1 Chronicles 16:34, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting!”
Thanksgiving is a time when we, as Americans, pause to reflect on our nation’s history and “give thanks” for a pilgrim people who dared to venture into a strange land, for a native people who had already lived here for centuries, and for a time when they peacefully gathered around a table and enjoyed a common feast. It is a time when we give thanks for a similar feast, family gatherings, football games, and a four-day weekend!
And Thanksgiving can also be a time when we pause to reflect on what life would be like if we learned to pause and give thanks to God every day. In order to help us make progress in this direction, I want to address three key questions in this meditation: What does the Bible mean when it instructs us to give thanks? Why does the Bible instruct us to give thanks? And what does the Bible instruct us to give thanks for?
What Does the Bible Mean When it Instructs us to Give Thanks?
In the original languages of the Bible, a couple of key words are translated as “thanks” or “thanksgiving.” The Old Testament Hebrew word is pronounced “yadah” and essentially means “to confess,” in the sense of recognizing and declaring the truth about something, whether good or bad. If we have sinned, we recognize what we have done and we “yadah” or openly declare it. Conversely, if we see something good or beautiful or breathtaking in the Word of God or the character of God or the works of God, we “yadah” or openly declare it. So, to be thankful is to openly declare the truth about something with gladness, gratefulness, and sincerity. It is to praise and appreciate the object of our thanks.
The New Testament Greek word for “thanks” is pronounced, “eucharisteō.” While it literally means “to offer a good gift,” it more generally means to be grateful and appreciative for something to the extent that we verbalize our thoughts and feelings. So, again, to give thanks is to praise and appreciate the object of our thanks.
When the Bible instructs us to give thanks, it encourages us to see and savor God’s glory, greatness, goodness, and grace and then to openly declare what we’ve seen in him with gladness, gratefulness, and sincerity. It encourages us to praise and appreciate God. This leads us to the second question.
Why Does the Bible Instruct us to Give Thanks?
Second Corinthians 4:15 perfectly summarizes the answer to this question: “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” In other words, all of God’s good gifts and graces are given to us for our benefit, satisfaction, and joy so that we might praise and exalt God in the sight of others. As we do this, our joy is made complete, God’s glory is lifted high, and other people are given an opportunity to respond to God, whatever their response may be.
First, when it is earnest, thanksgiving is simply a response to finding benefit and satisfaction in something or someone. When I thank my wife Kim for doing something for me, it’s not because I’m obligated to do so. Rather, it’s because I find so much joy that she wants to do life with me, treat me kindly, and do nice things for me. I thank her, both privately and publicly because I’m delighted that I get to live my life with her! This gives rise to two other questions: How do thanksgiving and joy relate to one another? and how does our joy in God give rise to glory for Him?
Likewise, when we see something of the glory, greatness, goodness, and grace of God in our lives, we thank Him because we find so much joy in the fact that He is God and that He loves us and took the time to reveal things about Himself to us or to do something for us. We thank Him privately and publicly because we are delighted to live with Him and receive so much from Him!
So, to reiterate, thanksgiving, when it is earnest, is a spontaneous, heartfelt response to finding benefit, satisfaction, and joy in something or someone.
It should be obvious, then, how our joy produces glory for God. As we delight in Him to the extent that our hearts overflow with thanksgiving, and we speak of our delight in the presence of others, His glory, greatness, goodness, and grace is exalted in the sight of others. One day a family member of mine commented, “I’m so impressed with how you’ve turned your life around.” To which I joyfully responded, “I appreciate that, but I didn’t turn my life around—Jesus did it!” I wasn’t trying to one-up her or anything of the sort; rather, I was speaking the truth with love and joy, magnifying God’s glory.
What Does the Bible Instruct Us to Give Thanks For?
If you were to peruse the 150 or so verses in the Bible that speak of thanksgiving, you would find that the Bible mostly instructs us to thank God for who He is and what He does. For example, we are to thank Him for His power and might over creation (1 Chronicles 29:13), for His faithful defense and protection (Psalm 28:7), for His work of salvation (Romans 6:17), for the victory that He always brings to His people and will complete for them on that great and final day (1 Corinthians 15:57; 2 Corinthians 2:14), and for his eternal lovingkindness (1 Chronicles 16:34).
Thanksgiving in the Bible is radically God-centered. It’s all about God. And this helps us to interpret what the Bible means when it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “…in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (emphasis mine). In other words, learn to see and savor what God is doing in every circumstance and aspect of life and give Him thanks for what you see.
So, this Thanksgiving, give thanks to God not so much for dinner itself but because He provided the food and gave you a sense of taste to savor every bite. Give thanks to God not so much for being with your family but for the fact that He gave this family to you and you to them and granted you the time to enjoy each other’s company. Give thanks to God not so much because you’re team is winning but because He gave humans the ability to make up games and play them with passion. Give thanks to God, not so much because you have a few days off but because He provided them for you to rest, spend time with your family, or get a few things done around the house.
And why should we discipline ourselves to put God in the center of all our thanksgiving? Because as we do, He will be greatly glorified through us and we will be more deeply satisfied in him! In other words, as we give thanks, let us learn to see and savor God in all things, to take joy in Him in all things, and to express our thanks and praise to Him for all things.
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, this Thanksgiving can be the beginning of a new way of life, and indeed, this is my prayer for us all.
Our heavenly Father, please give us eyes to see you in all things this Thanksgiving and well beyond. Give us new hearts that long to see and savor your glory, greatness, goodness, and grace, for truly, there is no one else in all creation so worthy of our attention and affection as You. Give us hearts so full of joy in who You are and what You do that we’ll gladly praise and thank your name in private and in public, and in this way, exalt your name in the sight of others. Thank You for hearing and heeding our prayer, O Lord, for we pray in the mighty and merciful name of Jesus, amen.
Charles Handren is pastor for Adult Ministries at Cross of Glory Baptist Church and an author residing with his wife Kimberly in Wayzata MN. His wife Kimberly (1991) is a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher, and his daughter, Rachel (1994), owns and operates a dance studio in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles enjoys reading, cycling, hiking, and traveling. He holds degrees from California Baptist University (Riverside, California) and the American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, California), and is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.