In a few days most of us in the United States will gather as family and friends around a table and share in the lavish Feast we call Thanksgiving. Before we begin our familiar overeating, football and nap traditions, and the day passes like a thankless blur, let’s reflect on the practice and purpose of the Feast of Thanksgiving.
The traditional American Thanksgiving meal of turkey and all the “fixings” is one of my favorite meals. Add in my mom’s pecan pie under a mountain of Blue Bell Vanilla ice cream for dessert and you have a taste of heaven! And that is the point. Eating something we love on Thanksgiving is exactly what we are to do.
Thanksgiving is not about the feast of food. Thanksgiving is about feasting on the abundant, overflowing, all-sufficient grace of God in all that He is for us and all that He has done, is doing, and promises to do. The abundant, delicious Thanksgiving feast is intended to be a symbol, a momentary experience of what God’s grace is like. Thanksgiving is the experience of “taste and see that the Lord is good!”
For Thanksgiving to really be Thanksgiving, intentional remembering is also imperative. By nature we are not a thankful people. We are naturally selfish.
As children, we didn’t naturally recognize the thousands of ways we were served by our parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, neighbors, teachers, and others. It was natural and easy for us to assume it was their job to serve the all-important “us.” If they didn’t, out of our mouths came complaints and accusations that as adults we wished we had never said. Anybody else besides me?
We had to learn gratitude. When grandma gave me a gift or I was on my way to a friend’s house, my mom would often say, “Remember to say ‘thank you’ Rickey.”
Being reminded to give thanks is biblical. The book of Psalms reminds us nearly 50 times. So does the New Testament including the famous “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (I Thessalonians 5:18)
God reminds us frequently because we need to be reminded, but we can tune God’s reminders out just like we used to do Mom. We can do with God what we learned early to do with everyone else, become a “fake thank you-er.”
We learned early to use expressions of gratitude to appease others and get our parents off our backs rather than real, heart-felt expressions of amazement that someone had showed us kindness or generosity or sacrificed on our behalf. We often do the same thing as adults when the Bible reminds us to be thankful. We say “thank you” as an obligatory expression of a spiritual courtesy to God rather than an expression of gratitude that we have received mind-blowing grace.
We’ve learned to say thank you without feeling thankful and to believe that’s okay. It’s not okay! Thankless gratitude is like affectionless love. It’s like joyless happiness. It’s like the form of godliness without its power. It’s not okay! It’s not the real thing. And as long as we practice it we are missing out on the joy God intends to give us through Thanksgiving.
When God commands us to “give thanks in all circumstances,” God does not want some little spiritual courtesy. It’s not like God needs our meager words of thanks or He’ll feel bad, like grandma might have. God does not feel self-pity because we didn’t make Him feel good for doing something nice for us. God grieves for us because we are missing the point and true joy of Thanksgiving.
God’s command to be thankful is a prescription of healing for the disease called selfishness. Thanksgiving is an invitation for us to see the goodness of God’s grace that is everywhere. Thanksgiving is an invitation to leave behind the spiritual poverty of our sin and selfishness and receive through the cross the immeasurable riches of God’s grace and kindness toward us in Jesus. The command for us to be thankful is God commanding us to experience the deep joy of true gratitude for all God promises to be for us in Jesus. The command to “be thankful” is for our good pleasure.
The Thanksgiving food many of us will enjoy is not meant to be the focus, it is meant to be a meal that reminds us of the abounding, delicious grace of God. The food is meant to help us really taste joy. The feast is meant to help us really feast. Christian Thanksgiving is a feast of joy for the soul. It is savoring what is most satisfying to us, the love and grace of Jesus.
So, in the words of the childhood Owen family table blessing, “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. By His hands we are fed, thank you, Lord, for our daily bread. Amen.” Let’s eat!