A Theology of Thanksgiving

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Tomorrow we will celebrate the distinctly American holiday of Thanksgiving. Many already know the story behind the holiday: In the fall of 1621, after enduring a harsh and deadly winter, the Pilgrims, led by their governor William Bradford, organized a celebratory feast of thanksgiving, and invited some of their Native American allies from the Wampanoag tribe to attend. Of course we also know that Squanto, an English-speaking Pawtuxet, had also taught the settlers how to catch fish, hunt, and grow corn. The settler’s first successful corn harvest was the occasion for the feast. Periodic thanksgiving celebrations were practiced throughout the colonies, and in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day be observed each November.

In 2013, Thanksgiving looks much different than it did to past generations. While many still carry on the holiday traditions of feasting and family gatherings, we’ve added new traditions in the form of the Black Friday and football. Worse yet, the simple and necessary practices of giving thanks and being thankful seems to be ever-declining in our culture. Americans simply are no longer thankful people. American Christians have followed suit.

We could theorize on the reasons why, but in this blog I’d like to take a look at what the Word says about thanksgiving, thankfulness, and giving thanks. I believe we’d do well to refocus and retrain ourselves to be a more gracious and thankful people. We need to develop a theology of thanksgiving.

The Bible is clear that God’s people should be thankful people: “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psalm 30:12) is a recurring theme throughout the Psalms and both Testaments. In the New Testament, Paul exhorts the church to “give thanks in all circumstances“ (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and to always be “giving thanks… for everything” (Ephesians 5:20). In other words, Christians should be thankful always at all times, and in every situation.

Being thankful is often hard for us to do when things aren’t going our way. We’re not very thankful when we lose our job, when our spouse walks out on us, when our washing machine goes kaput, or when our insurance premiums rise. More often then not, we complain. We become frustrated and angry. We know the Bible says we should be thankful, but in our hearts we are not. We’re bitter. We’re resentful. We’re mad. We are not thankful in all things, nor do we thank God for the rain, only the sunshine.

We’re this way because we’ve been conditioned to be. Sadly, many of the most popular Christian culture authors, pastors, and celebrities preach a lifestyle of thanksgiving only when we’re on top. We don’t know how to face disappointment. The words “Thank you, O Lord” will not roll off our tongue if aren’t content, and if all our circumstances don’t meet our expectations. We need to turn away from our American idea of thanksgiving and turn to the scriptures which will help us develop a proper theology of thanksgiving. We must be thankful people because being thankful, even when it hurts, is part and parcel of our lot in Christ (Colossians 3:15-17). It’s just who and what we are as Christians.

We also need to learn how to show thanksgiving. I’m often surprise  (and disappointed) that with the proliferation of “How To Be Missional…” articles and blogs out there, few of them spend any time talking about being thankful. Sure, we can invite our lost neighbors over for dinner, take hotdogs to everyone at work, and leave big tips, but are we living gracious, thankful lives before all people? Do we tell them “thank you,” and do we show thanksgiving by our actions and our attitudes? I’m not going to tell you how to do it, you can figure it out.

This Thanksgiving let’s not be superficially thankful. Let’s be biblically thankful. Let’s not just be thankful when it’s convenient, but also when it isn’t easy. Let’s not limit our public gratitude and praise of God to our Facebook status. Let’s be thankful for all God has given us, namely a new life in Christ. Let’s let our thankfulness spill over to everyone: our family, our co-workers, or fellow church members, and to everyone we meet. Let’s get into the Word and develop a theology of thanksgiving!

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