Western people have for decades had a major problem with the whole notion of a Creator who demands praise and thanksgiving from his creatures. “What kind of God is that? Is he so insecure that he is in need of the praise of his own creatures? If he was really independent and above everything why can’t God just let us live on and enjoy our lives?” These questions make a lot of sense in a culture like ours, which sets the rights and freedoms of the individual above all things. And yet I think that they miss the point.
When Christianity states that God alone is worthy of praise and thanksgiving it doesn’t do so in a manner that is coercive or forceful. Rather it is out of an act of love.
How so, you may ask?
Think about the very nature of gratitude and what it does to us. Gratitude happens when we do not merely stop at seeing the pleasure of our good circumstances. Gratitude happens when we reach through the gifts and pleasures to see beyond them, a giver. It happens when we look past the superficial reality of what is right in front of us and acknowledge that our good things come from a source.
This experience of seeing the Giver of the gifts changes our experience of the gifts themselves. It shows us that the good thing is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind it is a good being, a being who loves and cares for us. Suddenly, the pleasure of the gift itself becomes something much greater – the pleasure of being loved. In this way gratitude transforms the way we see all good things in our life by turning all those good things into powerful and vivid reminders that we are not alone, that we matter deeply to someone else.
This principle works on a smaller personal scale even if you don’t believe in God. Why is it so special to receive gifts from people in your life, to see them serve you with their time and energy? Because the gifts of their lives are much bigger than mere gifts, they are vivid experiences that tell us that we are loved.
This brings us back to the question of thanksgiving. The question is, “To whom do we give thanks?” Sure, we can answer, “To no one in particular, to life in general.” But what does that mean? Does it mean anything? Is it possible to be thankful to nothing?
Thanksgiving is at the heart of real christianity because at the heart of the christian message is that the universe is not indeed a cold, dark and lifeless machine. Rather, it is the outworking story of a God who loves us. The sentiment for this echoes in all of us as we look around and feel the need for the universe to be a personal experience, not an empty and pointless one. The christian story contends that the heart and center of all that is wrong with the world is that we have broken off our relationship with our Maker, and that we seek to replace the role of ultimate significance that rightly belongs to him alone with many other things in life; career, family, success, money, etc. Things that are good, but things that are not ultimate. Things that we can be thankful for, but cannot be thankful to. Things that we can love, but things that cannot love us back, at least not in the ultimate way that He loves us.
Thanksgiving is the state of a soul that is satisfied, a soul that is not alone, a soul that has hope, a soul that sees all of life as inescapably linked to the personal and good work of the God who is. Many people today want that state of peace and wonder but do not want the personal presence of the God who gives it. This is in fact impossible. If there is no God we are utterly alone and our survival is pure chance and our peace a momentary mirage.
But, if there is a God, and if he is good, thanksgiving is the one and only state of the one who has come to know him. If we know him, we have the capacity to look past the gift and see Giver, and thus to enjoy all things in an infinitely greater way. Not only are we blessed, but we are loved. The personal presence of God in our lives breathes meaning into all good things. It makes sense of our place in the world. It brings us to the experience of, not only eating of all the good trees of the garden that is life, but to the eating of the fruit of the tree of life itself. In C. S. Lewis’ often quoted words, we believe in Him as we believe “that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
When the God of the Bible demands that we live a life that experiences real thanksgiving he isn’t being a mere selfish celestial dictator. He is acting out of the depth of his nature, which will stop at nothing until it sees our ultimate satisfaction in the one ultimate source of all that is good and right and true, that is, himself. He calls us to gaze through the gifts and to see that, put together, they all mean something infinitely greater – they are witnesses to the fact that we are loved.
Lewis, C. S. (2009-06-03). Weight of Glory (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 140). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.