Want to be a revolutionary? Learn to give thanks.

Michael Jensen
November 2011

Have we forgotten how to give thanks? Thanksgiving is the potentially the most revolutionary thing you can do against the destructive greed of fundamentalist materialism and capitalism, because it recognises that the source of things is not the system, but the loving hand of God.

Qu.116: Why is prayer necessary for Christians? Because it is the chief part of the gratitude which God demands of us, and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who with heartfelt sighings unceasingly ask and thank Him for them.
Heidelberg Catechism 1563

1.  An impossibility in the Christian life?
How could we ever thank him who made us and redeemed us? It seems presumptive that our thanks could ever be an adequate response to that we have received in Christ. But that is because we tend to lapse back into thinking of divine-human relations a operating according to an exchange economy – which is the way the world works. Human gratitude could never be the response which triggers the acceptance of God, or which forms a return of grace in some way.

Properly understood, thanksgiving in prayer is the appropriate response to grace. Since faith is merely a taking hold of the promises of God, thanksgiving could never be more than this. Faith and thanksgiving are linked in just this way in the story of the tenth, Samaritan leper who alone returns to Jesus in thanks and to whom Jesus says ‘your faith has healed you’. (Luke 17:12-18). The story is as much an indictment on the nine, Israelite lepers who were ungrateful as it is a celebration of the gratitude of the Samaritan.

To thank God is obviously to act as He so kindly and liberally invites and demands, and therefore simply to come to Him as suppliants with our needs.
Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics III.iv.99)

2. The antitype of gratitude: Israel in the desert
The experience of Israel in the desert illustrates for us the very reverse of the right response to the redemption wrought by Yhwh. If they are condemned for anything, it is for the sin of ingratitude. They forgot the blessings that they had received at his hand. They grumbled about his provision for them of food and drink. They complained about his invisibility and lack of immediacy. From this sin we may perhaps learn its opposite. We too live between Egypt and the promised land – and much we experience challenges the goodness of God. Like praise, the acts of thanksgiving remembers and rehearses the great deeds of God, appreciative of the blessings that he showers upon us and turning us to him in hope. In thanksgiving, the pray-er not only retells the great deeds of God: she recalls receiving the benefits of them for herself. As it turns out, Paul identifies a lack of thanks as crucial to the spiritual blindness of the human race as a whole in Romans 1:20-21:

20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;  21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.

3. The Psalms and thanksgiving
The thank offerings commanded as part of the sacrificial system (Lev 7:11-16) are, it could be suggested, designed to ensure that Israel did not forget to give thanks again. Whatever the case, the Psalms are overflowing with thankfulness to God. Some twenty or so Psalms enjoin Israel to thank the Lord:

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.  2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble  3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.(Psalm 107:1-3).

Once again we need to ponder the relevance of the Psalms for the Christian life – they articulate the pattern of prayerful response to the grace of God.

Thanking God and glorifying him belong together.
Wolfhart Pannenberg (Systematic Theology III.208)

4. Jesus gives thanks
At several moments in Jesus’ life he gave thanks to his Father. Most often he did this over food – at the feeding of the five thousand, and at the Last Supper. Once again, there is in this receiving of food a counter to the ungratefulness of the Exodus generation for God’s provision for food. There is also a pointer to the significance of food as a symbol of God’s gift of the body of the substitute. Jesus also thanks the Father for having heard him (John 11:41) and for the paradoxical miracle of the revelation of the divine mysteries (Matt 11:25).

That the Son thanks the Father shows grace and thanksgiving to be a part of the divine life itself. Jesus’ prayer life, as the exemplary human worshipper, features thanksgiving, even though the model prayer he offers his disciple does not.

5. Early Christian prayer
Despite this lack of thanks in the Lord’s prayer, the motif of thanksgiving is ubiquitous in the prayers of the early church. Paul especially cannot pray without giving thanks. Paul wants all requests to God to be made with thanksgiving (Phil 4:6) and that unceasing prayer redound with thanks (1 Thess 5:18). Gratitude for God’s saving action in Christ gives Christian prayer its context. Already as creatures we owe thanks to God (Rom 1:21); now in the power of the Spirit of Sonship we are able to thank the Father as we truly ought. Further, Paul’s prayers of thanks repeatedly mention the work of God in other Christians as God’s grace to him.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And we beseech you, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

General Thanksgiving, Book of Common Prayer (1662)

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