A Thanksgiving Worthy of God
What shall I render to the LORD
for all his benefits to me?
Do you remember the first gifts you gave to your parents when you were a child? Maybe you presented crudely drawn pictures of crayon or marker or finger paints. Maybe they were creations constructed with materials such as glue, yarn, construction paper, or popsicle sticks. But whatever they were, our parents appeared delighted to receive our little offerings.
My own children’s earliest gift-giving ignored the homemade creations phase. Instead, they would hunt for random, seemingly unattended objects around the house, wrap them in bathroom paper, and place them under the Christmas tree for my wife or me. I can’t remember how the idea occurred to them, but in the days leading up to Christmas they would eagerly draw our attention to several misshaped bundles of Charmin under the tree.
In their enthusiasm, they could not wait for us to unwrap their gifts. That means we received a lot of early Christmas presents. They would tingle with excitement as we feigned enormous anticipation while pulling away the tissue to reveal some AA batteries, or a stapler, or some missing nail polish.
In fact, one mid-December morning my wife said, “Have you seen my hairbrush?”
So I told her, “Why don’t you check under the tree?”
And, sure enough, there was a loosely wrapped, oblong “gift” tucked in with the other presents under the tree.
An Offering of Thanks
What must it look to God when we offer gifts to him, when we thank him by offering our praise, our time, our talents, our resources.
“Every good gift and perfect gift is from above,” James 1:17 tells us. This means that God is the source of all good and perfect gifts. So it follows that the greatest gifts we could offer to God are only what he already owns.
God tells us in Psalm 50:10–12,
10 … every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
So, when we give to the Lord, there is a sense in which we are like little children finding trinkets in the house that God already owns and meagerly presenting them back to him. As Augustine famously said, “When God rewards my labors, He only crowns His own works in me.”
This is the same dilemma for the writer of Psalm 116, when he asks in verse 12,
What shall I render to the LORD
for all his benefits to me?
This is an excellent question from a heart of gratitude to God. What can we possibly give to God that would serve as an adequate expression of our thanks?
But after he asks this question, the psalmist answers it in a way that instructs our own thanksgiving to God.
The question divides the psalm in halves. In verses 1–11, the writer recounts God’s salvation from a life-and-death situation. After verse 12, he answers his question about what to render to God by describing precisely what he will do (vv. 13–14, 17–19):
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the LORD,
14 I will pay my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all his people.
17 I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the LORD.
18 I will pay my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the LORD,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
The writer is not inventing a gift to give. He is planning to bring the thank offering as explained in the Mosaic law (especially Leviticus 3 and 7). The thank offering was a form of the peace offering. It was not an offering made because of sin, but an extra offering that the worshiper could choose to give during a time of fellowship with God, especially to express extreme gratitude.
But it is not the writer’s thank offering per se that instructs us how to thank God, but rather the heart of the giver. For if we take our instruction from Psalm 116 we discover that our expressions of thanks to God are worthy of him when they are marked by virtues that come from the heart.
Virtues of Gratitude from the Heart
Our thanksgiving is worthy of God when we give with a heart of sincerity.
In other words, when we are truly thankful. This does not mean working up our emotions into what we think feels like gratitude, but a simplistic response of genuine thanksgiving for God’s goodness, mercy, and grace.
We know the psalmist is sincere because he offers a tangible expression of his thanks. Yes, we can certainly offer hollow expressions of thanks without genuine gratitude in our hearts. But genuine gratitude always yearns to find expression in a sacrificial action.
Closely tied to a heart of sincerity is thanksgiving from a heart of spontaneity.
Spontaneous expressions of thanks occur on impulse or instinct. It is not premeditated or motivated merely from a sense of duty or guilt, but unplanned, unrehearsed.
We sense the writer’s spontaneity throughout the psalm, beginning with his opening declaration in verse 1,
I love the LORD, because he has heard
my voice and my pleas for mercy.
We can also see his spontaneity in the fact that he offers the thank offering in the first place. Because this offering was not required, one could live his entire life as a faithful member of the covenant community of God’s chosen people and never bring this offering. Yet, motivated by gratitude, without any prompting, he offers this sacrifice of thanksgiving.
We should hasten to observe that thanksgiving that is not spontaneous, but planned ahead, can also be sincere. We may have to be reminded from time to time not to simply go through the motions of planned worship. But to plan to praise God in a particular way at a particular time is also honoring to God. Furthermore, planned, thoughtful, intentional worship has the ability to properly form in us the best response to God. For this very reason God instructed his people in the OT to bring the thank offering in a particular way.
However, we should wonder about our gratitude if we only praise God during planned times of thanksgiving. For God is worthy of a thanksgiving that comes spontaneously, motivated by sincere love and gratitude.
Roses presented to your wife on Valentine’s Day can be a loving act of sincere affection. But if they are given completely out of duty, only because they are expected, with no real gratitude, then they have lost their value. They no longer honor the wife but demean her.
On the other hand, roses given on a random, ordinary day, “Just because I love you,” are extra special. Because the sincerity of love represented by these roses is vindicated by their spontaneity.
John Piper, in his book, Desiring God, has a very helpful passage on this very idea. Borrowing an example from Edward Carnell, Piper says,
Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, “You must, but not that kind of a must.” What she means is this: “Unless you are motivated by a spontaneous affection for me, your expression of love is stripped of all moral value.”
The fact is, many of us have failed to see that duty toward God can never be restricted to outward action. Yes, we must worship Him. “But not that kind of must.”
We could say, “Yes, we must thank God. But not that kind of must.” Our must should be the spontaneous must of the psalmist who says with delight and anticipation, “I will offer to you, LORD, the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”
Furthermore, as we grow in our spontaneous and sincere response of gratitude to God, a third heart-response is cultivated that deepens and matures as we walk with the Lord. And that is a heart of devotion.
If the sincerity of our thanksgiving is evidenced by tangible expressions of thanks, and the spontaneity of our thanksgiving vindicates those expressions—shows them to be genuine—then what does our devotion do?
I think that our devotion demonstrates the long-term effects of a consistent heart of sincere and spontaneous gratitude.
Do you love the Lord? Would you say you are devoted to him? Devotion is the result of walking with the Lord over a sustained period of time. It is the deepening and growing in love and obedience as we continually praise him in recognition of who he is and what he has done for us.
As we look at Psalm 116, we notice that there is something going on in the heart of the author that calls us to a thanksgiving worthy of God—a gratitude that does not belittle God, but magnifies him.
A heart of sincerity and a heart of spontaneity, leading over time to a heart of devotion.
There is one common requirement, however, that is necessary for any of these heart-felt expressions. We have to recognize who God is and what he has done for us. If gratitude is a response, then what is it we’re responding to? What are we grateful for? Ungrateful people are unaware when they ought to be thankful.
It is so easy in our entitlement-driven, self-focused world to follow the culture, focusing on what we do not have and how we want our situation to change, so that we ignore the rich bounty of goodness that God has poured out upon us.
So take time during this Thanksgiving week to mediate quietly, reflectively, on the rich blessings of God, beginning with your salvation. Thank the Lord sincerely for each blessing. And ask the Lord to give you a greater awareness of how good he is to you, that you might cultivate a heart of spontaneity. And may a consistently sincere and spontaneous gratitude lead us as believers and as a church into greater devotion, that we might offer to God a thanksgiving that is worthy of him.