“Thank you” is a bonding phrase. When our service or kindness receives a smile and a “thanks” a satisfying relational loop is completed. The other person’s words recognize our action not as a duty but as an expression of care.
But thanksgiving is not as common as it could be.
I know a man, for instance, who as a rule doesn’t express thanks. He accepts whatever comes his way as an expected benefit—a service appropriate to his status. And it seems that he treats almost all his exchanges with others as transactions—not tied to mutual grace as much as to his unending expectations and to our ongoing duties.
Some other people, by contrast, are genuinely touched even by small kindnesses. They never take people for granted. What’s more they often recall things from the past—as if friendships are treasures they savor.
All of us will recognize these social contrasts. But what explains the difference? Is it just a matter of differing dispositions? Or differences in nurture; or life circumstances? It’s true that a well-cultivated life and a good disposition plays a role. But if we accept an ultimate measure found in the Bible the answer is no—it’s not a natural quality but a supernatural gift. A thankful response to Christ displays a truly changed heart.
Let’s chase this. In the Bible, we learn that thanksgiving—or the lack of it—is a heart condition. Thankfulness is an indicator of where we stand on a scale ranging from honest humility to unrealistic self-regard. Genesis chapter three—with Satan’s invitation to “be like God”—sets up the ultimate basis for dismissing thanksgiving. His deities are all at least deeply self-concerned and, in the extreme, committed narcissists.
Paul treated thanksgiving issues as a global reality in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 1:21 he set out thanklessness as the obverse of recognizing God’s status as God: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”
This linkage of thanks and proper honor of God is an eye-opener. It reminds us that recognizing and appreciating God’s place as our creator and sustainer is crucial. It orients us to our place as his beloved creatures.
It isn’t that God is petulant, demanding proper recognition. Instead Paul saw the human experience of life as the main issue. Our orientation to reality is disrupted by thanklessness: “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools.”
Paul then repeated the consequence of thankless-dishonoring-of-God-as-God three times with the ominous warnings in Romans that “God gave them up” to their folly (in 1:24, 26, 28). And today many of Paul’s identified follies are prominent world values. Godlessness is rife today.
A second feature of giving thanks to God is the pathway into mature spirituality it offers. Paul said as much to the young Christians in Thessalonica when he urged them, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).
This Trinitarian ground for thanksgiving invites reflection: the Father’s “will” is “in” Christ “for you.” It seems a bit cryptic if taken out of context. The call comes as a concluding feature in a letter meant to reassure its readers of God’s redemptive purpose in history: “to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (in 5:9). The placement of a call to ongoing thanks as an application is key. It treats thanksgiving as a restorative process offered to us.
Jesus, in other words, achieved salvation for believers and that salvation extends into daily life. So believers can step more and more into this reality with ongoing steps of faith—a faith displayed in each expression of thanks to God for his ongoing care for us.
So as much as Adam’s fall turned humanity away from recognizing God’s providence, our new thanksgiving displays a heartfelt reversal of that trajectory. And it now bonds us to the Father as an applied feature of our reconciliation that started with the Son’s sacrificial work. Thanksgiving reflects our exploration of and appreciation for the new life we have in the Son: we now live in light of God’s love for us! And the Father, we can be sure, is pleased.
Finally, it’s good to note a range in Spirit-formed thanksgiving. Paul called the Thessalonians to give thanks “in all circumstances” rather than “for all circumstances.” This suggests that we aren’t called to thank God for a given exposure to evil that may come our way. But we can be sure that God is still certain to be working in that event—something we find supported in well known texts like Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28.
This allows us to trust God’s care for us in every circumstance: he’s fully in charge of the creation and in every moment his people get to experience of it. All the hairs on our heads are counted; and everything is working for good for those of us who love him and are called according to his good purposes.
So thanksgiving helps us to see God’s loving providence. If, for instance, a loss or a tragedy strikes us we’re invited to start thanking God even before we start to see him turn it for good. Faith, in other words, is our confidence in God’s character and our assurance of his love rather than in his providing us with happy circumstances. It also means our lifestyle of thanksgiving will both display and expand that faith.
If you aren’t already there, try it. You’ll soon enjoy God’s smile that comes with it!