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Moving Beyond a Generic Thanksgiving

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In an increasingly secular age, Thanksgiving is an oddity. Think about it: there remains a day, or even multiple days, when the majority of institutions and workplaces across America take a break for the purpose of giving thanks (at least theoretically).

Thanksgiving is not like Labor Day, a day when people revel in the last bit of summer and appreciate the day off from work. It is also unlike Christmas, which, as evangelicals enjoy noting each year, has been culturally diminished (though I have not yet seen an analysis of the cups at Starbucks for this year). Thanksgiving is also unlike Christmas in that it has not been renamed. While it has become the norm for companies, organizations, and educational institutions to close for the “winter holidays” or “winter break,” Thanksgiving still has its own spot on the calendar. Even the University of California Berkeley, which is far from a Christian institution, has not replaced the term Thanksgiving with something less “offensive.” The holiday is right there on the calendar.

Thanksgiving (by definition) entails an expression of gratitude. Families and friends will gather together for meals this week with the same general premise. In many instances people will audibly express to others the things for which they are thankful. The puzzling question, particularly in an increasingly secular culture, is, To whom are people expressing thanks?As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”

Yet, as easy as it might be to point out the inconsistencies of how unbelievers give thanks, we as believers need to consider whether we too have missed the Bible’s teaching when it comes to thanksgiving.

An Important Question
This week people from all sorts of religious backgrounds will be filled with gratitude, sometimes in spite of difficult circumstances, but this gratitude is often short-lived. However, the entirety of our lives should be marked by thanksgiving. And this thanksgiving should not simply be a generic feeling of gratitude. So what does it mean to give thanks in a way that is biblical? Thankfully, the Bible offers us help here.

Psalm 100 is one passage that teaches us why we are to give thanks to God and ascribe to Him the worship that only He is due. It is filled with imperatives to praise and thank God, but at its center, we see why we are compelled to praise Him.

Verse 3 tells us that the God who fashioned us is not only the Creator and Sustainer of all things but that He has looked down on wretched sinners like us and not been ashamed to call us His own. “We are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (v. 3). In other passages, God likens us to sheep under the care of the Great Shepherd (Heb 10:20). Although we deserve for the Shepherd to bring down the rod of justice on us, in His grace, God’s rod struck down Christ in our place. Now, through faith in Christ,  we can enter the pasture of the only Shepherd in whose arms we truly find safety and rest.

Psalm 23 also portrays the relationship of God to His people as a shepherd to his sheep. It tells of God protecting, comforting, and delighting in His people. We are the people in His pasture who He leads beside still waters. Similarly, Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd who came to lay down His life for the sheep (Jn 10:11). He then rose from the grave in victory, and those whom He saves will never be snatched out of His hand. What a cause for thanksgiving to God!

A Good and Faithful God
Psalm 100 closes by pondering God’s goodness. The psalmist speaks to God’s character, and he repeats one of the most common ascriptions of praise in the Old Testament: “His steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Our love is prone to grow cold and our lives are plagued with instances of unfaithfulness, yet we see that God does not stop loving us. We do not have to fear Him changing His mind. We are fully known and fully loved. His commitment to His people does not waver, even when we are faithless.

So let the time set aside this week to gather with friends and family be rightly directed. Maybe this week can help you establish a new rhythm of rejoicing and giving thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:16–18). And may we live to proclaim the gospel so that others might know God and enter His gates with thanksgiving.

Eric Roberts serves as an Assistant Editor at Radical. He and his wife Morgan live in Birmingham, Alabama.
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