Golden Grasses

Giving “Thanks” at Thanksgiving

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David Wilmington, YTI Professor of Theology and Philosophy

November 22, 2017

Giving Thanks?

A recent article in the satirical online Babylon Bee described a touching and inspiring story of a fictional atheist giving “thanks” at Thanksgiving. A reporter informs us that a Cincinnati atheist is “preparing his heart to humbly show gratitude to the cold, mechanical processes that randomly led to mankind’s existence and his own fleeting life this Thanksgiving.” The heartwarming holiday story ends with the man muttering (to no one in particular): “I’m truly blessed—no, humbled—that I’m able to partake in this futile tradition at least one more year before my inevitable demise and descent into the great…void beyond.”

Both the fashionable atheists of popular culture, and the consumer Christians who have forgotten the humility inherent in thanksgiving, deserve the literary skewering the Bee delivers so well, and the sting of satire echoing back their own language may, perhaps, be the catalyst for a moment of self-evaluation.

But probably not.

Truly Giving Thanks

HOWEVER—those of us who mindfully thank God at Thanksgiving are usually easy targets ourselves. How much more careful or thoughtful are we about the One to whom we give thanks? When we pray “thank you God,” don’t many of us have in mind as vague an idea of gratitude and of “God” as the atheist’s “universe?” Do we care enough about particularly Christian Thanksgiving to actually be care-full with our language and actions?

If not, “the universe” might be a more fitting recipient of our poor, thin thanks.

The distinctly Christian God calls for a distinctly Christian thanks—the mysteriously Triune Creator and Sustainer of all things invites gratitude beyond a slapdash dinnertime prayer. Furthermore, limiting our thanksgiving to a recitation of good things God has given us ignores the history of the Covenant into which we’ve been adopted.

Sacrificial Gratitude

Can we imagine a Thanksgiving with a sacrificial gratitude for all God has given us? We may be correct to resist Christmas music and lights before Thanksgiving, but our thanks giving should always have the “same mind as” (Phil. 2:2), and bear the character of Jesus’ incarnation, birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. Our New Covenant is still sacrificial.

While we are not called to give material sacrifices as thanks offerings, why do we assume our gratitude shouldn’t be just as costly? When Christian thanks is just as cheap as a satire-worthy salute to “the universe,” it should make us anxious about our assessment of how much we’ve been given and our idea of the One who gives.

Our tithes are a giving back within the church, but if we recognize a civil holiday like Thanksgiving, we can and should feel called to a different and creative kind of response. This might mean a more thoughtful, expansive, and careful kind of prayer; or a dedication to sustained charitable welcoming of those among our own families who have wronged (or merely annoyed) us; and it probably should—for a Christian Thanksgiving—stretch out to involve an outward reaching or missional giving back and drawing in to people outside our families.

Giving Our All

So while we might laugh (and rightly so) at the spectacle of contradictory thanks offered to the universe—or “good thoughts” offered as consolation—by those who deny the reality of the universe’s Creator and only true consolation, we should also demand more of our own thanks. Since all Christian thanksgiving should be a kind of prayer and a performance of gratitude, let our Thanksgivings more closely match Jesus’ own prayer and action. At the Last Supper, Jesus gives thanks over the cup and immediately offers to his friends, and to all of us, all of himself—“this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.” We should give thanks for the universe—and for our food and families and lives and redeemed selves—and then mercifully accept the further offer to give back to others what has so mercifully been given to us.