Thanksgiving and the Christian Life

So, just as you received the Messiah Jesus as the Lord, let your conduct in him be firmly rooted and built up in him and strengthened in the faith, just as you were instructed, overflowing with thanksgiving. ~Colossians 2:6-7

Lately on the side, as I’ve worked on some online classes, I’ve been slowly reading through David Pao’s book, Thanksgiving: An investigation of a Pauline theme. Pao’s study is both helpful and accessible; what I’ve appreciated most so far is Pao’s needed clarification of the purpose of thanksgiving in Christian devotion: “God-centeredness.” Whereas “thanks” and “thankfulness” in the contemporary consciousness is mainly about fostering and expressing my gratitude in avoidance of “taking things for granted”—in other words, a form of self-expression—thanksgiving in the ancient Judeo-Christian understanding is a covenantal practice consisting in God-focused acts of remembrance. What matters more than simply “feeling grateful” to God all the time (though gratitude might accompany the act as well) is remembering the things that God himself has done—supremely, in Jesus Christ his Son, for the world and for us personally.

For the people of Israel, knowledge of God was organized around the key saving events of their history. Through the covenantal remembrance enshrined in the Passover year by year, they re-enacted YHWH’s rescue of his people out of slavery in Egypt, and by doing so they reinforced their understanding of God and of themselves in a way that made them actual participants in his mighty acts. In Pao’s words, “While the mighty acts of God provide the definition of who the people of God are, thanksgiving provides further affirmation of the identity of God’s people when God’s gracious acts are remembered” (55). So, Pao argues, thanksgiving is more about remembering than about feeling grateful, as much as gratitude may stem from doing so.

This is the assumption that underlies Paul’s prayer that the Christians in Colossae would be “always giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light: he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12-13). We give thanks because God has acted, decisively, on our behalf. In this regard, “Thanksgiving…is understood as an act of faith. Thanksgiving becomes ‘an expression of faith’ as it remembers what God has done for us in Christ” (71). When we give thanks, we are acting on the assumption that something remarkable has happened; we are founding our lives and identities on it, and choosing to see reality in a way that is dependent on God and what he has done, and not on ourselves: “To give thanks to God is to remember what he has done for us. The call to thanksgiving is therefore a call to transcend the present moment as one searches for an anchor in which reality can be comprehended” (60). Or as Pao says elsewhere:

God, and not his gifts, is the primary focus of Pauline thanksgiving. In the constant act of thanksgiving, the relationship with God is nurtured. Through thanksgiving, the gracious acts are remembered and the life of a person is thereby changed. Thanksgiving then becomes an act of submission when the performance of such an act is not aimed at coercing God to act, but is a way to acknowledge him to be the Lord of all…. We are changed in thanksgiving, then, as we encounter this gracious God. In the words of Karl Barth…thanksgiving signifies ‘the change of the being of man before God brought about by the fact that God has altered His attitude to man’. (37)

The effect of a life “overflowing with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:7), then, is a God-centered life. It is a life rooted in the gospel, around the good news of what God has done for our sake. It is a life that sees reality truthfully: as God defines it through creation and redemption, and not as I do by living in it however I please. To give thanks to God is to acknowledge a new gravitational center to everything, and to put ourselves and everything we experience in orbit around it.

This needn’t be complex. It simply needs to come into our prayers and into our thoughts, more and more, in the face of the diverse realities that confront us on a daily basis: God our Father, I thank you that you have sent Jesus Christ to break into my condition, to live and die for me and for the world; I thank you that you have begun the new creation in him, and that in sheer grace you have united me to him by the Holy Spirit and forgiven my sins; I thank you that I am alive in him, and dead to sin through his death for my sake; I thank you for your love that says an unreserved “Yes!” to us in Jesus Christ; I thank you that you have loved the world you made, and have taken its sin and rebellion upon yourself to raise it up from the dead. By giving us perspective, our habits of thanksgiving help us respond rightly to the conditions of our own personal lives: we simply cannot live and act and make decisions in the same way, when we know that Jesus Christ has died and risen.

As I reflect on the topic of thanksgiving along these lines, the implications of all this for the worshiping life of the church seem profound. For Christians, it is precisely this understanding of thanksgiving that gets reiterated when we gather regularly for our own “Passover” meal, around the Lord’s table. In my Anglican church every week we recite the familiar words: “We lift our hearts up to the Lord…. It is right to give him thanks and praise!” And as the “Great Thanksgiving” or “Eucharist” proceeds, our pastor recites the mighty acts of God and brings them to our remembrance:

All glory be to you, Almighty God, for in your infinite love you made us for yourself, crowning us with glory and honor to rule over the works of your hands. But we did not give thanks to you or honor you as God, but turned away. Falling into sin, we and all your works became subject to misery and death. But you in your tender mercy sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He stretched out his arms on the cross, and offered himself there in obedience to your will—a perfect sacrifice for the whole world, once and for all. He died in our place, making a full atonement for our sins; by your mighty power you raised him from death, and crowned him with great honor at your right hand on high.

And after a prayer is said and the story of the last supper is recited, the thanksgiving concludes:

We celebrate this covenant with joy and await the glorious appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who will unite all things in heaven and on earth, raising us from death and making all things new! By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever. AMEN!

The bread and wine is then held forth and the pastor tells the congregation: “These are the gifts of God for the people of God: take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” The whole act centers around (1) what God has done, (2) how this gives us our identity now, and (3) what our hopes for the future must be in light of this world-changing event. In all of this, we are being tugged into a new orbit around a new center—the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ—and being renewed in God’s image as a result, as we share in our new identity as members of the body of Christ.

But as the eucharistic liturgy in my tradition says, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty…” In other words, what we are doing here is practice for what the Christian life is supposed to be all about, all the time. Our lives are to be chiefly ordered by thanksgiving to God through the remembrance of his mighty act in Jesus Christ, which then issues in praise and joy, and in a perspective on the world that is rooted in its creator’s purposes.

So I would encourage you, having read this post, to adopt these habits as your own. A good way to start is by memorizing and reciting the opening part of one of the communion liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer every day; start coming up with your own ways of giving voice to what God has done in your own words; over time, integrate these habits of thanksgiving into your everyday life—let the remembrance of what God has done in Christ emerge again and again in your thinking, as you confront every decision, event, conversation, prayer, or whatever else it may be. The fruit of your labor in this will be a profound joy, arising from the ultimate aim of all our thanksgiving: God-centeredness.