November is the month when we traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving Day. For most Americans it means little more than a holiday from work or school, an excuse to overeat and watch special sports events. The day is hardly devoted to giving of thanks. And what brief thanks is given to God scarcely reflects habitual attitudes. How readily we return to lives devoted to self instead of to Him—lives characterized more by complaining than by gratitude.
These few paragraphs are not intended as an exhortation to sanctify a secular holiday. Rather, we want to deal with something much deeper, something which ought to characterize our lives at all times. Sadly, that continual thanksgiving which Scripture exhorts—"giving thanks always" (Ephesians 5:20)—is a rare commodity among Christians. Why? And how can our attitudes be changed?
Christian psychologists and motivational speakers would suggest that "exchanging grumbling for gratitude turns unhappiness into joy." Now there's a catchy phrase to motivate thanksgiving! So it would seem. Those who are deceived by such slogans adopt a thankful "mental attitude" for selfish reasons—in order to benefit themselves. Such placebo techniques may produce surface changes and even convince those who seem to benefit for a time, but eventually the forced smiles betray the emptiness of hearts.
It is Truth, and only Truth, which can effect any real and lasting transformation in our lives. And the truth is that there is much for which we ought to be genuinely and continuously thankful. Most people who think they have nothing to be thankful for are not nearly as bad off as they could be, and are far better off than millions of others—reason enough to be thankful. No matter how dismal one's circumstances may seem, there is always a great deal for which to give thanks. But the problem goes deeper.
It is self on the throne, wanting to please and benefit itself—and the failure to deny self as Christ commanded—which brings unhappiness no matter how favorable the circumstances may be. The fear of loss haunts those whose security and joy is in earthly position and possessions; and death eventually robs them of all. Genuine and acceptable thanksgiving to God must have a source far deeper than a feeling of gratitude for the physical blessings of this temporary and fragile earthly existence.
The trials of this brief life will soon be ended—either through death or the Rapture. The Christian knows that though this body of flesh and blood may die and decay, he has a new body "eternal in the heavens" (2 Corinthians 5:1) which will never know pain, fatigue or death. We have "an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation..." (1 Peter 1:4-5). Here is truth that ought to grip our hearts and make us always thankful—truth so wonderful that one would think we could never thank God enough. When did you last thank Him for eternal life?
As Christians, our hearts should be continually filled to overflowing with thanksgiving to the God who created and redeemed us. How wonderful that though we sinned so grievously against Him and were His enemies, He became a man to suffer for our sins. His Holy Spirit pursued and wooed us to Himself with infinite Love even when we persisted in our self-centered rebellion. What grace! What love! How can we take these blessings for granted?
The very life we have, with the capacity to know and love one another and, wonder of wonders, to know and love God and enjoy His love, is a priceless gift. What gratitude should flood our hearts and lives and what fervent thanksgiving we ought to express to Him continually! And on top of it all, He has given us the surpassing privilege and joy of experiencing Christ's life within our mortal flesh and witnessing for Him in deed and word right now. What thanks ought to burst forth continually from our hearts to Him!
Thanksgiving, however, is not enough. It should always lead to praise. And there is a difference. Thanks expresses appreciation for what God has done to benefit the one who is thankful. Praise goes beyond thanksgiving. It highly values, exalts, commends, extols, glorifies, and honors God for whatever He has done and especially for who He is. Praise takes us from the mundane to the majestic, out of ourselves into Him. It values God above all else. Thus, praise can only flow from a heart that has come to know God.
How can we fully know God? Must not the praise of finite beings always reflect an imperfect understanding of Him who is infinite? Is it not an insult to evaluate God as less than He is? Then how can anyone truly praise him? Yet Scripture says we can and must. Though praise is conceived in our imperfect perception of God, it matures into wonder and worship. Praise is made acceptable when it is amplified by the sense of awe that God is infinitely beyond our comprehension. That humble realization draws us closer to Him, sinks us deeper into His love, and compels us to seek to know Him better.
The passion of David's heart, like Paul's, was to know God and to be continually enjoying His presence: "My soul thirsteth for God" (Psalm 42:2; 63:1); "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may...behold the beauty of the Lord" (Psalm 27:4); "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord ...that I may know him" (Phil 3:8-10). Could anything else be more worthwhile? "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace."
As a young Christian I thought that Hebrews 11:6 ("he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him") was the formula for getting things from God. If I would seek Him, as the verse prescribed, then He would reward me with the "things of earth" that I wanted. How could I have missed the fact that I was to "diligently seek Him"? And how could I truly seek Him if what I really wanted was not Him at all but other things? And would it not be a bad bargain indeed if, instead of God as my reward, I received things!
What can the result be when all we want is God and He rewards us with Himself? It can't be less than a taste of heaven here on earth! "Joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8)! Heaven? We give it too little thought. It's the place where everyone wants to go—but not just yet. For many Christians heaven is a last resort, welcome only when they are too old or too ill to enjoy the pleasure resorts of this evil world.
How can we truly desire God's presence in our lives here and now if we would only reluctantly exchange earth for heaven? To be in heaven is to be in His presence. Do we really desire and enjoy God's presence? Wouldn't that be like being in church all the time—bored, restless, watching the clock, eager for it to end? What an indictment! And what further proof is needed that there is very little of God in most churches in spite of claims to the contrary.
God is a God of joy. To be in His presence is to be supremely happy. Jesus welcomes to heaven His faithful followers with these words: "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" (Matthew 25:21,23). Joy eternal? David knew it: "in thy presence is fullness of joy and at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore" (Psalm 16:11). We begin to know that joy even now in this life as we give ourselves totally into His hands and rest in His love, trusting Him completely. That is when we begin to experience with wonder, "The joy of the Lord is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).
A favorite hymn begins, "There's joy in following Jesus, every moment of every day." Great joy for us and for Him: "He will rejoice over thee with joy...he will joy over thee with singing" (Zephaniah 3:17). Even the prophets who pronounced doom upon the disobedient knew this joy in their own hearts and lives: "I will joy in the God of my salvation" (Hab 3:18). The closer to God we walk in holiness, the greater our joy: "and let thy saints shout for joy" (Psalm 132:9). As the hymn writer put it, "When God is near my heart leaps up in ecstasy, and all the world's a paradise when God is near."
Though circumstances may have worsened, God has not changed. Our earthly condition, no matter how difficult, is temporary and will soon be past—but our heavenly home is eternal and remains secure. That hope brings present joy: "Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing" (Romans 15:13). Yes, in "believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8)—a joy that makes us strong to live above our circumstances and to demonstrate to all who observe us that God is good and that we are in His hands.There is much talk about "spiritual warfare" these days, and it often involves much error and extremism. So many Christians spend time "rebuking" demons that would be much better spent in praising God. Instead of focusing so much attention upon Satan and giving him so much credit, let us give thanks that "greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world" (1 John 4:4). Here is victory: in thanksgiving, praise and joy!