Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a holiday set aside for the purpose of reflecting on our blessings. And as we gather around our dinner tables, most of us will take a moment to give thanks for family, for food, for a warm house, for good health and good prosperity. We’ll give thanks for football, for turkey, for gravy and for happiness. We’ll give thanks and then we’ll eat.
But we shouldn’t be thankful.
At least, not just for these things.
There is a tendency among many American Christians is to thank God solely for good things while asking his deliverance from bad things: pain, loneliness, tragedy, suffering and hurt. While many American Christians may believe that God might allow bad things to befall his children, we don’t always show it in our declarations of thankfulness.
And it’s true that God is the One from whom all blessings flow. But he is also a God who allowed Adam and Eve to fall, allowed Sarah to be barren, Hagar to be exiled and Esau to lose his inheritance. God is, we believe, a good God, but he is also the God who allowed Israel to go into slavery, his people to wander aimlessly through a barren wilderness and Jerusalem to fall into the hands of brutal and ruthless pagan kings.
God is the source of all goodness, and yet he still allowed his Son to die, brutally, horrifically.
And if we examine the threads of thanksgiving beyond the traditions of our nation, looking instead to the stories of our Biblical forefathers, we see thanksgiving flowing from the pages of Scripture in the most trying of times. Daniel, when he heard the edict that his faith would bring death, opened his window and “gave thanks before his God” (Daniel 6:10). “Give thanks to the Lord,” David sang, despite the trials that befell him, “his love endures forever” (1 Chronicles 16:34). “I give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul wrote to a persecuted church (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it, as his body would soon be broken (1 Corinthians 11:23).
The Hebrew language has a special word used to describe God’s faithfulness: chesed or ḥěʹ·sěḏ (חֶ֫סֶד). This word is found in over 200 verses throughout the Old Testament, at some of the most peculiar of places. It is used by Moses to describe God’s loyal love to the Israelites as they leave four-hundred years of bondage in Egypt, by Job as he undergoes tribulation, even Jeremiah in his Lamentations over the fall of Jerusalem declared that God’s faithfulness, his loving-kindness, his chesed was still without end.
For reasons we cannot understand God allows good and evil to take place in our lives. And the Biblical example is thanksgiving in the face of all things; it’s wholehearted faith in the goodness of God despite circumstances; giving praise to God for pain well as blessings.
But when we praise God only for the good things we limit our perspective and set ourselves up for the natural tendency not to praise him in the storm, the tendency to lose hope when hope seems to have left. And we should not place so much stock in our own doubts, the theologian Karl Barth once said. For the faithfulness of God is strong enough to nurture our faith in him, even if it’s barely the size of a mustard seed.
So yes, of course, we should give thanks to God for good things. But we shouldn’t be thankful just for blessings. We should also try, as much as we can, to give thanks to God for all things, good and bad. We must try to praise God through our our hurt, our pain, our disillusionment, our madness and questions.
Because gratitude for blessings is limited and shallow; it will run dry when drought comes, leaving us stranded and thirsty in the wilderness. But gratitude for the God who is, was and will be; gratitude to God for his faithfulness despite our ability to see it, is infinite.
If we are going to have a Biblical perspective on thankfulness it begins with discarding the knee jerk reaction to thank God for good things and instead begin the practice of thanking God for his eternal faithfulness, faithfulness we pray to see in the good and bad times.
This Thanksgiving I‘m trying to be thankful for good and bad, health and sickness, life and death. I want to be thankful for my happiness and my migraines, my joy and my despair; not because all these things are good, but because God is good in the midst of them. His faithfulness does not waver despite my ability to see it.
This Thanksgiving, I’m trying to be thankful for more than blessings; I’m trying to be thankful for God.