How to Be Thankful

by Michael Fischer


It was Thanksgiving, and the whole extended family was gathered around the huge dining room table. This year, it was little Sandy's turn to say the blessing. Everyone bowed their heads, and she began praying, as small children do:

"Jesus, thank you for this day. And we're thankful for the turkey, and we're thankful for the dressing, and we're thankful for the stuffing, and we're thankful for the potatoes, and we're thankful for the yams, and we're thankful for the bread, and we're thankful for the carrots, and ..."

There was a long pause, and then she whispered, "Mommy, do I have to be thankful for the Brussels sprouts?"

Thanksgiving Day was established in 1863, by an executive order from President Abraham Lincoln, "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." Ever since then, it has remained the only holiday that is both uniquely American and uniquely Judeo-Christian. There are other holidays, like Independence Day, that are celebrated only in America, but have little or nothing to do with God. And there are holidays like Easter that are supposed to be all about God, but are not special to America. Thanksgiving Day stands apart.

And because it stands apart in this way, it is in danger of being overwhelmed by a world that has little regard for America and no regard for God. Just before it is Halloween, the world's ultimate holiday, because they sell huge amounts of merchandise and decorations, but God has nothing to do with it. Just after it is Christmas, in which they sell even more merchandise and decorations, and they're taking God out of it as fast as they can. The most recent report is that Fort Collins, Colorado, is trying to ban red and green Christmas-tree lights because they're a religious symbol.

And what does the world have to say about Thanksgiving? Consider this quote from a web site recommended by the Seattle, WA, school district: "Fact: For many Indian people, 'Thanksgiving' is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, 'Thanksgiving' is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship."

By that kind of logic, Memorial Day should be a bitter reminder for us to resent the Germans, the Japanese, the Italians, the Vietnamese, the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Russians, the English, the Spanish, the French, the Mexicans, the American South, and anybody else who ever waged war against the United States. Including the Native Americans.

What does this leave for Thanksgiving celebrations? For most of us, Thanksgiving means you get together with relatives, eat too much, watch a football game on TV and fall asleep on the couch, and you also get a four-day weekend. The only people who really look forward to Thanksgiving with enthusiasm are the turkey farmers. I can't help thinking that "a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father" ought to mean a little more than that. And if you feel the same way, but you aren't quite sure how to go about it, this message may be a help to you. And not just on Thanksgiving Day. This message is about being thankful at all times.

The word "thank," in various forms, appears about 140 times in the Bible, from Leviticus 7:11 to Revelation 11:17. That's a lot of thanking. And all but a handful of those thanking verses refer to giving thanks to God. I think that means that thanksgiving is important to our Lord. So I'm going to take a few minutes and explain the bare basics of what thanksgiving and thankfulness mean, from a Bible perspective.

The word "thank" isn't tough. It means gratitude. You're grateful for something that someone else did for you, so you say so. That can range anywhere from someone holding the door open for you, to God holding the atoms of your body together for you.

What does it mean to be thank-ful? I'm going to get a little bit deep and theological here, so try and stay with me. "Thankful" means "full of thanks." Did I lose anybody? This isn't hard to understand. God tells us to be filled with thanks. Filled to overflowing with thanks. So full of thanks that we can't hold it in — we can't help but express our gratitude to Him for all that He's done.

And what has He done? Do you ever have trouble thinking of things to be thankful to God for? If you ever find yourself not full of thanks, then take a minute and just start thinking of the things God has done for you. I do not believe you will ever come to the end of that list. Ever. I'll get you started:

Also, notice the verb that usually goes with the word "thankful." That's the word "be." It's not a suggestion, or a recommendation, or a good idea. It's an order. God is commanding us to be thank-full. If you are not full of thanks at all times, then you have a sin problem. God has made it easy to be thankful, by doing so much for us. If that doesn't trigger the normal and right response of gratitude in us, then there is something very wrong inside us. That's something to think about.

But speaking of sins, thankfulness is a good antidote to many of them. When you are full of thanks, that means you are too full to have any room inside you for other things. If you are thank-full, here are some problems you won't have:

On the other hand, being thankful brings benefits. Here's a good one:

Phil 4:6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

If you want God's peace, you need to bring your requests to God with thanksgiving. It's not just prayer. And it's not just one verse that says so, either. There's also

Col 3:15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.

Another benefit is that God is pleased with it.

Psa 50:23 "He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God."

Do you want to honor God? Offer Him thanksgiving. And not just on the last Thursday in November, but all the time.

Okay, we've covered that one in more detail than you ever imagined. Now I'll ask another easy one. How do you give thanks to God?

In the Old Testament, God told them exactly how to do it. The first mentions of thanks in the Bible are in Leviticus chapter 7, and they're about the thanksgiving offering, or the thank offering. This was one of the few offerings in the Law that didn't have a special time or event associated with it. The thank offering was for any time an Israelite was feeling grateful to God and wanted to say so. It was a lamb or a young goat, without spot or blemish, offered with cakes of unleavened bread mixed with oil. That was the way a Jew was to say "Thank you" to God. If that Jewish person was overflowing with thanksgiving, those "thank you's" probably got expensive after a while.

King David was one of the wealthiest men who ever lived, and he could have afforded all those thank offerings. But David showed us another way to express our gratitude to God. He used the words "give thanks" or "thanksgiving" 32 times in the Psalms; that averages out to more than once every five chapters.

"Giving" means offering a gift, right? When we say "thank you" to God, in God's eyes, that is a thank offering and a sacrifice. Giving thanks is a lot cheaper and neater than a thank offering and doesn't require a temple sacrifice, but God is just as pleased with it. Hebrews 13:15 says, "Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name." That is our sacrifice and our offering of gratitude. And it's easy! It costs us nothing. It's quick, it's clean, it's free, we can do it anywhere at any time, and we don't need a priest or a Levite to inspect it first.

So how come so many Christians walk around with a little black cloud over their heads all the time?

Someone might say, "You don't know what my life is like." No, I probably don't. But I know what the lives of a few people in the Bible were like. And if they could be thankful in the midst of what they were going through, then we don't have much of an excuse. We'll start with this one:

"7While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple. 8 Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness, 9 But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD."

Does anyone know where the author of those words was when he wrote them? He was inside the belly of a great fish. That's Jonah 2:7-9. Here's a man who tried to run away from God because he didn't like the mission God was sending him on, whose ship was nearly sunk by a terrible storm, who was thrown overboard to save the ship, and who has spent three days and three nights in a huge fish's digestive system, and as far as he knew, that was where he was going to die. And yet he could pray "with the voice of thanksgiving." In the absolute darkenss, and the close quarters, and the sliminess, and the smell, and everything else that goes with a fish's stomach, Jonah could still remember the good things God had done for him, and be thankful for it. Is your situation that much worse than Jonah's?

For a New Testament example, turn if you would to 2 Corinthians 1:8:

2Co 1:8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.

If anybody had it rough, Paul had it rough. In this instance, he and his companions thought they were going to die. But God delivered them, and what was Paul's reaction to all this? "Oh, moan moan grumble grumble, God's asking too much of me, I can't take it, John Mark was smart to get out early, I'll just go back to Tarsus and have a pity party, it's not fair, grumble grumble grumble." No, he just kept on going, and kept his eyes on God, and encouraged his friends in Corinth to keep praying for him so they could join in the giving of thanks when those prayers were answered.

And if I might digress for a moment: has there ever been a time when someone in church had a major prayer answered, and they thanked everyone who prayed for them, and you had to say to yourself, "I wish I'd been in on those prayers"? That twinge of guilt is there to motivate you to pray next time, so you can share in the joy and the giving of thanks when the prayers get answered. It's the workers who share in the harvest, not the bystanders.

The point I want to make is that Paul, in the middle of very serious troubles that he thought were going to be the end of him, was still able to think about people being thankful. Is your life so much worse than Paul's, that you can't be thankful?

Now, it's one thing to be thankful when everything is going well and you have lots of good things plainly visible to be thankful for. It's another thing to be thankful when everything is going wrong. Or is it?

If your faith is in the God who never changes, then what difference does it make what's going on around you? If things are going wrong in the present, is that a reason to stop being thankful for what God has already done for you in the past? Can you find something to be thankful for, in the midst of all the turmoil the world can throw at you?

Whether you can or not, depends on you and your relationship to God. But I can tell you this: you should be able to. How do I know that's true? For the Bible tells me so. You all remember I Thess 5:16-18, right? If you don't know these verses, you should: 1Th 5:16 Rejoice evermore;
17 pray without ceasing;
18 in all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

In all things give thanks. That means that, no matter where you are, no matter what's going on around you, no matter who you're with, no matter what time it is, no matter how you're feeling, God says it's possible to be thankful, and He commands us to be thankful. There aren't any escape clauses in those verses. If you're having trouble being thankful regardless, then there's probably a disobedience problem in you somewhere.

But if you're already living at that level, if you're already able to find something to be thankful for in the middle of any situation, then let's take it up one more notch. We've established that we're supposed to be thankful in all things. But are we supposed to be thankful for all things?

Eph 5:20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;

This one is a little harder. There are things that go wrong in this life, that are so horrible that the idea of being thankful for them seems like blasphemy. Can we be thankful for 9/11? Can we be thankful for gay marriage in Massachusetts? Can we be thankful for movies like The Da Vinci Code that make a mockery of the truths we hold dear? Can we be thankful for crimes, and divorces, and sickness, and death?

The verse does say "giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Does "all" really mean "all" in this case?

Call me a fundie, but I believe it does. But this kind of thanksgiving requires an entirely different attitude from our usual way of thinking. Specifically, this kind of thanksgiving requires an all-consuming, all-encompassing faith.

If you truly believe and are convinced that God has everything under His control; if you really believe Romans 8:28, and God really is working all things together for good to those who love Him and who are the called according to His purpose, no matter how it looks; if the Spirit of God is ruling and reigning in your heart, and you're looking at everything through an eternal perspective; if that's where you are at, then it becomes possible to be thankful for all things. Not easy, but possible.

More than likely, you'll try to figure out why things happen. That's human nature — we like to be in on the plan. And if you can see some good coming out of a bad situation, then it's not so hard to be thankful. For example, it makes it a little easier to go to a funeral for someone you loved if you know that lost people will also be there, and they're going to hear the Gospel from the preacher.

But many times, we just can't see anything good in a situation. Some things happen that are just plain bad, just plain wrong, just plain evil. In those cases, we can be thankful, purely by faith. We can say "thank you" to God for this situation as an expression of our trust in Him. We can't see how God is getting any glory out of it, but we express gratitude anyway. That is a very hard thing. It's an unnatural thing. It's also something that pleases God greatly. Jesus loved it when people showed great faith while He was on earth, and He loves to see it now. But it was a rare thing then, and it's a rare thing now.

The world will never understand this. They'll mock you to bits if they find out about it. If you're struggling a little, this kind of thanksgiving may be one of those examples Jesus warned us about in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matt 7:6 "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

But, on the other hand, if you can defend your faith and your thanksgiving under fire, that's a testimony that may just shake someone's worldly world-view, and they'll consider if maybe all this Jesus stuff is for real. The world can't understand it, but they can't duplicate it, either. Real faith cannot be ignored. They can make fun of you, or they can get closer to Christ because of you, but they can't ignore you. This kind of thanksgiving is a sign of the highest faith, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). I believe it's something that we all ought to be striving for in our Christian lives. We may not get there often, and we may not stay there long, but if your goal is to get a "Well done, good and faithful servant" when you get home, and thus bring glory to Jesus, this is one of the best ways to make it happen.

So there we have it. We've gone from Turkey Day to the highest, purest faith, and being thankful is how we got there. Being thankful is a good way to get anywhere in this life. And in the next life, you'll have had plenty of practice so you can join right in with the saints and the angels in Revelation 7:12,

Rev 7:12 saying, "Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen."

I'm going to close in prayer in a moment. Then I'm going to take a few moments of silence, and I'd like to ask each of you to take those moments and think of something in your life that you've never been thankful for. See if you can honestly thank God for it. If you can't, then just thank Him for something, in spite of what's happening in your life. No excuses, no delays. Just be thankful.

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