Hard Wrought Thanks
"In everything give thanks" is an admonition of my faith that often confounds me. Reading the news of the world even as I anticipate a national day of Thanksgiving juxtaposes the overwhelming need of the world with a surreal celebration of abundance. Global unemployment soars. Giving to charity is at its lowest in many sectors. Wars and rumors of wars terrorize so many, and it is a wonder that it is even possible to give thanks for anything. Yet, to hear others giving thanks—particularly from those who struggle in circumstances where we would be stretched to find any reason for praise—always lends itself to beauty and indicates a gratefulness that transcends material bounty and benefit.
For those who lived in ancient Israel, the concept of thanksgiving was explicitly tied to memory. The praises of Israel recalled a history in which God was intimately involved. Indeed, the exhortation to remember the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt was a frequent refrain. The ancient poets and prophets extended the invitation to remember the days of old when the Lord came near to the people even in a desert land, and in the howling waste of a wilderness. They remembered a God who "encircled them, cared for them, and guarded them as the pupil of his eye." The psalmists reminded the people to "remember that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer," and Job cried out in defiant praise after suffering horrific loss, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."(1)
A spirit of thanksgiving marked the earliest followers of Jesus as well.(2) These early believers were so overjoyed at the Spirit's work among them that they shared meals, their property and possessions, and were continually praising God. Paul exhorted the Philippian Christians to offer their prayers and supplications "with thanksgiving," and the endless song around the throne of heaven in Revelation sounds the chorus for "blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever." Indeed, the apostle Paul insists that giving thanks in everything is the will of God and the biblical witnesses seem to affirm his insistence.
To have a national day of thanksgiving (of which the United States is far from alone) calls its residents to pay particular attention to offering thanks. And while I am grateful for a day set apart to focus on thanksgiving and a worldview that provides me with one to thank, I am challenged to live into giving thanks in everything every day of the year. Thanksgiving doesn't always come easily as I wrestle with the difficulties and sorrows of a world with so much need. Yet when I give thanks for the faithfulness of God there is no room for jealousy over what others have; no room for complaining about what I lack.
Even in times of deepest sorrow, there is a joy that rises up within the heart to praise even with tears. Thanksgiving can fill a heart full of gladness, which overflows and spills out into acts of kindness and generosity for others. When we are grateful, we cannot help but share our gratitude. And this sharing is the will of God for our lives. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews sums up: "Through God then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God that is the fruit of lips that give thanks to his name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased."(3)
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Washington.
(1) Deuteronomy 5:15; 32:7-12, Psalm 78:35, and Job 1:21.
(2) Acts 2:42-47, Philippians 4:6, Revelation 7:12.
(3) Hebrews 13:15-16.