“Thank you, Lord.” How important is it to say those words? How important is it to live a life of thanksgiving to God? I invite you to explore thanksgiving to God with me.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 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. 17 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 (Colossians 3:15-17).
A form of thanksgiving appears three times. We are to be thankful. We are to sing with thankfulness. And then verse 17 wraps it all up – we are to do everything giving thanks to God. This is not the only passage in the letter of Colossians that the apostle Paul instructs his readers to give thanks.
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (1:11-12).
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 (2:6-7).
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving (4:2).
What interests me in these passages is the way in which thanksgiving is a natural inclusion in Christian living. To live the Christian life is to live the life of thanksgiving. Let’s consider the role thanksgiving is to play in our lives, and we will do that through surveying the letters of the Apostle Paul. We will see that there are three purposes that thanksgiving is necessary for fulfilling: one, for the building up of others; two, for our own good; and three, for glorifying God.
Necessary for Building Up Others
In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Paul exhorts us: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
This passage is straightforward. Pray for all people, especially those with authority, for if they are carrying out their responsibilities well, then we receive the benefit of living in a peaceful society with liberty to practice our faith. And so we pray for their well-being, for them to exercise their duties with wisdom and justice. We pray for their salvation. But what purpose do the thanksgivings serve?
John Calvin is helpful with this: “[Paul] not only bids us pray to God for the salvation of unbelievers, but also to give thanks for their prosperity and well being. The wonderful goodness which God shows us every day in making ‘His sun to rise on the good and the bad’ is worthy of all our praise, and our love of our neighbor ought to extend to those who are unworthy of it.’ ”
Thanksgiving, in other words, is a means by which we love our neighbor. It is difficult to despise the very person for whom you are giving thanks for. And if we love, if we regard our neighbors and our leaders with a spirit of thankfulness, we will bless them. And I dare say that we will find the hearts of those with whom we differ to more likely soften toward us. There is no more effective way to break through the defenses of another person, than to say genuine thankfulness for that person, at least for something good in that person.
Thankfulness to God further serves to build up our fellow brothers and sisters. This comes out in instruction by Paul on the subject of speaking in tongues during worship. In 1 Corinthians 14:16-17, he writes: “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? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.”
Thanksgiving to God builds up others. They hear us giving thanks to God for his wondrous character and for his marvelous deeds, and they then are built up in their faith. We have all experienced that. How many times have we been discouraged in our faith, and then we came into the sanctuary amidst God’s people, listened to them sing hymns of praise, and then find our own faith renewed? Or we have been in gatherings, listening to brothers and sisters share with thankfulness how God saved them in Christ, how God provided for them in time of need, and then our own faith is made stronger. There is nothing better than being among thankful believers to build up the weakened or discouraged faith. There is no better way for us to encourage one another than to remind each other of all that we have to be thankful for.
Necessary for Our Good
So, giving thanks serves to build up others, especially other believers. It also serves to work good in our own hearts. Consider these verses.
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:4).
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… (Ephesians 5:18-20).
…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6).
Notice in each case the negative behavior or disposition. There is crudeness, drunkenness, anxiousness. And the antidote for each is thanksgiving. When we are feeling down, and particularly when our troubles lead us to sinful disposition and behavior, we are not feeling thankful. We tend to be like the honest child, who, when told by Dad to thank Mom for the meal, says, “But I’m not thankful!”
Perhaps we do not want to be guilty of hypocrisy, thanking God when we don’t feel thankful. We are already guilty enough with our doubting and gloomy thoughts. Why add hypocrisy to the list? Why thank God with a bitter or anxious spirit?
We should do so because it is good for us. Thankfulness is not only the spirit that we are to have, but the very act of thanksgiving will lead us to a thankful spirit. Try this at home, indeed, anywhere. The next time you are feeling anxious or depressed or angry, play the “thankful” game. I remember a car ride with my wife. We were in a depressing mood, sulking about our woes when we determined to each name five things for which we were thankful. So we sulkily began.
“Well, I am thankful for the pretty sky.”
“Yes, it is a nice day. I am thankful that we are getting to take this trip.”
“Yes, it is good to get away. I am thankful we have likeable daughters.”
“Yes, they are likeable. And we do have a great son-in-law.”
“Yes, and we should thank God for…”
By this time we can’t help but smile. Life, actually, is pretty good. We feel thankful now. It is difficult to be grumpy at the same time you are giving thanks about things you really are thankful for. If you are not feeling thankful, start giving thanks and see if you don’t get that old feeling back again.
Necessary for Glorifying God
So giving thanks is good for building up others and for our own good. But what giving thanks is really all about is giving God his due. Giving thanks is glorifying God, the very purpose for which we are created.
Look at this, first of all, expressed negatively in Romans 1:21 as an indictment against man. “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.”
God is angered by their not giving thanks to him. They just popped up from the table without an acknowledgment that he had prepared their meal. No, actually worse. They did give thanks – to made-up gods! Imagine children jumping up from the table after a pain-stakingly prepared meal. They are about to rush off. Dad says, “What do you have to say?” Instead of thanking Mom, they turn to the pet dog and exclaim, “Thanks, Rover!” I don’t think Mom or Dad would find such behavior amusing. Neither does God.
Giving thanks to God is not merely “a way” to glorify God. It is the essential activity or spirit necessary. The ingredient of thanksgiving transforms a common, even secular task into God-glorifying work. On the other hand, the lack of thanksgiving turns what would have been a sacred act into a God-dishonoring work.
We see this principle in Paul’s settling disputes of what activities Christians may or may not do in Romans 14. In verses 5-6, he writes: “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
Giving thanks – that is the critical factor. For giving or withholding thanks is what determines whether any activity is honoring to God or dishonoring.
We think obedience is the critical factor in honoring or glorifying God. Obedience is essential. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). But we all know that one can give outward obedience without inwardly honoring the person we obey. Indeed, nothing is more grating than to have someone do “their duty” in a disrespectful spirit or by feigning admiration that they clearly do not possess. As bad as it would be for the children to thank the dog for their meal, Dad would be all the more angry if they said sarcastically, “Thank you, Mom,” rolling their eyes.
The clearest passage about the effect of thanksgiving is found in 1 Timothy 4:1-5:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:3-4).
Again, thanksgiving is the determining agent – “if it is received with thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving sanctifies an act; it turns the act into a means of honoring God. But I should make one thing clear. Thanksgiving cannot turn a sinful act into something good; it cannot make what is unholy holy. How do you know what is acceptable? Phil Ryken gives a good test. He writes: “One way to test if God’s gifts are being used properly is to ask this question: ‘Can I thank God for what I am doing right now without being ashamed of myself?’ A sensitive Christian will find it impossible to thank God for gross excess.” Not only does thanksgiving serve here as a test, but it becomes an effective tool in protecting us from committing sin.
But, again, the focus is giving to God his due. Thanksgiving is about having a heart that desires more than anything else the glorifying of God. Such was the heart that the apostle Paul possessed. See how it comes naturally out of him.
You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:11).
Follow Paul’s line of reasoning. He appeals to the Corinthians to pray for him and his companions who have been facing persecution in their ministry. He believes that their prayers really are effectual in God delivering them from danger. As that happens – as God delivers them – the result is that many other believers will give thanks to God on their behalf. They will learn of the deliverance and glorify God through their thanksgiving. That is Paul’s desire.
Here is another example later on in the epistle. In chapter 4 – in the great “jars of clay” passage – he speaks movingly of his trials and says, “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
Again, follow his line of reasoning. “We suffer for your sake so that the grace (of the gospel) will extend to you and to more and more people, so that as you receive the gospel, you now become worshippers of God and cause thanksgiving to God to increase.”
This is the same point that John Piper makes in his book, Let the Nations Be Glad.” His opening words are: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.”
Replace “worship” with “thanksgiving.” Paul is saying that he goes out on his mission trips to win people to Christ so that there will be more people giving thanks to God, so that thanksgiving will increase, to the glory of God. He likes seeing people get saved, but he gets really pumped seeing those saved people giving thanks to God.
Here is one more example from the same epistle, chapter 9, verses 11-15. The context is that of fundraising. Paul is collecting money from churches to take back to Jerusalem to help the churches there for the famine predicted to come. He has been making the case that God will bless generous givers. And so he continues:
You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12 For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. 13 By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others…
Do you catch the heart of Paul? Do you catch his real passion? The generous giving by the Corinthians will do much good by supplying the needs of their fellow saints. But the really neat thing is that it will “produce thanksgiving to God.” It is causing the overflow “in many thanksgivings to God.” The recipients “will glorify God.” Thanksgiving is the chief end for the good works.
This is the critical understanding to take away from our survey. The blessings given by God are but a means to achieve the chief end of giving thanks to God. This understanding is a step up from our common perception of thanksgiving. We have all said something like this before: “I am not doing this for thanks. I am blessed just for the good I am doing.” That’s okay for us, but that is not the way it is for God, nor should it be. He gives blessings precisely so he will be thanked; precisely so he will be glorified. He unabashedly delights in thanksgiving, and he created us with the longing to give that thanksgiving. It is sin that has distorted our longing; it is renewed again in our redemption.
We can view salvation as the means to make us true thanks-givers. God gave us the greatest gift – his Son who made atonement for our sins. He gave us his Holy Spirit to awaken us to the wonder of his gift – all for the purpose that our hearts would be filled with thankfulness. And you must admit, have you ever felt better, ever felt more joyful and more purposeful than when you have been caught up in a spirit of thanksgiving to your Creator and Redeemer? Has anything ever felt so right as when with heart and voice you have given thanks to God?
The life of thanksgiving is the truly lived life, fulfilling what it was created to be, and rehearsing what it will do fully and gloriously in eternity. Thanks be to God!
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