Each year at thanksgiving I feel a certain mental tension. If I go through the exercise of listing the things for which I’m thankful, I feel like somehow it should be filled with more “spiritual” things. But truthfully a good number of the things that come to my mind first are in the category of “people” and “stuff.” I vividly remember the thanksgiving family time when a second cousin popped out with “I’m just really crazy thankful for my new iPhone 6.” Cue awkward pause while everyone else processes whether this is a valid thanksgiving praise or not.

We could probably create a rough taxonomy of things to be thankful for:

  • Level 1: Things
  • Level 2: People
  • Level 3: Relationship with God

So the big question becomes, is there something inferior about giving thanks for the first two categories on the list? Is that an expression of materialism while more mature Christians will mostly think about the final category? The answer is probably yes and no.

On the one hand, it’s artificial and unbiblical to make a divide between the practical joys of life and the One who gave them. There’s nothing inferior about the beauty of life, and the myriad joys God gives in it. There’s certainly no benefit in acting like they don’t matter to us. If your new iPhone makes a significant impact on your daily life, why not be grateful for it? In fact, Ecclesiastes teaches us exactly how to be thankful for these things. We find our gratefulness in them by recognizing the Giver. All good things come from Him. Dividing up the categories as “levels of spirituality” doesn’t make sense because they find their unity in the One who gives them all.

But that points to the opposite side of the question. Forget to acknowledge the Giver while you enjoy His gifts and you’ve completely missed the point. And so in another sense the divide is quite sensible and good.  Things, people, and God simply don’t belong in one category and neither should our thankfulness for them. Forget to include an iPhone in your thanksgiving list and there’s little harm done; leave God out and the whole exercise is pointless. That’s because of the foundation of all true thanksgiving.

All true thanksgiving is God-centric

Returning to our initial question, we could ask what is thankfulness? Why be thankful anyway? To get there, let’s try gathering a few insights. The first, we already discovered earlier—all of our joys and gifts share in common that they have the same source. God is the giver of all. 

But secondly, Scripture shows us that true thankfulness ought to be quite independent of our relative fortunes. It isn’t as though an underprivileged person spends less time in thanksgiving because they have less stuff. Quite on the contrary, we read about the Pharisee who distorts thanksgiving completely by thanking God that he is not like other men (Luke 18:11). Or we read that there is a way to be thankful whether we enjoy the practical benefits of life or not (Eph. 5:20; Phil. 4:6). Simply stated, we can say that I’m thankful when I realize that I deserve nothing.

A final insight arises from a cursory reading of Scripture’s teaching on thanksgiving. You’ll quickly discover that thanksgiving is curiously mixed up with the idea of praise. One refrain comes up repeatedly across the OT— “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psa. 136:1 and another 15 times). Later we discover that thanksgiving can be a synonym for prayer (1 Tim. 2:1) or worship (Rev. 7:12). Summarizing this we might could say that God deserves my praise.

And suddenly a pretty basic logic emerges. We might summarize it with three foundations for thankfulness:

  • God is the giver of all.
  • I deserve nothing.
  • He deserves my praise.

When those three truths occupy the center stage of our attention, we can certainly respond with true thankfulness.

Concluding Thoughts

Here’s my practical advice for your personal reflections and public thanksgiving this week. Don’t be embarrassed to express gratitude for things. Thank God for nice weather, time off of work, the smell of the turkey, and the cranberry sauce shaped like a can. Certainly thank Him for the people around you and relationships that are probably some of the greatest joys of our transient lives.

But be sure that your thanksgiving doesn’t stop there. Look beyond the stuff and even the people to the One who gave them. Recognize the massive discrepancy between what we deserve and the gifts that God has actually given. Most of all, marvel in the wonder of having a relationship with the giver of all; turn your heart upward and give Him praise. Because ultimately, that alone is the essence of true thanksgiving.