Thanksgiving can change your life. Really. I'm not talking about the holiday, though I know it's that time of year. I'm talking about being thankful and giving thanks. And if you're like me, you'll agree it's never too early or too late to celebrate thanks giving." Moment by moment we can discover new reasons to be thankful.
Unfortunately, many just scratch the surface when it comes to giving thanks. Let's do more than that and take a look at the whys and wherefores of giving thanks as well as some practical expressions of giving thanks.
Why Give Thanks?
The most obvious reason is God's goodness. He deserves our thanks. "Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men!" (Psalm 107:31).
Another reason, almost as obvious as the first is that God wants us to give thanks: "In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
The fact that God deserves our thanks combined with the fact that it is His will for us to give thanks add up to a third reason for giving thanks—we owe it to God.
Does this challenge my premise that thanksgiving can change your life, since it sounds like giving thanks is just one more obligation? No way! While we tend to think that discharging a debt leaves us with less, not more, that is never the case when we give to God.
After all, everything in the universe belongs to God, so nothing "changes hands" when we give to Him. It's not as though we are providing Him with something He needs or didn't have before. Still, when we give thanks or anything else to God, we acknowledge what is due to Him, and that is very healthy.
It's healthy to say what God deserves and act accordingly toward Him. Yet our sin-diseased world exalts the "I deserve" concept. That self-centered, me-first attitude comes naturally to us all, and like many unhealthy attitudes, it is daily fed and reinforced by consumer-oriented enterprises and self-centered sales pitches.
Thankfulness and praise to God run contrary to the "I deserve" attitude that pervades our society. The opposite of self-indulgence is self-sacrifice. Real thanksgiving takes us out of our comfort zone and involves sacrifice: "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" (Hebrews 13:15). That sacrifice might be a bountiful meal and the time it takes to prepare it and clean up after it is enjoyed. Or perhaps the sacrifice is a song and the breath it takes to sing it, or money we give and the time it takes to earn it.
In many people's minds, giving out of self-sacrifice is merely another "ism." Altruism. Once when I was handing out gospel tracts in front of the University of Chicago, somebody told me, "Altruism is dead." He went on to say that he had no obligations to anyone but himself. He would meet those "obligations" first, and whatever might be left over, he would be willing to give to others. I felt truly sorry for him and all he was missing.
But giving to others out of a thankful heart is not an "ism." Thanksgiving helps us see beyond the cloud of our own culture, past the limitations of our own vision, to the brightness of the One who is all true, all powerful, all giving and worthy of all praise.
When we focus on what God deserves and what we owe Him, our lives are much more satisfying. That's because God created us to enjoy Him and to reflect His glory. When we don't do those things, we fall short of our potential. When we do those things, we are fulfilled. The fact that the Creator of the Universe desires our thanks and our praise means that we are important to Him. That is a staggering reality.
So we should give thanks to God because He deserves it, because He wills it and because we owe it to Him. But it is also a blessing to us to give thanks, for it affirms our humanity.
Giving thanks puts us at peace with ourselves and one another. In Colossians chapter 3, the Apostle Paul tells the believers at Colosse about allowing peace to rule in their hearts. He connects that thought with being thankful: "And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful" (v. 15).
He goes on to talk about teaching and admonishing one another. It's not the type of teaching where one explains how to do something, and it's not the aspect of admonishing where one points out another's shortcomings. It's all focused on talking and singing about who God is.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks [emphasis added] to God the Father through Him."
As I read those verses, I envision a community of people who have what the world is clamoring for: peace with themselves and meaningful relationships with others. Somehow, thankfulness plays a vital role in such a community.
And that leads to the most radical reason for us to give thanks to God. It is totally awesome, and though you've certainly heard it before, it's a hard truth to grasp: God inhabits the praises of His people. (Giving thanks is part of our praise to Him.) The second Book of Chronicles gives an amazing account of how God responds when His people unite to thank and praise Him upon the completion of the temple Solomon built:
Indeed it came to pass, when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the LORD, saying: "For He is good, For His mercy endures forever," that the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.
The power of thanksgiving is this: heartfelt gratitude and glory giving to God help us become people with whom God is pleased to dwell. Are you with me? Real thanksgiving is an invitation for the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts. It is also a channel through which His transforming power flows. Think of those things that cannot exist within a thankful heart.
Thanksgiving crowds out cynicism, self-pity and fear. Thanksgiving suffocates jealousy and backbiting. None of these can survive in a heart filled with gratitude.
Now think of those things that can only exist within a thankful heart. Humility. Trust. Preferring one another. Thankfulness also gives rise to wisdom. There is something within us that cannot truly give thanks to God for anything that is not good. If at any time we find ourselves enjoying something for which we cannot bring ourselves to thank God, we know that it is something we ought not to do or enjoy.
When Should We Give Thanks?
The easiest and most natural way to give thanks to God is in response to a situation. We thank God for the biopsy that comes back negative or the car accident that was narrowly averted. We thank God for the birth of a child or for the salvation of a loved one. It is right to respond to such circumstances with thanksgiving, but that only scratches the surface.
Thankfulness is a virtue that flows from an awareness of God's goodness. That virtue is more than a response to situations; it is a way of life. The answer to when we should give thanks is simple—always! But in order to do that, we cannot remain passive. We've got to take time to reflect, to be proactive in our awareness of God's goodness. We've got to pray for and pursue thankfulness with diligence.
Sometimes a proactive approach to thanksgiving means turning a negative experience into one in which we can give thanks. Perhaps you've heard the story of the Yeshua (Jesus) campaign. In 1982 our headquarters staff arrived at the office to find a horrifying sight. Someone had used the name of Jesus to scrawl obscenities across the front of our building. Normal work ceased that day as we cleaned up the graffiti. But a new coat of paint was not enough. So we lifted up the name of Yeshua in prayer and thanksgiving. We did all we could to "exalt His name together." One staff member wrote a song with that very title. Our determination to give glory to God in the situation yielded several songs, a book and a gospel ad that we placed in the secular media. That gospel ad began a tradition that became one of our most effective means of outreach. The proactive approach to thanksgiving must really frustrate the devil, because it proves that what he intends for evil, God can use for good.
How Should We Give Thanks?
- Publicly: "Therefore I will give thanks to You, O LORD, among the Gentiles, And sing praises to Your name" (Psalm 18:49).
- Of our own free will: "And when you offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the LORD, offer it of your own free will" (Leviticus 22:29).
- With purpose and good cheer: "So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7).
The last one, of course refers to giving our substance, not just our thanks. That's because when we are really thankful, we do something about it.
In Jewish culture, even the poorest people find a way of giving, because there is always someone who is worse off. There is even a special receptacle for giving called a pushka, which is strategically placed in many Jewish homes and institutions. It might be affixed to a wall, or it might be a small, rectangular tin can with a slot on top. If you pick it up and shake it, you'll hear the rattle of coins.
When Moishe Rosen moved out of the executive office, he left one thing behind for me: a pushka for the Jewish National Fund.1 You see, he followed the custom that his parents had taught him: whenever he felt a need to say thanks to God, he would walk by and drop a coin in the pushka.
It is traditional for Jews to show thankfulness, not just speak of it. For example, if you want to thank a person, you might plant a tree in Israel or give a gift to a charity in that person's honor. The idea is, even if the person doesn't need anything, and even if what you give does not benefit him or her directly, you can still show appreciation by attributing what you give, what you sacrifice, to that person's name.
I remember hearing Moishe preach on giving in a San Francisco congregation. He certainly got everyone's attention when he said, "I believe God could be glorified by a different kind of giving. If I went to the bank, withdrew the money from my account, put it in a sack, walked out to the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge and threw the money over the side, it would not be wasted if, as I did it, I could say with sincerity, 'Jesus, because I love you so much, because I'm so thankful, I'm giving this money to you.'" I could hear people gasping. Moishe continued, "Before you think that that's a terrible thing to do, consider the sacrificial system in ancient Israel."
In an agrarian society, one not based on currency and coinage, people valued livestock and grain. God commanded the children of Israel to express their thanks by sacrificing their "currency" as burnt offerings. Does it make a difference if our earnings end up in flames or at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay? Not if the sole purpose is to give up something we value for the sake of giving thanks to God. We memorialize the thanksgiving event, and it becomes an episode in our lives from which other experiences flow. The heart attitude is what matters most.
The Lord who has cattle on a thousand hills does not need anything that you or I might give Him. We are the ones with a need; we need to know what it means to do without something, to deny ourselves out of thankfulness and love for our God.
And once we realize that, anything you or I might give to honor Him will be received as a sweet-smelling sacrifice. Whether it's our time, our money or our opportunities, if in giving them, we lift up our hearts to God and say, "Lord, I give this because I love you, I appreciate you and I want to honor you," and mean it—even though we can't see the face of God, I'm convinced we'll experience the warmth of His pleasure.
How much more joy do we have when we give to continue the work of the Lord and strengthen the message of the gospel as it goes out to those who so desperately need it! If you'd like to give to something that will honor God by helping others to know Him, I'd like to invite you to prayerfully consider getting involved in a project close to my heart and that of the rest of the Jews for Jesus staff. It begins with the bold statement: "The only hope for peace was born in the Middle East."
I hope you experience the power of thanksgiving during this and every season. Whether or not you can give to Jews for Jesus, I hope you find tangible ways to give thanks to God every day because He deserves it, because He desires it and because God dwells in the thankful hearts of His people. There is no greater thrill than His holy presence.
1. *A charity for the reforestation of Israel.