No U.S. holiday is as distinctive as Thanksgiving. In our busy, deadline-fixated age, expressing gratitude to our heavenly Father is too easily squeezed out of our lives, but it is important. First, I think human beings are "hardwired" to do this. Even atheists seem to have unsettling moments when they feel an irresistible urge to thank someone "up there." One of the problems with atheism occurs when pain is avoided or pleasure gained—having no one to give thanks to leaves you with an itch you cannot scratch.
But there is more than a primeval urge to justify thanking God. On almost every page of the Bible, we see this as a theme. The Old Testament reverberates with the sound of people praising God; Israel’s history is full of thanksgiving to God for showing them mercy and delivering them from disaster.
The New Testament is no less full of thanksgiving. Jesus himself offers up thanks to God the Father, most importantly at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26-27), where the word used for thanksgiving is Eucharist, still used in many churches for communion. Paul not only regularly gives thanks; he actually commands it of others.
This gives us some guidelines for "biblical" thanksgiving:
First, biblical thanksgiving is innocent.
In giving thanks to God, there should be no motive other than pure gratitude. Thanksgiving is giving thanks and that alone. Of all the different types of prayer, this is least likely to be contaminated by our own conscious or subconscious desire to manipulate God.
Second, biblical thanksgiving is intelligent.
It involves looking back over the past—whether the last week or an entire life—and identifying things for which we are grateful. Thanksgiving is neglected today partly because modern Western culture is so obsessed with the future. But to give thanks to God is to look backward, not forward, and to express gratitude for the good things that have come our way.
Third, thanksgiving should be inclusive.
It's easy just to say, "Thank you, God" for the health and wealth we have. But do we also give God thanks for friends, family, housing, holidays, or a hundred other lesser things? Let's give him thanks for all the little things in life, too.
Giving God thanks should be a theme running through our lives. At least five blessings result from this:
The first is that thankfulness forces us to focus on what we have had rather than what we want. In our materialistic culture, we can succumb to a consumerism of the soul that reduces our prayers to shopping lists. Thankfulness looks outward, not inward. It realigns our lives so that they revolve around God instead of trying to make God revolve around us.
The second is that thankfulness highlights grace. To give thanks is to admit that you are dependent, to say, "I couldn't have done this on my own, but you helped me." Thanksgiving removes the temptation to boast and strengthens the only basis on which we can relate to God: that of accepting our own unworthiness and God’s free grace in Jesus Christ.
The third is that thankfulness encourages a positive attitude. It forces us to think about what is right with our lives rather than what is wrong. This is important in an age when many feel depressed. Thanking God is a proven way of piercing the gloomiest of clouds.
A fourth is that thankfulness develops hope for the future. Looking backward to the past with thanksgiving actually helps us to look toward the future with anticipation.
A fifth is that to practice thankfulness regularly ensures that gratitude will spill over into every area of our lives. We cannot thank God for difficult colleagues, relatives, or neighbors for long before finding that we express a positive attitude toward them. Grumpiness and irritability do not grow well in a climate of gratitude. Those who regularly give thanks to God find they are ready to give to others. Gratitude and generosity go hand in hand.
Whether or not we celebrate Thanksgiving, we all need to be reminded to practice thanksgiving on a daily basis. That "attitude of gratitude" is not just a duty to be fulfilled but something that will bless us and others. It's typical of God’s graciousness that the best gift we can give ourselves and others is to say thanks for what we have already received.