Disciplines of the spirit, pt. 4: Thanksgiving

Oct 10, 2018 8:00 AM

Storm on the Sea of Galilee

Rembrandt van Rijn

It never occurred to the disciples who were crossing the Sea of Galilee with Jesus to give thanks to God when the winds rose that threatened to swamp the boat. Instead they were alarmed that he was so unconcerned about the waves that he could sleep soundly through the storm.

Yet thanksgiving is a necessary discipline of the spirit. Every situation calls on us to give thanks whether we feel thankful or not. For thanksgiving is not the same thing as thankfulness. Gratitude is a feeling, but to give thanks is to be obedient regardless of how we may feel.

“In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (I Thessalonians 5:18) It does not matter whether the circumstance is pleasant or adverse. It is God’s will for us to give thanks.

Some are quick to point out that the above scripture says “IN everything,” but at least it doesn’t say “FOR everything,” so at least there is that loophole. 

Except that Ephesians 5:20, in the midst of an important passage about Christian spirituality, does say FOR everything: “Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (ESV)

Why is it important to give thanks in and for all things? To give thanks is not merely an expression of gratitude, it is a primal confession of faith. Romans 8:28 says, not that “everything happens for a reason,” but that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” So to give thanks is a confession by which the believer says:

  • I believe in a God who is sovereign and in control over all things.
  • I believe that the sovereign God is good and wise.
  • I believe that the good, all-wise, sovereign God loves me and will work all things for my good.
  • I believe that God’s good, loving purpose for me will be fulfilled in this situation, no matter how it may look to me now.

There are numerous testimonies of people who have seen God change their situation after they gave him thanks, but that is not what thanksgiving is for. What commonly does change, however, is that our response to the situation. To give thanks is the single most important expression of faith a Christian can make.

Consider this: At the last supper Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.” This was more than the simple giving of thanks before a meal, more than a formal thanksgiving before a ceremonial observance (Passover). “This is my body,” he told them. He was looking forward to the terrible execution he would face in a matter of hours, and the bread represented the sacrifice of himself he was about to make for their—our—sakes. And he gave thanks. Though the situation he was facing was unspeakably grim, he gave thanks because he looked beyond it to “the joy that was set before him” and thus "endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)