You might be tempted to think that being thankful in times of prosperity is a given — an easy thing for believer and non-believer alike. You might be tempted to think that thankfulness during good times is quite natural. But, were this the case, the authors of Heidelberg would never have needed to ground faithfulness in a knowledge of God’s providential governance of his creation. So, perhaps genuine thankfulness is not as natural as we might initially think.
First of all, thankfulness, by definition, is a state of being grateful for thinks placed into your life. That sounds pretty benign at first glance, but it raises the question, “to whom” is that gratefulness supposed to be directed? The answer, of course, is that it is to be directed toward the one who brings the gift or blessing into your life. And, for most people, here is the rub. Yes, our neighbor might do us a favor and it is proper to thank him. Yet, God’s providence governs your neighbor’s actions. Yes, a relative might give us a gift and it is proper to thank them, but again, God’s providence governs the actions of our relatives — even of our pagan ones! Yes, good things may happen to me, but God governs all of these things. And, if God’s providence governs all things that take place in our life, then our gratefulness, in the ultimate sense, is to be directed toward Him.
You see, as Question 28 of Heidelberg points out, all things in our life are ultimately governed by God’s providence. So, when good things happen we ought to be thankful, but to be genuinely thankful, we must address that thankfulness toward God. The non-Christian does not naturally thank God — in fact, the non-Christian rejects thanking God for the good things and prosperity in his or her life. In turn, that means that they are not truly expressing thankfulness as they ought.
Yet, it is not just the non-Christian that often struggles with thankfulness, it is also the Christian. Often, thankfulness to God is our secondary response to good things in our life, not our first response. Often, we forget and have to remind ourselves to thank God for the events of the day and often we forget entirely to do so. Worse yet, often, when good things come into our lives, we assume them to be things that we have deserved or earned for ourselves. Yet, even the money paid for the labor of our hands (which is arguably earned) is something for which we must give God thanks for God has given us both the skills of our hands and the opportunity to use said skills in a productive way. All of this has been orchestrated and brought to pass by God’s providence, thus, again, we find ourselves needing to express gratitude to God.
Yet, often we do not express gratitude toward God in any intentional and meaningful way. We might say, “Thank you God for…,” but do we live in a way that demonstrates our gratefulness? Often we do not. As we continue to reflect on the catechism, do make a point of asking yourselves how intentionally you express your gratitude to God for all that takes place in your life…in this case, especially when it comes to times of success and prosperity.
In today’s Christian sub-culture, it is common for people to claim that just about anything unusual is a miracle. People talk about the “miracle of childbirth” or they speak of the raise they got at work as “miraculous” because it was unexpected and beneficial in its timing. Recovery from a disease or surgery is also spoken of as being a miracle as is surviving a car accident or other potentially tragic encounter. Interestingly, in almost every case, miracles are events that are seen as beneficial. Never once have I heard a Christian say, “It was a miracle that the tornado came through and destroyed my home” or “It was a miracle that the stock market crashed at just the right time that all my investments have been lost.” In common usage, miracles must, I think by definition, be good things. Yet, if a good thing for one person is a bad thing for another person, how now does it get defined?
Our problem, of course, is that we are self-centered as a culture and we also do not understand the difference between a miracle and God’s providence — the difference between primary and secondary causes for events. The Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, places far more in the realm of providence than I think most Christians are willing to concede, at least in our modern era for Question 27 speaks of God’s providence as the way in which God sustains his creation and governs all things so that not one thing that ever happens in this world of ours ever happens by chance.
Let’s start with the miraculous then. A miracle is an act of God’s divine interposition whereby he interrupts the normal chains of events and brings about a result that cannot be explained by ordinary causal relationships. God’s creation of the universe Ex Nihilo or Jesus changing the water into wine are examples of miracles. Biblically, miracles are also designed to testify to the authenticity of a prophet’s office or, in the case of the Gospels, be a sign that Jesus was who he said he was, God in the flesh. With the completion of the Scriptures, which is the ultimate testimony of God, the miracles no longer serve that function and thus are no longer normative for the church, that is, with the exception of God breathing new life into a dead soul when he regenerates one of his elect.
Does that mean that God no longer governs his universe? Of course not. Yet, what it means is that God no longer governs his universe by being the primary cause of events, but works ordinarily as a secondary cause — by his providence, massaging the causal factors in such a way as that they bring out the results He desires. In this work, his hand is still visible to the believer but it remains invisible to the wicked so that they may remain in their unbelief.
And so, God raises up governments and throws them down. God stirs up the storms and calms them. God raises events in people’s lives that stir them to action or that pacify them. All these things God does, but through ordinary means that do not require a miracle to take place apart from regeneration. Yet, as God is God, he still brings about all things according to the counsel of his will so that once again, not one thing happens by chance and everything that is experienced in this world (good, bad, or in between) comes from his Fatherly hand.
One of the most basic principles of logic is that “Ought does not yield Is.” In other words, just because things “ought” to be a certain way does not mean that they will be that way. To assume this to be the case is what is called the “moralistic fallacy” and it would be the basis of what would later be called “Hume’s Guillotine,” in honor of the philosopher who popularized it. It should be noted that the opposite is true as well — “Is does not yield ought.” In other words, just because this “is” what happened does not mean that it “ought” to have been so (to argue thusly is called the “naturalistic fallacy).
Why is this important? There is an important principle that can be drawn from these two logical axioms. Just because you have the ability to do something does not mean that you will be willing to do so. Similarly, just because you have the will or desire to do something does not mean that you have the ability to do so.
Let’s take the simple example of a phobia — an irrational fear of something. I, for instance, am afraid of heights. I am fine on a six or ten foot ladder, but much higher than that my body shuts down and it takes a tremendous amount of intentional will-power to just complete the task I set forth to do. Early on in my time here where I serve as a pastor, one of the men of the church tried to get me to climb the ladder to the top of the bell-tower (about 50’ high). I did get to the first tier where the church bells were kept, but as soon as my eyes perceived my height through the ventilation grills, my legs turned to jelly and I never made it to the top. While my body had the ability to climb to the top of the tower, I did not have the will to do so.
Outside of phobias there are other examples of this notion at work. I do not like liver. In fact, my dislike for liver is intense. When I was speaking in Moscow in 2009, one of the meals I was served was liver and rice (and the rice had a liver-gravy on it). Usually, when I travel, I try and “Do as the Romans do…,” but no matter how hard I tried to be polite, I could not stomach more than a couple bites. Again, the ability was there, but my aversion to liver was so strong that my will did not cooperate.
It works the other way around as well. I went through a season of my life where I wanted to learn to play the drums, but I have no sense of rhythm. My band instructor would clap out a beat and ask me to mimic him, and try as I might, I couldn’t do so. Similarly, in college, I tried a semester of Chinese, which is a tonal language. The problem was that even in the language lab, I could never hear the difference between the four tones. The will was there but the ability was not.
Examples abound, but to do a thing, whatever that thing may be, requires you not only to have the ability to do that thing, but also the will to do it. Intentions are great, but where the rubber meets the road lies with two things: the ability to do it and a will to do so.
And that is the beauty of the final clause of Question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It reminds us that God has the “Ability to do so because he is Almighty God” and the will to do so “because He is my faithful Father.” Ability and will, but for what? To govern all things by his providence and to take every event that happens in my life (even the bad ones) and turn them for my good, further conforming me into the image of Christ. Devils and men often try and pull one over on God, but they are never successful in doing so. He is Almighty God and he is my Faithful Father. So, what have I to fear when storms of challenge come crashing into my life?
For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “government” is the government of elected officials that oversee our federal, state, and local communities. These governments seem to be ever-changing between republicans, democrats, and the occasional independent candidate. Despite the varying opinions that people have regarding the laws that get passed or the taxes that get charged to the citizenry, these leaders do have an important role to play in our society. We sinners cannot be governments unto ourselves…if we tried, we would fall into anarchy. They are God’s ministers of justice in our midst and they play an important role in keeping society functioning.
Yet, to look only at the various civil governments that have been established over us is short-sighted. God also governs all of his creation by his eternal counsel and providence. By the way, this is one reason that we, as Christians, reject what is called “the Watchmaker” analogy. That would be the view that God brought creation into being (like a clock), wound it up, and then let it go on its own according to natural laws. Ultimately, such is the view of the Deist, but not of the Christian.
For the Biblical Christian, God not only made everything that is, but everything that takes place has its origins in His will, His design, and His plan. God truly orders all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians) and nothing that is can be apart from his design and plan. Indeed, he holds all things together in Christ (Colossians 1:17). Were God to cease governing his creation, the creation itself would blow apart into a million-billion-trillion bits and pieces and would instantly cease to exist. And this government is eternal in the sense that it is rooted in a God who is eternal and has a plan for all he has made.
All too often we do not give honor where honor is due, when we look at the ordinary things of the universe. We see things that look like cause and effect occurrences and treat them as if they are simply explainable by the laws of science. Yet, the laws of science are nothing more than descriptive of what we observe. Furthermore, what we observe is governed by the will of a reasonable and orderly God. So, we should say that the laws of science, rightly understood, are little more than explanations of the orderly government of God over his creation. And, when rightly understood, it ought to drive us to praising God for the order found in this world of ours. Such is the proper (and intended) secondary result of God’s eternal government.
“Yet there is a custom with regard to you that I should release one to you during the Passover. Do you desire that I release to you the King of the Jews?”
There is a lot of overlap between the different Gospel accounts at this point in the trial, each Gospel writer emphasizing those aspects that the Spirit directed to be most valuable for their respective initial audiences. Though all four writes mention the title, “King of the Jews,” it seems to me that John’s use of the term is the most directed — it is set off in ways that make it more pronounced.
Clearly, Pilate does not see Jesus’ kingship as a threat to his own power or the trial would have been done with already. We have also seen already the conversation that Pilate had with Jesus about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom — that it is a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one. So why is Pilate continuing to use this language? Clearly he is seeking to taunt the Jewish authorities. What a pathetic king, from a Roman standpoint at least, one whom a mere Roman Governor has the power of life and death over. You can almost see the Priests squirming at this statement and Pilate enjoying every minute of that confrontation. Who is manipulating whom, we might ask as the politics of the event continue to unfold.
Yet, in the midst of the politics, what an appropriate title. Jesus is the King of the Jews from old, he is the one to whom they have always and historically looked as their divine King, and he is the one that all True Israel serves even unto this day, for if we have faith in Jesus Christ, we are children of Abraham. And even today, Jesus sits enthroned on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, worthy of all praise and glory and adoration and honor. Worthy of our obedience and our love.
There will come a day when all nay-sayers will bow their knee before the Lordship of Christ — sadly, for many it will be to their utter condemnation and judgment. Amongst those are this group here who are bickering over who will execute our Lord. While each is trying to ensure that the blood of Christ is on the others hands, by the dynamics that take place, blood is on the hands of all. God’s providence is remarkable…remember what Peter said of this in his sermon at Pentecost:
“Men of Israel — Hear these words! Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was proven by God to you though might and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, just as you yourselves know, this one, by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, was delivered up through the hands of lawless men to be crucified and killed.”
Do you hear what Peter is saying? Who delivered Jesus up? Lawless men did. But lawless men did it because of the definite plan or design and foreknowledge of God. God superintended all of these things from the beginning through miracle and providence to reach this end. An end that will bring salvation to all those who call on Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
In the end, we are left with one question. Which king will you serve? Will you serve a divine one that rules even today? Or will you serve an earthly king who will be here today and gone with the passing of God’s providential design. Pilate and Caesar are dead. Pilate and Caesar have bowed before the crushing foot of God’s justice and are facing judgement in the fires of hell. Jesus sits enthroned. Which king will you follow?
“The man bowed low and worshipped Yahweh.”
The right and appropriate response of one who has seen God’s hand at work in his life is worship. Can one say much more than that other than that we are woefully deficient in our response? How often our focus is merely to say “thanks” to God as if his providences are but mere trinkets in our lives. How often our prayers sound more like wish lists given by eager children to Santa Claus than of humble petitions given by those redeemed by grace to the God of that redemption. How often our hearts are ungrateful for the things that God has seen fit to teach us through the difficulties of life. How often we approach the public gathering of worship only in terms of what I might receive rather than what I might give to a God who has already given me far more than I deserve in my own right. How often we simply fail to worship with a whole heart — how often we simply fail to worship; lifting up self above God. Beloved, at the words of this simple verse, how we need to repent and turn to pouring our our hearts in worship before the throne of our almighty God. Eliezer sets the model for us — bow low and give God praise.
“And it came to pass when he had not yet finished speaking, behold, Rebekah came out, who was begotten of Bethuel the son of Milkah, the wife of Nachor the brother of Abraham, and her pitcher was on her shoulder!”
God is good and he shows himself to be faithful all of the time when it comes to the needs of his people. Sometimes God calls us to wait on his fulfillment to teach us trust and patience; here it is covenant faithfulness that God is teaching to Eliezer, Abraham’s servant. Rebekah’s name in Hebrew is written hDqVbˆr (Ribqah) and means “Great Water Giver” which is providential in terms of what will take place here on this day. Our English Bibles use a combination of the Hebrew version of her name and the Greek transliteration, Rebekka (Rebekka), to construct the English transliteration that we have become used to seeing. As has been mentioned above, transliteration is not an exacting science and many have taken liberties through history (that we have inherited) in doing so.
What is also interesting about this event is the significance of the location. Wells and springs were important parts of the people’s lives in the near east — there was no such thing as indoor plumbing in those days and animals need a great deal of water to thrive. But more significantly than that, it was around a well that God revealed himself to Hagar (Genesis 21:19), it was around a well that God provided a place in the land for Abraham (Genesis 21:25-31), it was around a well that Isaac first encounters Rachael (Genesis 29:9), and it is even around a well that Moses would meet Zipporah (Exodus 2:16-22). God is establishing a pattern here by which we will better see and anticipate his hand at work — in this case around a well.
Here, then, God shows his faithfulness to Eliezer. How often God has also shown his faithfulness to us as well, though perhaps not next to a well wondering who will be the bride for our master’s son. Instead, God has provided for our needs, he has preserved us from harm, he has healed our wounds, and he has shown us his Son, Jesus, giving us new life in Him. How good it is to serve a king who never fails his people but draws them faithfully toward himself.
I suppose that I should make one qualification up front. And that is that I personally know a number of non-Christians who are very thankful people and who thoroughly enjoy the celebration of this American holiday. There can be no doubting the deep Christian roots of this event, but regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof), there is much in life to be thankful for as Americans. I should also state up front that many people (Christians included) live out their lives holding to a variety of inconsistencies without paying them any mind or suffering as a result of said inconsistencies — such is the natural end of living in a post-modern world. My intent here is not so much to argue the merits of a thoroughly consistent worldview, but rather to raise the question of Thanksgiving for the atheist, assuming the value of a consistent worldview.
To begin with, there are several categories by which we may mark our thankfulness. The first, we could think of as “personal thankfulness,” which would reflect a certain sense of satisfaction for having made choices or having done something that brought benefits to your life. “I am so glad that I chose such-and-such a restaurant for dinner” or “I am thankful that I chose to strive for this goal” are the kinds of mental thoughts that would accompany this kind of thankfulness. This thankfulness is good and important, but I would suggest that it makes up a smaller percentage of the state of our thankfulness than one might initially think. Simply put, often that restaurant was suggested by a friend or we were helped to the particular goal by others and the timing was perfect for you to be successful. Thus, this kind of thankfulness often is at least partially dependent on events or persons outside of you as an individual.
And that, then, leads us to the second kind of thankfulness: thankfulness toward others. This reflects the kind of thankfulness that is directed towards another human being who has done something that has benefitted you. It might be a nice gift, but it also might be found in the form of advice, counsel, or even a rebuke. As I look back on my life, I am very thankful toward certain friends of mine who had the integrity to tell me that I was about to make a stupid mistake if I took this or that action. I might not have felt thankful at the moment, we seldom do when people speak truth to us, but over time, once my ego stopped swelling and my self-defense mechanisms returned to their proper place, I realized the wisdom of what was told to me and was thankful to have such friends.
Yet, again, this kind of thankfulness, while common to our experience, likely does not make up as large a proportion of our total thankfulness as we might think. The reality is that even in cases like this, there are still elements of providence (the atheist would likely call them coincidence) that are outside of the control of either you or the person toward whom you are thankful. For example, there are chance meetings that brought about conversations that led to the advice (or whatever) you happened to be given. And how did you make such a friendship? The singular friendship that I have maintained from my years at the University is that of a lady with whom I happened to get lost on campus. It seems that the two of us were given wrong information as to where a certain English class was to meet and we both ended up in the wrong corridor together at the same time. The typo on our course-lists, the fact that neither of us had received the correction (when most of the class did), and the timing by which we bumped into each other were all elements that were outside of our direct or indirect influence. I am thankful for all of these events because she and I have kept up correspondence over the years and have encouraged one another as we have both gone our separate ways in life. If we are honest as we survey the landscape of our experience, there are numerous such events that can be traced in our lives for which we are surely thankful. Again, some would call these things coincidence, from a Christian perspective, I choose to use the term “providence.”
Thus far, at least in the immediate sense of personal satisfaction and thankfulness to someone for kindness, there is no contradiction between the atheistic worldview and said thankfulness. In fact, were an atheist choosing not to be thankful for these things, one would have to draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person’s thinking. Yet here is where the consistency comes to an end, for how is it that someone can direct their thankfulness toward someone (or something) in which he does not believe? Let me explain.
If I am given a gift, while I am thankful for the gift, I will typically express that thanks toward the one from whom the gift came (to do otherwise would be considered rude). That is easy enough to do when a friend or neighbor gives something to us, but what about when providence shines its face upon our lives? To whom (or to what) does the atheist express his thanks? Arguably, one of the reasons that ancient man began worshipping idols was to solve this dilemma. At least in the stone representation of that which his imagination dictated was the source of good things, one could then direct one’s thanksgiving. Yet, the atheist does not set up idols of wood or stone.
The likely answer to this dilemma that the modern atheist will bring to the table falls into one of two categories. One view is to argue that all things are determined by a sequence of cause and effects and thus these things took place and they could not have not taken place. This worldview is referred to as “fatalism” and is a form of deterministic approach. The atheist who holds to this view ought, then, be thankful for nothing (for what happened logically must have happened and could not have been otherwise) or recognize that their thankfulness also is simply a result of chemical interactions that are a result of causes (and again could not have been otherwise), thus making the idea of thankfulness devoid of meaning (it is simply an experience). Any discussion of thanksgiving, from a fatalistic perspective, reduces itself to meaningless absurdity and is thus neither internally consistent nor helpful if one is trying to be consistent with their worldview.
The second, and arguably more palatable, solution of the dilemma as to whom shall we express our thankfulness is to argue that what I am referring to as “providence” is nothing more than pure random chance and thus, I am not thankful to chance, but thankful for chance, in turn, never directing one’s thanksgiving toward someone or something. Yet, how can one be thankful for something that is purely random? Even the craps-shooter praises “Lady Luck” for his good-fortune with the dice. It is not that which is random that we are thankful for, but we are thankful for that which guides or superintends that which is perceived to be random. Granted that the atheist will likely counter that we simply perceive someone guiding “chance events,” but our perception is little more than a figment of our own imaginations. Certainly, the question as to whether God is a figment of our imagination or not is a discussion to be pursued, but not here because this response of the atheist is meant to do little more than to distract from the question at hand: can an atheist be thankful in a meaningful way while still being consistent within his atheism. The answer to the matter must be “no,” for thankfulness must be directed outside of oneself, particularly for the events and circumstances that we have no control over. I am thankful, for example, that I was born and raised in the United States of America in a middle-class home with a family who loved me. This very fact has afforded me opportunities that I would not have had were circumstances different. Yet there is not one aspect of these circumstances that I can say that I had any control over. I might thank my parents for loving me and for their choice to reside in America, but their choice to do so was also based on events that were outside of their sphere of influence (where there were jobs, etc…).
So, where does that lead us? No, I do not expect a run of atheists coming into the church, giving up their unbelief, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior because their worldview has inconsistencies. Sure, it could happen, but that would be a work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of a logical argument. In addition, it should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who can appeal to this kind of argument, any religious institution that envisions their gods interacting with the lives of men can appeal in similar ways. My purpose is to appeal to what I believe is an inward desire that we each have — and that is to have a worldview that is consistent with experience, reason, and itself. I have had atheists say to me, “I am thankful for my inconsistency,” but deep down, is that a very satisfying way to live? Is intellectual inconsistency either satisfying or something to thank oneself for? I would suggest it is not and would counter that intellectual consistency is not only satisfying, but it is something we desire deep down (and ought to because we are made in the image of a God who is perfectly consistent with himself).