“Giving Thanks”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
Thanksgiving was just over a week ago, and what an amusing sight it was, giving thanks as we wrap up a year that just keeps punching us all in the gut. This year we’ve seen some of the worst political division in decades, a global pandemic that continues to drag on incessantly, vast areas burned by wildfires, others burned by rioters, economic lockdown and recession, high rates of unemployment, huge numbers of small businesses closing up for good, social isolation, scarcity of some basic necessities, looting, immense hypocrisy from our supposed betters in public life, and in many cases even the way we celebrated Thanksgiving this year was completely different from every other year, and not by our own choice. In the middle of all this, it seems a little ridiculous to fold our hands and express our great appreciation for perhaps the roughest year in living memory. It’s a bit like asking for more in the middle of a beating, isn’t it?
Yet, many of us still prayed to God and thanked him for all the many ways he has blessed us over the past year. Some did this out of habit or to fulfill an expectation more than out of any genuine gratitude, but others were sincere and had long lists of blessings in mind as they expressed thanks for all they’ve been given. Well, it is God’s expectation:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3.12-15)
Here, Paul has listed many things God expects of us, and some of them are quite challenging. He even admits we’ll have good reason to complain, in verse 13. We’ll have to sacrifice and give ground for each other’s sake, we’ll be hurt and have to absorb the injury and forgive the one who gave it, and yet still be thankful. How can we genuinely do this?
The words used can give us some hints. In English we usually mean something no deeper than surface-level when we say, “thanks.” But we have other ways of getting the point across, and one is the word “appreciate.” What this word means at its root is that we ascribe a high value to something, someone, or some action. We consider it to be worth a high price, and so if someone just gives it to us, we recognize that we owe some debt of gratitude.
Another hint is found in the word translated, “thankful” in Co 3.15: εὐχάριστος-eucharistos. Embedded within it is the same word that is generally translated “grace,” which itself can also mean “gift” or “gratitude,” among other things. The proper response to a gift fits right there with the appreciation we just discussed, and in both of these we can see the underlying assumption that we have been given what we do not deserve. Paul is making this same point in discussing justification by faith, when he says “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Ro 4.4). We ought to be grateful for his gracious gift, but if we’d earned it, it would no longer be a gift, and we wouldn’t have much reason to be thankful. You might say “thanks!” to your employer for your paycheck out of a sense of etiquette, but if the boss withheld wages you’d rightfully earned, the reality of the situation would quickly sink in for all parties. Perhaps you’re grateful for your job, but once you’ve put in the work, wages are not a gift, but a right.
But if we have “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Co 3.12), then we’ll remember that every good thing comes from God (Ja 1.17), and will happily acknowledge that we don’t deserve such gifts from him. We forfeited any claim on God’s grace by sinning against him, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). As such, we have no right to expect gifts—on the contrary, “a fearful expectation of judgment” (He 10.27) would be more appropriate. This goes far beyond giving thanks for our daily bread and the clothes on our backs—it’s about the destination of our eternal souls!
As we put all of this together, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and inadequate, and that makes it hard to swallow the exhortation we saw in Colossians 3.15, to “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts.” But that’s the the whole point! If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that not only do we not deserve any good gifts from God in this world, but we don’t deserve anything other than “a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (He 10.28) in the world to come. Embracing this fact and entrusting ourselves to the Savior who promises forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, is the way to find peace, even in such troubled times as we’ve faced this year. It’s the secret to being thankful even while facing need and requesting more. Most importantly, it’s the first step toward finding that peace for all eternity.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4.6-7)