20 November 2023

Thanksgiving. The prayer, not the day.

In the United States, on November’s fourth Thursday, we celebrate a national day of thanksgiving. Today I’m not talking about the day itself though. I’m talking about the act.

Americans don’t always remember there’s such a thing as an act of thanksgiving. Our fixation is usually on the food, football, maybe the parade, maybe the dog show. If you’re pagan, you seldom even think to thank God… or anyone. Instead you conjure up some feeling of gratitude. You have a nice life, a decent job, good health, some loved ones, and got some stuff you’ve always wanted. Or you don’t have these things, but you’re grateful for the few things you do have. Or you’re not grateful at all, and bitter… and in a few minutes, drunk.

But this feeling of gratitude isn’t directed anywhere. Shouldn’t you be grateful to someone or something? Shouldn’t there be some being to thank?

And that’s a question many a pagan never asks themselves. I know of one family who thanks one other. Civic idolaters might be grateful to America or the president, as if they consciously gave ’em anythng. Those who love their jobs might be grateful to their bosses and customers. But pagans generally suppress the question by drowning it with food and drink. (And maybe thanking the person who prepared the food. But just as often, not.)

Even among the Christians who remember, “Oh yeah—we’re thanking God,” a lot of the thanking is limited to saying grace before the meal: “Good bread, good meat, good God let’s eat.” Although every once in a while somebody in the family might say, “And now let’s go round the table, and everybody say one thing you’re thankful for.” A game nobody enjoys but them… although I myself have come up with a lot of outrageous answers to that question, which amuse me at least.

But enough about Thanksgiving Day and its not-so-religious customs and behavior. The practice of thanksgiving isn’t limited to just this one day. If you wanna practice more actual, authentic thanksgiving in your relationship with God, great! I’m all for that. So’s God. But it means way more than thanking God only once a year, on the government-approved day set aside for it.

Thanksgiving: The lifestyle.

“Thanksgiving” is one way to translate the Hebrew תּוֹדָה/todá, a ritual sacrifice offered to the LORD. Sometimes it’s translated “thank offering.” Unlike the usual sacrifices, which were meant to represent God atoning for your sins and saving you, which were entirely burnt up, you only burnt part of the animal on the temple altar. (Namely the parts people didn’t eat anyway.) You gave other parts to the priests. The rest, you and your family ate. Food’s always been part of thanksgiving. The point is to celebrate: The LORD blessed you, so you thanked him.

Todá comes from יָדָה/yadá, “use one’s hand.” Supposedly ’cause when you thanked God, you prayed—and the ancients prayed by facing the sky and lifting their hands.

The New Testament uses the word εὐχαριστία/evharistía, “gratitude.” (It’s where Eucharist, the word many Christians use to mean holy communion, comes from.) Same as the Old Testament, we offer praise, gratitude, and thanks to God, for he is good, and his love lasts forever. Ps 106.1 We thank him for his mighty works. Ps 136 Most of the scriptures about thanksgiving usually describe it as public, group prayer. Ps 111.1 While I might individually thank God, thanksgiving often involves proclaiming his greatness to others. We tell them what God’s done for us individually, and point to those mighty works. Ps 105.1 The goal is to encourage them to praise him too.

Every good thing ultimately comes from God. Jm 1.17 When anything good happens to us, yeah there are often other humans involved, and some of ’em might deserve some credit. But we all know who ultimately deserves credit: The One who makes everything possible. The One who inspires all those charitable people to be charitable. The One who sets up the circumstances, who answers the prayer requests, who drives away anything which could disrupt our calm. That guy.

Well, unless it’s not really a good thing. We gotta pay attention to the fruit of the “blessings” we experience. When they produce the Spirit’s fruit, they’re likely a God thing. When they produce crap, not. Fr’instance a sudden windfall of money. This can go either way: Put it in the wrong hands and it’ll be toxic and lead people astray. Put it in the right hands and it can bless everyone. Some so-called “blessings” aren’t blessings whatsoever. But when they are: Thank God.

Naturally we thank God for the stuff he’s done recently. But when you read the Psalms you’ll notice the authors thanked him for both recent and ancient stuff. They thanked God for rescuing them from current foes—and they thanked him for creating the cosmos, bailing out Abraham and Jacob, freeing Israel from Egyptian slavery, giving them the Law. They thanked him for pretty much every event between earlier that day, and trillions of years ago. We might think, “Well there’s no point in writing a thank-you card for that gift I got last Christmas; that was so long ago.” But there are no time limits on prayer, and no time limit on thanking God.

Nor should there be. Other people are far too fond of saying, “Get over it.” They want us to be done with our thanks, our regrets, or any of our emotions—mourning or rejoicing, whatever, move on. Too much sadness, or too much joy, creeps them out a little. They can’t handle compliments. They can’t take criticism. They can’t deal with emotion period: They lack gentleness,, the ability to handle our emotional highs and lows. So they prefer nothing—neither highs nor lows, but a little fake happiness to mask everything they truly feel.

But God never tells us to stop being thankful, towards himself or others. Because we shouldn’t stop. Never stop! God is infinitely gracious, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to be infinitely appreciative. Every time we take holy communion, we thank Jesus for his self-sacrifice—which happened nearly 20 centuries ago, y’know. So why can’t we thank God for stuff which happened 20 minutes ago, 20 days ago, 20 months ago, 20 years ago? What he’s done in the distant past still affects us in positive ways. Thank God for all of it.

And unlike our fellow humans, don’t worry about swelling God up with pride. He’s humble; he knows exactly who he is and what he deserves. He’s gentle; he’s not gonna go bonkers over our praise. And he totally deserves our thanks. And more.

Because the Psalmists say, “Thank the LORD, for he’s good,” Ps 107.1 Christians properly teach we shouldn’t just thank God for the good he’s done, but for the good he is. We should thank God for his character, for his inherent goodness—for just being himself. Because imagine how infinitely awful things would be if God wasn’t innately good. Zeus is a good example: Greek mythology makes it crystal clear Zeus was a self-centered, capricious, volatile, adulterous, lying, cheating, murdering, dickish, untrustworthy turd of a god. His good deeds were few and far between. The ancient Greeks called him good, but only because they believed Zeus was mighty, so they sucked up to him lest he smite them. In their myths sometimes he would smite ’em—just because he felt like it. (Sad to say, certain determinists have borrowed this tyrannical attitude, assume it’s a natural trait of divine sovereignty, and actually describe our God with it. And call him good despite claiming he’s also mercurial and conniving. I know. It’s psycho.)

By way of infinite comparison, the LORD is so good. True, sometimes he’s strict, hard to understand, even scary. But absolutely good.

Praying our thanks.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus didn’t bring up thanksgiving.

Yeah, I know some people think the “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done” bit is thanksgiving. They’re interpreting it wrong. Obviously these are requests for God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done. Not facetious brown-nosing “Gee I hope you get everything you want” in order to butter God up so he’ll grant the next several requests we pray.

So if you’re praying the Lord’s Prayer, good. But you’re gonna have to add some thanksgiving. I’ve heard Christians teach, “Jesus didn’t include thanksgiving in the Lord’s Prayer because people don’t need the reminder. We’ll naturally thank God on our own.” I wish this were true. But not all of us were raised to be courteous, nor taught to say “Thank you” where appropriate. Some of us are too self-centered and think we have a right to grace, whether it comes from God or other people. Many of us (and, I admit, myself included) take God too much for granted. So we gotta remind ourselves to thank him. It needs to become a regular thing.

Keep track of when God answers your prayers, and thank him—whether you like his answers or not. Thank him for current answers; thank him for old answers. Remind yourself what he did for you in the past. Keep that “attitude of gratitude” towards him—it’s really useful when it comes time to be grateful for others, or show grace to them as well.

This is a lifestyle, not just a once-a-year thing. So don’t upend your family’s Thanksgiving Day celebration by announcing to them, “We’re not really thankful enough, so this year we’re gonna forego the food and just talk about thankfulness.” I know Christians who’ve chosen to do this, and it’s so wrong. Thanksgiving Day, despite its religious origins, is a feast day: You feast because you’re celebrating God’s blessings. You don’t fast on a feast day! Fast other days. Heck, you know the next couple days, when every merchant in America wants you to empty your bank accounts and throw it at them? Fast from that. Spend those days praying. Spend Thanksgiving Day rejoicing. ’Cause God’s blessed you so much.