On October 3rd, 1789, President George Washington gave the United States’ very first Thanksgiving Proclamation, marking Thursday, November 26th of that year as a “day of public thanks-giving.” Washington saw the necessity of setting aside a time for the nation to give thanks to the Almighty Creator who protected them during the Revolution, gave them independence, and helped establish a constitutional republic. This day of thanksgiving was to be a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God”.
Washington rightly understood the necessity of giving thanks to a good and gracious God. Giving thanks was a reflex. During the Revolutionary War, Washington would order thanks-giving services after winning battles. Even before the war, early colonists would observe “thank days” – much in the same way we imagine the First Thanksgiving dinner – as occasions for reflection and gratitude to God.
Our forefathers’ lives were steeped in gratitude, and rightfully so. Our ancestors toiled and fought to provide a better future for the next generation, and they understood that the success of the American experiment was a miracle so precious that only God could possibly bring it to fruition. Our forefathers knew instinctively that the might of their hands alone could not provide the blessings bestowed upon them. As we are reminded by the LORD in Deuteronomy, and undoubtedly the early Americans understood, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
Contrast that with today’s national mood, and we see a much different picture. Undoubtedly you have heard and will hear the howls of the mob to cancel Thanksgiving. You will hear the cries of a lost generation that has convinced itself that we in the United States have nothing to be thankful for. Endless guilt has replaced gratitude as a contemporary virtue. In fact, I would argue that the idea of giving thanks this Thanksgiving is an act of cultural rebellion.
The Profound Simplicity of Gratitude
God has ordained a profound simplicity in the act of proper gratitude. At its core, God-centered thanksgiving focuses our attention on our eternal reward in Christ Jesus. And from that focal point, every good gift we receive this side of heaven, as well as every misfortune we face due to sin, is put into proper perspective.
Look at what Jesus has to say to his Disciples in Matthew chapter 6:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”Matthew 6:25
Why is Jesus telling the Disciples not to be anxious? Surely they had much to be anxious about. The first-century world was incredibly dangerous – if one lived until the age of 40 in those days, he was an old man! If we follow the “therefore” a few verses back, we see that Jesus is talking still about laying up treasures in heaven. That principle is the ground for the entire passage – the reality that this world will pass away, but eternal life in Jesus Christ will never pass away.
When we short-sightedly focus only on that which we lack in this life, we forget all we are promised in Christ for the next. When this happens, we are seduced by sin to believe that this world is all there is. And if this world is all there is, then we certainly have a lot to be anxious about! This dichotomy lies at the root of our present tensions over the Thanksgiving holiday. We face two strong temptations: the temptation to throw up our hands and throw out the idea of Thanksgiving, because there is nothing to be thankful for and no one to give thanks to, and the temptation to give in to the anxiety of everyday life, causing us to forget God’s blessings and robbing us of our gratitude.
Both of these temptations deny the greater reality that God is the one who is ultimately responsible for all of our blessings. As James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17) To give thanks wot ourselves, or to no one in particular, or to fate, is an exercise in futility, and it totally flattens the fullness of Christian gratitude. Yes, secular studies show that people who are more thankful have less anxiety, and live longer, happier lives. We know civilizations that are more thankful last longer. But if we only give thanks out of a cold ritualistic impulse, is it really thanks at all?
The Antidote to Anxiety
That being said, the relationship between thankfulness and our spiritual well being is real. Jesus isn’t arbitrarily telling the Disciples about anxiety. In fact, peace with God is intrinsically tied to our faith in Christ and gratitude for His work. When we give thanks to God, we drop our shoulders and give our burdens to Him. In a way, there is even an implicit confession within true thanksgiving, for we must admit that we cannot fight against the current of sin on our own. So when we fail to practice gratitude, we not only try to take credit for all the blessings God has given us, but we also take the burden of sin upon ourselves, and with it drown in the sea of anxiety, guilt, and shame. May we therefore pay attention to what Jesus says at the end of this passage:
“For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”Matthew 6:32-33
In the Daily Office of our Common Prayer Book, the Order for Compline at the end of the day includes a reading from Psalm 4, and with it a verse which says, “Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” * Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.” (Psalm 4:6)
How many of us have felt this way recently? How many have wished we lived in better times? The temptation to despair is real, and it is strong. But the Psalmist has the answer: “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase.” (Psalm 4:7)
Gratitude is the antidote to anxiety. God is calling us in Christ to a life far greater than what this world can offer. And through Christ, God fills us with a joy that far outweighs any material blessings. This is the attitude of the Psalmist. When we give thanks to God, we are reminded of His glorious promises to us.
Beloved, we undoubtedly have a lot on our minds right now, but let us fight for the gratitude to which God calls us, and offer Him the thanks due His Name. Jesus Christ has blessed us beyond measure, and with it a peace which surpasses all understanding. By engaging in the radical, rebellious act of giving thanks to God this Thanksgiving, we will not only soothe our own souls, but also provide a Gospel witness to our friends, family, and neighbors. We have a precious opportunity for Gospel witness when we reveal not only our deep thankfulness, but also the One to whom we are thankful. Let us not shy away from this calling.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail