‘Come ye thankful people, come …’ So runs the traditional harvest hymn and this is the time of year when many churches hold ‘harvest thanksgiving’ services. But whether we follow this practice or not we would all agree that Christians should be thankful people. After all, unthankfulness is a prime characteristic of unbelief (Romans 1:21).
Paul exhorts that ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks be made for all men’ (1 Timothy 2:1). And if we are to give thanks for men, how much more for ‘the grace of God that brings salvation’ (Titus 2:11). Yet it is all too easy to forget to be thankful to God.
We are quick to complain about our circumstances or the behaviour of others or even about God’s providential dealings with us. Few of us find it easy to embrace Paul’s sentiments – ‘We are bound to thank God always …’ (2 Thessalonians 1:3).
Yet gratitude towards God is a frequent theme in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, thanksgiving (or peace) offerings were freewill sacrifices made to God by an individual – and sometimes by the whole nation of Israel (for example, at the dedication of Solomon’s temple).
When God stoops to dwell amongst his people, it is time for them to offer thanks and acknowledge their blessed state.
A thankful heart
Thankfulness must have its wellsprings in the heart. In Colossians 3:12-17 Paul describes the thankful heart in some detail. ‘Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body, and be thankful … and whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’.
We see first that biblical thankfulness is always towards God. An unsaved person may be thankful but his gratitude is directed elsewhere – towards false gods or fellow men. The world’s gratitude is also fleeting, depending as it does on circumstance. But the Christian’s thankfulness to God burns constant through the storms and calms of life.
Secondly, these verses tell us that a thankful heart is a heart ruled by the peace of God – a peace that, objectively, Christ made in the blood of his cross and which subjectively stems from an appropriation of his justifying work: ‘Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1).
Believers’ thankfulness, therefore, is offered first and foremost for the grace and mercy we have received from God, not least the gifts of repentance and faith that enabled us to believe and receive the gospel. Endowed with the spiritual riches of forgiveness, cleansing and fellowship with God, we have every reason to give thanks to the Father through Christ.
Of course, our thankfulness to God extends beyond these primary things. Because ‘all things work together for good to those who love God’ (Romans 8:28) we can be thankful for every providence of God, from our daily bread to the trials that purify our faith (James 1:2). Our gratitude should know no bounds.
Thankful lips and hands
While thankfulness begins in the heart it must not remain there! Colossians continues, ‘Whatever you do in word and deed do all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to the Father …’ Our words should be spoken and our deeds done thankfully. Now there’s a radical concept!
If we have truly thankful hearts we shall speak and act in a manner that reflects and radiates the gratitude we feel towards God the Father. Our speech will ‘always be with grace, seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4:6) – not laced with the vinegar of criticism and complaint!
Thankfulness in the heart will bear visibly good fruit. It is all too easy to have grace in our heads – believing and approving the great doctrines of the faith – without being gracious in our words and ways.
We should be clear what we believe and ready to instruct others more perfectly in the ways of the Lord, but we must do so in a way that humbly acknowledges that we ourselves were delivered from ignorance and darkness by the kindness of our Saviour and the mercy of God.
Thankful hearts will produce thankful words and thankful deeds – things that glorify our Father in heaven.
The exhortation ‘be thankful’ in Colossians 3:15 is immediately followed by another – ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another [or yourselves] in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord’.
We are not only to have thankful hearts, lips and hands but thankful minds as well. And a thankful mind can only be cultivated as we read, digest and obey the ‘word of Christ’, that is, the Scriptures. The wisdom they impart is wealth indeed as they provide a multitude of causes for thanksgiving.
The psalmist exults, ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my taste’, and again, ‘Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage for ever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart … My heart stands in awe of your word; I rejoice at your word as one who finds great treasure’ (Psalm 119:103, 111, 161-162).
A mind saturated with Scripture is a thankful mind because it is aware of the multitude of God’s mercies and the greatness of his love and kindness towards us. As John says, ‘We love him because he first loved us’ (John 4:19).
Thankfulness, finally, is to be expressed corporately by the body of Christ, the gathered church. ‘Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body, and be thankful’. Here perhaps lies the missing ingredient in much that passes for public worship.
In the New Testament thanksgiving is fundamental to Christian worship. The risen Lord dwells among his people by his Spirit and is to be thanked for his glory, goodness, grace and mercy. Public worship should be the outpouring of thankful hearts and minds.
God does not compel us to worship him but gives us every reason to do so. In thanksgiving we ‘offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:5). Moreover, our spiritual sacrifices are not limited to vocal praise but embrace also such things as submission to the Word and fellowship with God and with his people.
We do not come into the presence of God to entertain or be entertained. That is not to say that genuine worship should not be pleasurable; it certainly should. But ‘worship’ that focuses on man and his needs is no way to approach God. Our Sovereign will not share his glory with another.
When we come into the presence of God we need to remember that it is an honour to do so. Spiritual worship and access to God is a privilege not a right. We are not doing God a favour when we offer our worship and thanksgiving – it is our reasonable service (Romans 12:1).
So let us give thanks!