Is Thanksgiving a time for gorging on lovingly (or perhaps laboriously) prepared feasts until we can’t move as a result of a food-comma? Is it filled with strategic plans for honoring the anti-holiday of consumerism that will inevitably follow the next day? Is it like that painting by Norman Rockwell or an excuse for families to see each other or a reminder of a general spirit of appreciation that every decent American should aspire to cultivate in his or her life?
The truth is we need the Gospel to fully celebrate Thanksgiving.
Thankfulness and the spirit of thanksgiving are by their very nature inextricably linked to the Christian’s most cherished beliefs. We might say that the secular world—and to personalize this, a secular family—has no consistent way to be thankful in the sense in which we have come to associate with the conviction of deep appreciation we so desperately hope to find in those we sit with around the holiday table. This is not to say that non-Christians can’t participate in the spirit of this holiday. In fact, that’s sort of the point. We all recognize the goodness of expressing sincere thankfulness in a meaningful way! The difference is the Christian can do so with consistency and with transcendent meaning.
Thankfulness and the Belief in God
Those who do not believe in God can be thankful that they have a family, that they have possessions, that they have life, and that they have the particular life circumstances that they enjoy. However, in the atheist’s world, all of these are reduced to the results of mere chance. It just so happened that they had evolutionary tools that allowed them to survive and reproduce. That's all life is.
That's all life is.
Ultimately, according to this belief system, human beings experience what we call “love,” “beauty,” and “virtue” only by evolutionary chance; these beliefs about life happened to aid in our species’ development along the way. In fact, a spirit of selfishness could have just as easily ruled the day in that development. So, who’s to say that self-sacrifice is worthy of celebration? Who’s to say that love is better than hatred in a moral sense? Who’s to say that family is better than no family? Sure, there are reasons these might be good for us psychologically or financially, but had evolution turned out in another way (which it could have), we’d be embracing an entirely different set of values. These virtues we want to hold so dearly cannot be held with any sense of objective finality.
What’s more is that if we embrace this perspective, as culture prescribes, then we have to say that any gratitude that we now experience along with any love and meaning we find in spending time with our families is all fleeting. Our love for another and sense of gratitude will be extinct the minute we cease to live. The things we cherish will pass away relatively soon, and for all intensive purposes it will be as if we never existed.
There is no enduring celebration of transcendent gratitude if there is no God.
Thankfulness and the Gospel of Grace
For the Christian, Thanksgiving is not only a celebration that he is blessed but it is a giving thanks to the one who gives blessings. God designed, orchestrated, and redeems the entire world. We don’t have to resort to explaining the world as a matter of chance. And good things—things like love, gratitude, sacrifice, and beauty—have transcendent and enduring meaning because they are rooted in a God who expresses and perpetuates these things in His creation. These things don’t pass away because God does not pass away. We cherish our family because God cherishes His. We love one another because He first loved us. We find beauty in our lives, beauty that may very well be seen only in ugly circumstances, only because that beauty is grounded in Him. We are thankful to God, and that makes all the difference in the world.
We are thankful to God, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Moreover, the Christian has the good news that trumps everything else in life. The Christian knows grace in the most glorious of ways. Though the world is fraught with evil and even in spite of the terrible wickedness that has shaped the hearts of men, Jesus paid for the sins of the world by means of spiritual torture. The punishment we deserved, a punishment worthy of our eternal death, was put on Him. For those of us who follow Him, we experience grace at the cross. Grace- that unmerited and undeserved and burden-relieving goodness given to men by a God who loves them enough to die for them even when they spit in His face. Knowing Jesus-- really knowing Jesus-- is like swimming in a pool of thankfulness.