A Theology of Thankfulness

It’s Thanksgiving week, which means that this week’s blog should probably be about giving thanks. While it may seem like reflecting on gratitude is a bit obligatory this week, it’s worth doing. We don’t spend nearly enough time expressing gratitude and reflecting on all that we have for which we must give thanks. In fact, the Bible puts a great deal of emphasis on thankfulness. Thankfulness, for example, is a key feature of Paul’s theology. Within Scripture thankfulness is a key practice of the Christian life.

The Bible speaks about gratitude in multiple places throughout the Old and New Testament, often tying it to issues of worship. So, in the Old Testament there we feasts and sacrifices that were specifically designed to express thanks (see Leviticus 7). The Psalms of course are full of invitations to “give thanks to the Lord” (ex: Ps. 95; 100; 106; 118). Thankfulness is an act of worship. In the New Testament Paul develops the concept of thankfulness more fully and notes that if gratitude is related to worship then a lack of thankfulness is related to sin. 

A failure to show gratitude is, in fact, the root of all sin. New Testament Scholar Tom Schreiner notes:

Most [people] conceive of sin in terms of failing to do what is mandated, and Paul certainly agrees. Fundamentally, however, sin exists when people fail to thank and glorify God (Rom. 1:21). The root sin consists in worshiping and serving the creature rather Than the creator (Rom. 1:25). People sin when they fail to acknowledge God (Rom. 1:28). All the discrete acts of sin, therefore, are a consequence of failing to honor and give thanks to God (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). (New Testament Theology, 144-145)

All sin has at its foundation a refusal to acknowledge the Lord and live in gratitude before Him. So, when a man lashes out in anger at his wife and children he is failing to acknowledge the God who gave Him such gifts, or failing to live out of gratitude that God does not lash out at him. When a woman lusts she is living out her ingratitude for the spouse God gave her, or expressing her disappointment with God’s failure to give her a spouse. She is mentally stealing images that do not belong to her and indirectly expressing ingratitude for what God has given her. The list could go on. Sin is related to this concept of thankfulness.

Paul speaks of it this way in Romans 1, as Schreiner noted in the quote above. Paul states that despite having all the necessary evidence they need to acknowledge and honor the Lord “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to Him” (v. 21), and exchanged the glory of God for earthly creations (v. 23). Thankfulness is part and parcel of what it means to honor the Lord, and a failure to do this is at the root of all sin.

Paul also helps us to see the positive dynamic of thankfulness. In Colossians 3:17 Paul connects gratitude to the heart of the Christian life. He tells us that as followers of Christ everything we do, in word or deed, is to be done in the name of Jesus Christ. Specifically, he adds, that means living in a way that gives “thanks to God the Father through Him.” Giving thanks, and living in gratitude, are part of what it means to submit to the Lordship of Christ (another major theme in Pauline theology). 

It’s a tough season in which to express our gratitude, isn’t it? When it seems like everything is falling apart, and the things we once enjoyed are being limited, restricted, or taken away it can feel particularly challenging to be grateful. Paul knows all about that too. He had plenty of hardship in his life, suffering and persecution. Yet, he learned how to be content in every situation (Philippians 4:11-13). In fact, He writes about this contentment from a Roman prison. When Paul challenges us to be grateful he is not naive about the challenges that come with that command. Yet, because thankfulness is close to the heart of God-centeredness we must fight to be thankful. 

How are you doing at that? Do you find yourself complaining more often these days? Do you grumble and gripe to everyone who will give you an ear? Does your internal monologue sound like a constant critic? Are you perpetually negative in this season of life? Let me encourage you as an exercise for this Holiday season (and for all of life) to practice gratitude. Here is an assignment I give many counselees: set a timer for 3 minutes and in that time write down as many things as you can think of. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. Do this several times in the next few days and see if the Lord doesn’t bless you with some fresh perspective on life and Himself.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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