Giving thanks

“In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18 NKJV).

When I first began traveling to South Asia I was told that there was, until recently, no word in their languages for “thank you.” The word, “Dhanyabhad” had been invented during the period of British control and is now shared by several south Asian peoples to express gratitude. But until that occurred there was little thanksgiving acknowledged.

Generally speaking, if a culture lacks a word in their language for a thing (whether tangible or intangible) that thing is unknown to, or at least unused by, them. If they don’t say “thank you,” it is safe to conclude that gratitude is not a valued emotion.

I found that somewhat shocking. I guess I had always assumed that gratitude was an innate human attribute that could be encouraged or discouraged as one matured, but that we all at least started out with the instinct to feel it. Evidently, that is not the case. There are people in increasing numbers, and whole cultures, where it is virtually unknown for someone to express appreciation to another. The idea of a holiday dedicated to giving thanks is unique to western civilization. Others in the world do not celebrate it and perhaps have never conceived of it as a thing to be treasured.

That leads to the question, why do we feel grateful? One reason that applies to many of us is that it is a taught virtue. The Bible commands us to give thanks for everything. But we are not to think of it as simply a ritualistic duty. Rather, we are to feel grateful to God because of his love for us and the tremendous blessings he has bestowed upon us. As the Psalmist urged:

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to you name, O Most High; . . . For you, Lord, have made me glad through your work” (Psalm 92:1, 4).

To further describe the source of gratitude we must recognize two foundations for it. First is the recognition of having received blessings. Good has been done for us, or some good thing has been given to us. We are blessed, therefore we are thankful. If our attitude towards life is expressed through criticism and complaint, we are not likely to feel gratitude. If things are not good for us; if we are in bad conditions, why should we say “thank you?” Only when we know we are blessed will gratitude follow.

The second foundation for thanksgiving is the acknowledgment of dependence. I have always remembered the beginning of the movie Shenandoah. The family is at table preparing to eat dinner, and the father offers a thanksgiving prayer. As I recall it was something like this,

Lord we are sitting in a house that we built, about to eat food which we grew and prepared. But Lord we thank you anyway.”

We, like the father from Shenandoah, are prone to take credit for all that we have or have achieved. It is our talent and hard work that enables us to have a place to live and food to eat. If someone does give us anything, it is no more than we deserve. We have a sense of entitlement – others are indebted to us rather than the other way around.

That is a warped, inaccurate assessment of our condition. The truth is that it is God who “has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). He “gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).

Jesus taught his disciples: “When you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’ ” (Luke 17: 10).

We can do nothing by ourselves. We build on the foundation laid by others. We receive as blessings those things created by almighty God. This week and always, let us give thanks for everything.

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