Every year around November we suddenly all remember thankfulness. Advertisers make sure that we can’t forget. Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in the month of November in the United States, and the second Monday in Canada, is a major public holiday offering a yearly opportunity to remember and celebrate community and “give thanks.”
This one day of thanksgiving, however, seldom translates into an attitude of gratitude. When Black Friday sales in the U.S. hit us with deals and bargains we tend to forget our true needs and try to fill the hole in our soul with more things and notions of more, bigger, better, faster, or more beautiful.
So how can we discipline our hearts to live a life of thanksgiving instead of celebrating only a single day? How can an attitude of gratitude take root in the desert of selfishness, distraction, pain, and thirst for more?
Gratitude and thankfulness are important values in Scripture, for they have an impact how we relate to our world, our neighbors, and—most important—to the One who spoke this world into existence. Let’s look at this topic through the lens of both the Old and the New Testaments to catch a glimpse of the big picture. Since space is always an issue in a magazine, we will limit ourselves to look only at examples from the Psalms, the hymnal of the Old Testament, and from some of the letters written by the apostle Paul offering pastoral care to faraway congregations.
People in the ancient Near East worshipped deities that required careful attention and care. Gods needed to be fed, and received offerings and gifts, which, in turn, at least in the mind of the worshipper, would cause the deity to bless the petitioner accordingly. More gifts meant more blessings. Choicer meats meant greater victories.
Scripture offers us different, diametrically opposed, values. God is not to be bought, not even by sacrifices or offerings (see Isa. 1:11-15; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-27), or manipulated. His gifts are given freely because He is good and is driven by love for a fallen world (cf. John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). Consequently, thanksgiving in the Psalms is not contractual, namely, “you do something for me, and I will then give you thanks.” Rather, giving thanks is relational. We give thanks because we trust the Lord to hear us, save us, bless us, comfort us, or even vindicate us because we know Him and recognize and remember His goodness in our lives.
Psalm 7 concludes a “group of prayers (Pss. 3-7) that are connected to existential needs (protection; health; vindication; deliverance; and so on) with an appeal to the divine judge based on the psalmist’s innocence,” writes Psalms scholar Martin Klingbeil.1 After appealing for deliverance and vindication, the author of Psalm 7 concludes in verse 17: “I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High” (ESV). A quick comparison of the translation of Psalm 7:17 in the NKJV helps us understand a unique characteristic of Hebrew terminology related to thankfulness. The verbal root yadah, translated with “give thanks” in the ESV, can also be translated as “praise” or “confess” (as seen in the NKJV). Giving thanks is intricately connected to praise. We “thank” (or “praise” or “confess”) Him because we recognize who He is and how He is. His righteousness and goodness are plainly visible in how He deals with His people and this world—past, present, and future.
Psalm 100’s superscript designates the text as a “psalm of thanksgiving.” The noun todah, “thanksgiving” (also based on the verbal root yadah), is used to describe thank offerings (e.g., Lev. 7:12; 2 Chron. 29:31; Amos 4:5)—often in the context of a worshipping community. In Psalm 100 the thanksgiving goes beyond an offering or sacrifice and is accompanied by joyous singing (Ps. 100:1, 2). Verse 3 emphasizes why we give thanks, for we know God to be our Creator and our Sustainer. Verse 4 connects thanksgiving again to the blessing we receive because we recognize the Lord’s goodness, mercy, and truth.
Other psalms, such as Psalm 105, catalog God’s saving deeds on behalf of Israel, His people, beginning with Abraham and Jacob (verses 5-7) and during the Exodus and the conquest (verses 23-45). “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!” (ESV) exclaims the author in verse 1. God’s past deeds (or actions) inspire gratitude for the present—and anticipate God’s action on behalf of His world for the future. Writes biblical scholar Amy Ekeh: “The tone of the gratitude expressed in these psalm-prayers is not transactional. . . . Neither are the prayers simply a recitation of Israel’s recollections, a walk down the memory lane of salvation history. Rather, psalms and other biblical declarations of God’s past deeds create a resonant experience in the present—the one speaking, praying, and singing about these deeds experiences them afresh.”2
Thanksgiving also plays a significant role in the writings of the apostle Paul. The New Testament’s most radical and creative missionary often communicated with the members of the house churches he had established in major cities around the Roman Empire. Giving thanks for the recipient of a letter was a component part of first-century Greek letter writing styles,3 but Paul went beyond conventions when he wrote: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). The final exhortations and greetings found in this first epistle to the Thessalonians include a number of verbal forms with similar-sounding endings in the Greek. This repetitive effect helped the reader and hearer of the letter to memorize truth in nugget form. “In sharing these maxims, Paul provided the people of God with revealed, general truths that he expected them to memorize, constantly meditate on, and use as guiding principles, thus allowing God to shape their lives in holiness,” notes New Testament scholar Cedric Vine.4 Thankfulness “in everything” was right at the center of these exhortations, for they represent an important Christian value.
Paul’s epistles are full of expression of thanks— for individual co-workers like Priscilla and Aquila and their sacrificial service (Rom. 16:4); for victory over death through Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57); for being a tool to spread the gospel (2 Cor. 2:14); for coworkers like Titus who God was using to care for churches (2 Cor. 8:16); for Jesus, God’s indescribable gift (2 Cor. 9:15); for God to enable the apostle and his readers to become partakers of the inheritance of the saints (Col. 1:12); and many more reasons.
Thankfulness in Paul’s writings seems to be disconnected from present reality. In his epistle to the Philippians Paul references his chains in Rome and his reality as a Roman prisoner (Phil. 1:12, 17). In Philippians 2:17 he uses the metaphor of a drink offering for his ministry being “poured out” on the sacrifice and faith of the Philippians, yet in spite of persecution, imprisonment, and even conflict within the church, Paul urges his readers: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Phil. 4:6).
This particular text seems to suggest a lifestyle of gratefulness that affects how we relate to God, how we plead before God, and how we anticipate God’s engagement in our lives. Every prayer, every plea, every request, needs to be bathed in thanksgiving. Rightfully understood, thanksgiving is a lifestyle and an attitude—something that needs to be separate from how we feel in a particular moment or how we relate to a specific challenge.
What do we see when we look in the mirror in the morning after a sleepless night worrying about a child or a friend? What do we feel when we anticipate serious challenges ahead of us? How do we cope with the pain in the life of a friend or a family member when we recognize our helplessness?
There are no easy answers to these questions. In the face of pain, disappointment, or loss, thankfulness isn’t the first attitude that comes to mind. Yet Scripture encourages us to live in an attitude of thanksgiving—regardless of our circumstances. This attitude is not based on facts and feelings, but represents a conscious decision to see God at work in our lives, in our families, and in our work—even when darkness seems to prevail.
Listen, for just a moment, to a section of a sermon preached by Ellen White on August 1, 1903, at the Helena Sanitarium Chapel: “I love the Lord. Last evening, as we met together in our sitting room for worship, it seemed to me as if the Lord Jesus were in our midst, and my heart went out in love to Him. I love Him because He first loved me. He gave His life for me. Last night I felt as if I wanted everything that hath breath to praise the Lord. It seemed to me that we should have praise seasons, and that constantly our hearts should be filled so full with thankfulness to God, that they would overflow in words of praise and deeds of love. We should cultivate a spirit of thankfulness.”5
Let’s extend the attitude of gratitude beyond an annual day of thanksgiving this year. This grateful stance will take some cultivating, but holds the key to living life to the full despite the storms that will gather on our individual and collective future.
1 Martin G. Klingbeil, “Psalms 1-75,” in Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary, Volume 6: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn. and Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2022), p. 64.
2 Amy Ekeh, “Giving Thanks in All Circumstances,” The Bible Today, Jan. 1, 2021, p. 372.
3 Michael Patella, “In Gratitude With Paul,” The Bible Today, Jan. 1, 2021, pp. 363, 364.
4 Cedric Vine, “1 Thessalonians,” in Andrews Bible Commentary, ed. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez et al. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2022), pp. 1773, 1774.
5 Ellen G. White manuscript 80, 1903, in Sermons and Talks (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1994), vol. 2, p. 234.