Nov 22, 2023

The Christian Virtue of Thanksgiving

4 Min Read

Gratitude is the heart’s response to grace, or at least it should be. Take Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the Psalter and thereby the shortest chapter in Christian Scripture. It reads: “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!”

The psalmist cannot help but be overcome by gratitude and praise. And this is for a single reason only: God’s never-ending, covenant love which endures toward His people forever. Two elements of this petite psalm should jump right off the page at us. First is the scope of those who should be grateful. Does the psalmist believe that Israel alone should shout in acclamation? Is it limited to those who have Hebrew blood coursing through their veins? No. It is all the nations! All peoples! The psalmist in a moment of jubilant thanks seems to peer from the old covenant into the eschaton, presaging the words of John in Revelation 7:9–12, which read:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen. (Emphasis added).

As the plan of salvation comes to fruition, all, including the heavenly host, cannot help but fall down in praise and thanks to almighty God. It is the instinct of redeemed creatures when they receive blessing without merit. And that is the second element which is apparent in Psalm 117: That for which the psalmist is so grateful is not something which he earns or deserves. It’s not something he believes he is owed. In fact, it has nothing to do with him, other than the reality that he is a recipient of this matchless gift. It is God and what He has done, without reference to our worthiness, which elicits such incredible and intense proclamations of thanks.

Gratitude is not merely passive and reflexive. It is also active and willful.

More than that, expressions of genuine heartfelt thanks seem to point others in a palpable way to grace. For instance, take the following description of gratitude published not by evangelicals, but by the American Psychological Association in a book titled, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification: “What marks gratitude is the psychological response to the gift, whatever its nature, and the experience, however briefly, of the transcendent emotion of grace—the sense that we have benefited from the actions of another.” It appears that even those writing in the purely secular sphere recognize that grace is the central feature of the experience of gratitude, though they fail to apprehend the One whose gracious nature stands behind such experiences (Eph. 2:8).

Furthermore, gratitude is not merely passive and reflexive. It is also active and willful. For example, Paul, when he writes famously to the Philippians (4:4–7), states:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

According to Paul, when we willingly choose to focus on those things for which we are thankful in the Lord, it has a heart-shaping effect. Even when our hearts and minds would rather be focused on the negative. And what is that effect? When we steward our minds to meditate on the gracious gifts of God, then peace from God, which surpasses all ability to cognitively work out, seems to rule in our hearts.

I often tell my counselees that “Help!” is a perfectly acceptable one-word prayer. So too is the twice as long “Thank you!” The former is for the languishing soul, the latter for the exultant. One begs for grace, the other acknowledges grace already received.

One last point on the virtue of gratitude for this Thanksgiving: thanks is one of the major tributaries which finds itself terminating in that beautifully deep and wide river we know as awe. As we become those who intentionally transform our lives to recognize the nearly innumerable gifts given to us by God, our hearts are taken by the currents of gratitude and become those which so easily and often find themselves in awe and wonder simply worshiping at the throne of the King of kings and Lord of lords.

This Thanksgiving as we sit around with our families celebrating and rehearsing the gifts for which we should be thankful, may our praise not be platitudinous, dim, and drowsy, but rather earnest, vivid, and energetic. Coming, as for the believer they do, from grace-inundated lives, pointing toward a generous and gracious Giver, with the hope of the glorious grace we will have in its fullness one day when Christ returns and our feast of thanks finds its richest fulfillment (Isa. 25).

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 21, 2022.