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Thanksgiving: The Primary Worship Response

thanksgivingIn 1863 President Abraham Lincoln established an annual national holiday of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday in November. Most of us look forward to this holiday, a day on which we eat good food, enjoy time with family and friends, and perhaps watch some football. And we will probably set aside at least a little time to thank the Lord.

We all likely recognize the importance of being thankful. We tell our kids to say “Thank you” when they are given something, and we generally try to be grateful ourselves.

But how many of us really see gratitude as an important part of our worship? How many of us consider thankfulness to be a truly significant expression we offer to God? If I were to ask most Christians what kinds of expressions of worship bring God the most glory, I would probably hear things like praise, love, and joy more than I would hear gratitude.

However I believe gratitude to be an extremely important—if not the most important—expression of worship toward God that brings ultimate glory to him.

For Grace

Gratitude is a response to grace. God acts in grace, and we respond in gratitude. We see this is 2 Corinthians 4:15:

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.

In particular, gratitude is a response of our affections toward God. It is very similar in many ways to responding with love toward God or joy or praise. These are spiritual affections with which we respond in worship toward God when he has shown favor toward us.

But notice that Paul didn’t say that what brought God most glory was increase of love toward him as grace extends to more and more people or increase of joy or praise. Now God’s grace in our lives certainly does produce those affections, and God is certainly glorified when love and joy and praise toward him increase. But I believe that there is a particular reason Paul focuses on gratitude here instead of other affections.

You see all true spiritual affections have an object, and their object is always God.

This is why true spiritual affections are different from what we often mean when we talk about our feelings. Feelings are different than affections. Feelings often have no object; mere feelings wallow in themselves. When we experience mere feelings apart from spiritual affections, our focus is not on any object; our focus is purely on ourselves and the feelings themselves. We love the feeling of love; we delight in the feeling of joy.

So sometimes we just feel happy, and someone might ask, “Why are you happy?” And we reply, “O, I don’t know; No reason; I just feel happy.”

But that’s different from spiritual affections. Affections always have an object; they always have a reason.

The problem is that sometimes we use the same word to both describe an affection and a feeling.

For example, “love” could describe the affection we express towards a spouse, a child, or the Lord because we value them. This affection has an object and it is directed toward that object. This love is more about an inclination toward the object and a commitment we have toward that object that it is about a particular feeling. The feelings may come and go, but true love endures all things.

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But the word “love” can also describe a warm feeling we have. And even though that feeling may result from a particular object, we tend to enjoy the feeling for itself rather than the object of the feeling. Love in this respect is something people fall in and out of. When the feeling passes away, we say that we are no longer “in love.”

What we describe as joy, or even praise, is very similar. We could mean an affection we have toward an object, or we would mean a mere feeling we enjoy for itself. Often we mean both.

The thing about the affection of gratitude is that there really is no feeling we associate with it. I mean, think about it: what is the “feeling” of gratitude? And, by definition, gratitude always has an object. The object is always the focus of gratitude.

So you might say, “I just feel happy, but I really don’t have any particular reason.”

But you would never say that about gratitude. If you “feel” grateful, there is always a reason. You always feel grateful toward someone because of something they did for you or something they gave you or simply because of who they are.

With this understanding we are beginning to see why Paul would choose the affection of gratitude as that which connects God’s grace to his glory instead of something like love or joy or praise. But before we develop that further, I want to look at two more ways gratitude is different than other affections.

Unlike most other feelings, gratitude isn’t something you can artificially work up through external means.

If you feel sad, you can work up happiness through something external like upbeat music or funny entertainment. In that case there really is no object of the happiness; you just feel happy because the music or the entertainment made you feel happy. We do this regularly in our lives.

But how do you work up gratitude? You can’t really. It has to have a reason; it has to have an object. That distinguishes gratitude from just about every other kind of affection.

Finally, remember that we are talking about affection that we give to God in response to his gracious gift to us. Now it is true that getting a gift from someone often produces in us other kinds of emotions like joy, but isn’t it often the case that when that happens, we direct the joy toward the gift instead of the giver? When someone gives us something, we often are filled with happiness, but sometimes we’re mostly happy about the gift rather than the one who has given us the gift.

This is even often true with the gift of salvation, unfortunately. God gives us the gracious gift of free forgiveness from sin, and we are happy about that, but often we are mostly happy that we don’t have to go to Hell, or we’re happy that we get to spend eternity in heaven, then we are actually happy in God.

Gratitude never works this way. We could never direct gratitude toward a gift. By definition, by essence, gratitude is directed toward the giver.

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For Glory

So the reason I believe that gratitude as the best link between grace and glory is that while love or joy or praise could certainly be directed toward God as a result of his grace toward us, many times what we call love or joy or praise are actually mere feelings that are more about us or the gift than the one who showed grace toward us.

And in the case of the religious affection of gratitude, the very nature of the biblical term in 2 Corinthians 4:15 makes clear that the biblical affection of gratitude is always produced by grace in our lives. The Greek word for “grace” is charis. The Greek term for “thanksgiving” in the text is eucharistia. The idea of grace is baked right into the idea of thanksgiving in the text, and the original readers of this letter would have immediately recognized the parallel that Paul is making here. “So that as charis extends to more and more people it may increase eucharistian.” That’s why I’ve been using the term “gratitude” rather than “thanksgiving”—it better resembles the parallel between gratitude and grace that exists in the Greek between charis and eucharistia. “So that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase gratitude.”

Grace produces gratitude, and it increases, according to 2 Corinthians 4:15, in direct proportion to how undeserved the gift is. The more illdeserved favor, the more gratitude.

This is why true gratitude always glorifies the giver. Gratitude is always humble, because we are acknowledging that we do not deserve the gift. If we think we deserve the gift, we’re not thankful. If I pay for a dinner at a restaurant, I’m not really thankful because it’s not an act of grace that the waiter gave us food.

And yet, we do often say, “thank you” to waiters when they bring us our food, don’t we? Why do we do that? Why do we say thank you, even if we really do deserve what we are receiving?

We say thank you because we instinctively know that genuine gratitude is an expression of humility. We are trying to show respect and honor toward the waiter even though we paid for the meal.

This is why true and genuine gratitude always glorifies God. If God shows grace toward us, and we are truly grateful, that gratitude inherently has God as its object, and it inherently acknowledges that we are undeserving of the gift. This glorifies God.

Attempting to love God or joy in God—which we should do of course, by the way—often results in narcissistic indulgence wherein we love the feeling of love or joy rather than God.

But gratitude never works that way. By definition and essence, gratitude is a humble acknowledgement of our unworthiness to receive the gift and a profound exaltation of the giver.

God said in Psalm 50:23, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.”

We often think of praise or joy or love as the ultimate expressions of worship toward God. We expect that true worship will be characterized by intense emotion and heightened praise and excited joy.

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But really, the affection most associated in Scripture with worship is actually something perhaps less flashy, less viscerally intense, and less directly connected to particular feelings; the affection most associated in the Bible with worship is thanksgiving.

Listen to how God characterizes Christian worship at the end of Hebrews 12:

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

In fact, many times in the Old Testament when translators use the word “praise,” the term they are translating is actually a word that has less to do with excited feelings and more to do with humble gratitude. So sometimes they translate it “praise,” and even more often they translate the same Hebrew term “thanks.” And when a term is used that explicitly means praise, it is often accompanied by the term “thanksgiving” as well.

Let me give you just a brief sampling of texts that connect the grace of forgiveness from sin with expressions of thanksgiving as we close:

Psalm 26:6 “I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O Lord, proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds.”

Psalm 42:4 “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.”

Psalm 69:30: “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.”

Psalm 95:2 “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise.”

Psalm 100:4 “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name.”

Psalm 107:22 And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!

Psalm 116:17 I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.

Psalm 147:7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre!

Jeremiah 30:19 Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving and the voices of those who celebrate.

Jonah 2:9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!

Salvation does indeed belong to the Lord. It is his to give, and we are illdeserving of any forgiveness.

And yet, in Christ our sins are forgiven.

The Lord be thanked!

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

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