Phil. 3:19. So foolish are they that they think that their houses shall continue forever. No, they do not give thanks at all for they rejoice in things, never in the Lord. Let us remember that when we gather with our families and friends about the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day, for a joy in the abundance of our thanksgiving dinner is quite different from the joy of thanksgiving. A cruel thanksgiving it would be if measured by the abundance of things, for then it would be only for the rich with nothing to say for the poor. The rich eat, drink, and are merry, for tomorrow they die. Hence, they glorify God not as God, neither are they thankful.
True thanksgiving is possible only for the believer in Christ. Does he rejoice in evil, in suffering and pain, sorrow and grief, war and depression? Or does he by sheer power of his will, set his face like flint and show himself victorious over the sufferings of this present time as did the Stoic of old? Of course not! How then is it possible to give thanks in everything? Because he belongs to Christ. Christ is the solution to this apparent paradox because He is Lord of all. He was anointed before the foundations of the world to be heir and Lord of all things. Thus, He was and is the Firstborn of every creature and of the dead; and unto Him and by Him were all things created. As such He is the Head of His body, the Church, for which He came in the fulness of time to realize their redemption by taking upon Himself their sins upon the accursed tree, carrying them away forever. But death could not hold Him; He was raised by God, justifying Him and us in Him. And at the appointed time He shall take us to the heavenly tabernacle where we shall see Him face to face.
Therefore, to belong to Christ means that He is my Lord in everlasting love for we were in Him when He died and was raised and are now in Him by faith, looking for His return. That is why it is possible for us to give thanks in everything, for to belong to Christ does not only mean redemption and comfort during this life concerning my sins, but also that what seems evil in this present time is in reality good. Consider the following: “For all things are ours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s,” I Cor. 3:22-23. Also, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God,” Rom. 8:28. That is why we give thanks in everything, always, for our joy is in the Lord. Then, with the prophets of old we can confess “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength,” Hab. 3:17-19.