The Power of Thanksgiving
Romans 1:21 is perhaps the most intriguing and convicting statement on thanksgiving in all the Scriptures.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
In Romans 1 Paul is explaining why God’s wrath rests on the human race. By the end of the chapter he has cataloged all manner of sinful actions, some mainstream and some extreme. But in verse 21 he reveals what led to all these forms of depravity. A failure to honor God as Creator and to thank him for his good gifts incapacitates us spiritually and morally. Thus, we could call thanklessness a root sin.
Presumably the opposite is also true: thanksgiving is a root virtue, one from which other virtuous attitudes and actions flow. Why is that the case? What is it about thanksgiving that makes it such a powerful force for good in our lives? The Thanksgiving holiday seems like an appropriate time to consider this question.
Thanksgiving reorients us to the center of all things
In Psalm 69:30 David resolves,
I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
So thanksgiving magnifies God: it makes him great in the sense of declaring his greatness. Here is the most foundational truth about biblical thanksgiving: it gives him the glory he deserves. It exalts him as the source of every good thing we enjoy.
What does thanksgiving do for us in the process? It centers our attention on his character and works as the great realities in the universe. It reorients us to the world as it truly is. It delivers us from any delusion that we are self-made people or that we get to determine how life works.
We see this in the passage children commonly recite at Thanksgiving services, Psalm 100. Its parallel calls to praise and thank the Lord include these lines (v. 3):
Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
This statement humbles us as much as it comforts us. Thanksgiving postures us as creatures. By thanking the Lord we are acknowledging that we are beholden to him for everything. We are being reminded of our dependence on him. Further, we are being reminded that we belong to God. This moves us to renew our submission to him.
If gratitude for God’s goodness dominates our hearts, it’s a bit hard to lean toward complaining or bitterness or pride or lust. Thanksgiving has a way of pushing out fleshly impulses and stoking our desire to honor our Father through our choices as well as our words. And that brings us to the next observation about the power of thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving advances our sanctification
Several New Testament passages urge us to nurture thanksgiving not just because it’s a duty but because it promotes our growth in godliness. We see this close link in Colossians 2:6–7:
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the first specific Paul gives when he describes what it means to walk in Christ.
As Colossians continues, Paul fleshes out this connection. At the heart of a passage on Christian unity and loving relationships, he writes this in Colossians 3:15–17:
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
What is the relationship between thanksgiving and unity in the church? Corporately focusing on praising Christ has the power to bind us closer together and to dispel those things that would pull us apart. Only hypocrisy enables us to exalt the Lord shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters while at the same time remaining selfish, petty, hyper-sensitive, or unforgiving toward them.
Paul also teaches that thanksgiving encourages us in our prayer lives. Colossians 4:2 says,
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
Expressing our gratitude to the Lord keeps us alert as we pray. We are motivated to keep seeking him for blessing as we rehearse the blessings he has already bestowed.
Paul similarly addresses our prayer lives in the famous Philippians 4:6–7. That passage reveals that the Lord uses gratitude-characterized prayer to remove anxiety from our hearts and to minister his peace to us.
Think as well of Ephesians 5:4:
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
If we are struggling with our speech, Paul doesn’t just order us to stop carnal talking. What we must do is replace negative communication with positive thanksgiving. This is another way in which thanksgiving advances our sanctification.
Thanksgiving encourages God’s people
If gratitude has an edifying impact on the individual believer, then it will naturally have the same impact on other believers as well.
We saw one dimension of this in Colossians 3, and we see another dimension in 1 Corinthians 14. Here Paul is laying out guidelines for worship services and emphasizes the importance of intelligibility in those services. In verses 15–16 he writes,
What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?
The apostle wants the congregation to understand the thanksgiving of the person speaking so that everyone can be edified by it and can also affirm it with an “Amen!” Even though thanksgiving is directed to God, there is a secondary audience: fellow believers. One person’s thanksgiving has the effect of encouraging thanksgiving in the hearts of those who hear.
You’ve experienced this, right? Perhaps in a worship service you didn’t start out in a very thankful frame of mind. In fact, maybe you arrived distracted or burdened down or even in a bad mood. But something is said or sung that draws your attention to a reassuring truth about the Lord or about his gospel. Someone else points you to God, and you find your heart being drawn away from yourself. The other person’s worship has ministered to you, and through that God humbles you and renews you and even enables you to thank him for whatever he is doing in your life.
That’s the power of thanksgiving! Our thanksgiving is a form of edifying speech that serves as a means of grace in the lives of fellow believers (Eph 4:29).
Paul understands this dynamic, and it’s why he starts out so many of his letters on a note of thanksgiving. What he does is to express gratitude for works God has been doing in the lives of the people to whom he’s writing.
Here’s just one example, 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3:
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Can you imagine the encouragement such words would have been to these new believers in Thessalonica? For several more verses the Apostle Paul continues thanking God for the electing, converting, and sanctifying grace he’s demonstrated in the lives of his readers. Through that he’s shaping their perspective, helping them to notice all that the Lord has been doing in them and through them. And that becomes one of the ways through which this epistle strengthens the Thessalonians to keep enduring as disciples of Christ.
The point is that thanksgiving is not just a good thing to do—it’s also good for us. Energized by God’s Spirit, it moves our hearts away from ourselves and onto the Lord and others. It becomes a root from which other virtues flow.