A Thanksgiving Meditation
“Forget not all His benefits.” —Psalm 103:2
Once a man asked me this question: “At your church I noticed that, besides receiving instruction in the sermon and Scripture readings, the people also sing, praise, glorify, and thank God. I was very confused. Does God need our praise and gratitude? The impression might be given that we want to curry favor with or flatter God in order to merit His love. Does not God love us irrespective of what we do?”
God’s love for the world is not motivated by what the world renders Him in return. He so loved the world of the loveless “ungodly” (Romans 4:5) “that He gave His only-begotten Son” (John 3:16) to be man’s substitute under His justice — to keep His Law in man’s stead (Matthew 5:17; Romans 5:19) and to suffer His wrath in man’s place (Romans 6:23a; Isaiah 53; II Corinthians 5:15). It was God’s love for the world in Christ that made His Son to be “the Propitiation [the perfect satisfaction of His justice] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2) so that God could reconcile the world unto Himself, forgive their sins and declare them righteous (II Corinthians 5:19, 21). He did that for us when we were His “enemies” (Romans 5:10a), ungrateful, unthankful and unbelieving sinners!
People do not do that. They do not love their enemies; they do not bless those who curse them; they do not do good to those that hate them; and they do not show mercy to those who despise them (Matthew 5:44). They help their friends and love the loveable, expecting something from them in return (Matthew 5:46–47). That is selfish love! God needs nothing from us, no thanks, no gratitude, and no service; and He does not love us because of what we might do for Him in return or as a repayment (Romans 11:35).
Ingratitude and unthankfulness seem to be qualities that are reprehensible even among people who are not Christians, and they find it strange and lacking in dignity for a person to want to be thanked. An expression of gratitude should be an automatic response, or so they think. And so they regard it to be “below God’s dignity” for Him to expect and even command our thanks to Him, as for example when Jesus commented on the ingratitude of the nine lepers. When the Lord healed ten lepers and only one came to thank him, a bitterness filled His question: “…Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger” (Luke 17:17-18).
But gratitude, even gratitude for the favors and help of our fellow men in this world, is not a “natural” or automatic response because of the Old Adam of sin, the “flesh” in which “dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). The “old man” is “corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Ephesians 4:22); and the unconverted, the children of this world, have no New Man of faith in Jesus Christ but only the thankless, ungrateful Old Adam in which they were conceived and born (Psalm 51:5), “that which is born of the flesh” (John 3:6), “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind,…by nature the children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Thus we observe so much ingratitude in the world, among our countrymen, among our neighbors, and even among many professing Christians. Children have to be taught to say “Thank you” to people for the simplest favors; and yet they forget to say it even though they are often reminded to do so. When that happens even with our own children, we are to remember that the “flesh” in the Christian (as also in St. Paul’s case) is so powerful that it keeps us from doing those good things that we want to do as believers and which the Lord requires of us in His Word (Romans 7:18–19) — one of which is being truly grateful (I Thessalonians 5:18). And such sins of omission should be dealt with seriously as a “transgression of the Law” (I John 3:4).
Like the ten lepers, the majority of people are quick to ask for favors, for help, and even for a sympathetic ear in times of trouble; but they are slow to express appreciation for what they receive; and, like “the nine,” most fail to give thanks, even with a word, to their benefactors. Especially the children of this world, “which know not God” (I Thessalonians 4:5b), do not recognize or acknowledge God as the giver of their “daily bread” and therefore do not think it necessary to give thanks to Him for the ordinary things of life, “[who] maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). In His kingdom of power, and to His own glory, “the Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:9), as He opens His hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing (v. 16). And yet unbelievers boast of themselves: “My might and the power of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth!” (Deuteronomy 8:17). Why? “Because that, when they knew God [according to their natural knowledge], they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:21).
By the grace of God we Christians humbly confess that God causes the sun to shine upon us, to illuminate, warm, cheer and animate us. He does good to us, sending rain and fertility, filling us with food and bringing joy to our hearts. He commands the earth to produce a variety of fruits, which feed our bodies and preserve our lives, and even causes the animals to serve us. So, according to His will, the mountains and valleys, seas and rivers, trees and rocks, fish and poultry, land and air — everything is for our benefit and enjoyment. His divine power supports, continues, and preserves our life among all the hostilities and dangers of the world. “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
With Dr. Luther we confess that God “has given [us] our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all [our] members, [our] reason and all [our] senses, and still preserves them; also clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and home, wife and children, fields, cattle and all [our] goods; that He richly and daily provides [us] with all that [we] need to support this body and life; that He defends [us] from all danger and guards and protects [us] from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in [us]; for all which it is [our] duty to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true!” (Second Chief Part: The Apostles’ Creed, First Article, “What Does This Mean?”).
Every moment of our lives is a gift of His infinite goodness to us undeserving sinners in lengthening our time of grace; every breath of our chest should cause us to “number our days” in this fragile life; and every beat of our heart should remind us to “apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12), the wisdom unto salvation which we have in His precious Word (II Timothy 3:15). Thus we Christians should be grateful not only for our temporal blessings but especially for the spiritual blessings God has given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, blessings that we have and enjoy by faith in Him (Romans 5:1).
What are those spiritual blessings? What are those intangible benefits that God has granted to all the world for His Son’s sake, benefits which are visible to us only in and through His Word (Psalm 119:18)? What are those gifts for which the world in unbelief is NOT grateful and of which we, because of our wretched flesh, need to be reminded as God’s “unspeakable gift” (II Corinthians 9:15) and specially worthy of our humble and grateful thanksgiving?
The Bible teaches that, when man fell into sin (Genesis 3), he lost God’s image, became spiritually blind, dead and God’s enemy, and brought upon himself and all mankind God’s curse (Romans 5:19a; Galatians 3:10; Romans 6:23). Although they originally had the free will and ability to obey God’s simple command in the Garden of Eden, they willingly yielded to the tempting voice of Satan, deliberately disobeyed God, and immediately suffered spiritual death as the result. They became filthy before Him, lost the free will with which He created them, forfeited life and happiness, and merited eternal death in hell. But God did not desert them and leave them to die in their sins. On the contrary, because of His infinite love for His fallen creatures, He “ gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). He promised them the Seed of the woman, Christ born of the Virgin Mary, to bruise Satan’s head in defeat of his power, and to be their Redeemer (Genesis 3:15).
“When the fulness of the time was come” (Galatians 4:4–5), the only begotten Son of God came to our world and took our mortal nature upon Himself. He “made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8.). He took man’s place “under the Law” (Galatians 4:4), kept its precepts perfectly in man’s stead to win for all men righteousness before God (Romans 5:18–19), took upon Himself the sins of the human race, and bore humiliation, spitting, slapping, beating, the cross of suffering and an ignominious death with the wicked. He shed His blood for us as the Lamb of God (I Peter 1:18–19) and suffered the pains of hell (Matthew 27:46) in the place of all mankind. “He died for all” (II Corinthians 5:15), “that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14–15). And because of Christ’s all-sufficient redemptive work as man’s Substitute, God graciously forgave the sins of the whole world, “not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). — “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, who forgiveth all thine iniquities!” (Psalm 103:2–3a).
Because God does not desire the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), He published the Word of His reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:19b), the “good tidings of great joy,” to all men (Luke 2:10) as His Gospel (I Peter 1:25); and He earnestly wants “all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4), the truth of the Gospel. Proceeding from the Father and the Son (Nicene Creed), the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, by means of the Gospel, turns ungrateful and unbelieving sinners to faith in God’s mercy (Jeremiah 31:18), makes them children of God by faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26), brings peace to their hearts (Romans 5:1), enables them to confess Christ as their Lord and Savior (I Corinthians 12:3), and sanctifies their lives to serve the living God, as fruits of their faith (Ephesians 2:10), in thankfulness for His “unspeakable gift” (II Corinthians 9:15).
Sadly, because of our sinful flesh, we often forget God and grieve His mercy to our stubbornness and ingratitude. But despite our frequent falls, God does not destroy us but brings us to the knowledge of our sins by His Law (Romans 3:20b), works in us Godly sorrow (Psalm 51:17), and creates in us true repentance and a right spirit through faith unto salvation (v. 10). He continues to forgive and pardon us, patiently with “longsuffering” (Exodus 34:6–7) correcting us and with great care and wisdom leading our lives to the rescue and to endless joy in the heavenly courts. In spite of the many obstacles we create to our salvation by our many sins and shortcomings, how wonderful that our gracious God does not “mark inquities” and hold them all against us (Psalm 130:3)! “But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared” (v. 4). No wonder “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10).
It is God, according to His wonderful grace and love in Christ Jesus, who works in us “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13); and that “good pleasure,” what God truly wants us to do, is, first of all, to “believe on Him whom He hath sent” (John 6:29), “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), for whose sake God “forgiveth all [our] iniquities” (Psalm 103:3a). For that is His greatest and best, most merciful and gracious, blessing. “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; because His mercy endureth forever!” (Psalm 118:1).
But then it is also God’s “good pleasure” that we give thanks to Him for all of our other blessings, both temporal and spiritual. Briefly and precisely the Apostle Paul writes that our soul should constantly express gratitude to God: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (I Thessalonians 5:16–18). —Thanks for our “daily bread”: “Everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body,” says Luther in the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” —Thanks also for the things which the children of the world regard as “negatives” in life: Chastisements, trials, tribulations, sufferings, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, perils, or even death at the hands of our enemies (cf. Hebrews 12:6ff.; Romans 8:18; 35–36; etc.) — knowing that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” (v. 37), —trusting His promise that “[He] is faithful, who will not suffer [us] to be tempted above that [we] are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that [we] may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10:13).
Let us never forget to give thanks to the One from whom we receive all these gifts. A careful reading of morning and evening prayers, especially those suggested to us by Dr. Luther, is a good and beneficial practice. Both his Morning Prayer and his Evening Prayer begin the very same way: “I thank Thee, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son…,” prayers of gratitude. And then, having finished the evening prayer, it is good to visit with the mind’s eye the previous day and to remember what specifically the Lord bestowed upon us for which we should be thankful. This is also a very good way to deal with the spirit of discouragement, namely, to remember to ask with the Psalmist: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” (Psalm 116:12). I sometimes advise people who are prone to depression or experiencing difficult circumstances every evening to sit down and write, say, ten points for which they should thank the Lord that day. At first it is not easy, but after a few days the eyes of the soul get used to the dark and gain the spiritual ability to see far more than only ten reasons to be thankful on any given day.
“In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (I Thessalonians 5:18). “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; because His mercy endureth forever!” (Psalm 118:1).
—R.G.S. with necessary editing by D.T.M.