Thanksgiving and Ordering our Way
“You shall understand this, ones who forget God, lest I tear you and there be nothing to deliver: he glorifies me who makes a sacrifice of thanksgiving and who orders his way; I will show him the salvation of God.
It comes across as a broken record, but lest we forget the significance of this psalm for us today, recall that these words are spoken to God’s covenant people — not to the pagans. Yet, God calls his own, “those who forget God.” How have they forgotten God? As we have seen, they are going through the motions of sacrifice and ritual but their hearts and their lives to not reflect their devotion to the one they claim to serve and their actions look like the actions of the pagans.
How appropriate these words are for the church as well. How often the church behaves as if they do not believe that God exists. How often non-believers in our communities act with more compassion and morality than folks in the church? How often the old axiom is true that the Church kills its wounded rather than caring for them. How often it is that the conservative church rightly protects its doctrine and utterly neglects living that doctrine out in life. How often the people of God behave more like goats than sheep.
And so, God issues a warning in these final verses of the psalm. Do this, he says, lest you be torn to shreds and there be nothing left of you to redeem — fearful words spoken by God on high. They are a reminder of the unfaithful prophet who was not to eat or drink in Israel yet disobeyed (see 1 Kings 13) or of the young boys who mocked Elisha (see 2 Kings 2:23-25) and it is also a reminder of the punishment for failing to fulfill the covenant (Genesis 15:7-11) — that is, one’s life be forfeit. God is saying that if your life does not reflect these two things that you are an imposter amongst the people of God’s grace and are thus deserving of death for your wickedness. Ought then we not pay close attention to what these two things are?
What are those two things? We are called to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving and to order our ways. The latter command is the more obvious of the two. How do we order our ways but than by obedience to the law of God. Of what is our sacrifice of thanksgiving? While the book of Leviticus does prescribe thanksgiving offerings (see Leviticus 7:12-15; 22:29), more often than not, especially once we are in the New Testament context where altar sacrifices have been abolished by the sacrifice of Christ, you find the sacrifice of thanksgiving in the context of giving God praise. And thus, twice in this psalm we are called to praise God with thanksgiving as well as in Psalm 107:22 and in Psalm 116:17. Jonah too, speaks of making a sacrifice of thanksgiving with his voice (Jonah 2:9) and thus the author of Hebrews instructs us that we are to offer a sacrifice of praise as the fruit of our lips (Hebrews 13:15).
The question with which we are left then, is, “Are we doing those two things?” And recognize that this is a question to be posed to the church as a whole. Are we doing that both individually and corporately. And if not, then shall we repent? If we are the true church, we will.
A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving
“Do I eat the flesh of the mighty? Do I drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice to God thanksgiving and make peace with the Most High with your vows. Call to me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you and you shall honor me.”
And thus, the desire of God has more to do with the heart behind the sacrifice, not the ritual itself. Yet, we should ask, what is a “sacrifice of thanksgiving”? That might sound like an odd question, but given that it is handled in so many ways in Christ’s church today, perhaps it would be wise for us to see how the Bible defines such a thing.
Typically, in levitical law, sacrifices of thanksgivings were understood as grain offerings or bread offerings (see Leviticus 7:12). Yet, as we move through Jewish history, by the time of David there is an emphasis on singing thanksgiving in the worship of God (see 1 Chronicles 16:7 and 2 Chronicles 5:13). In fact, in the latter verse, the idea of praise and thanksgiving are wed together. Likewise, in the reestablishment of the Temple, Nehemiah establishes a body of Levites in charge of songs of thanksgiving (Nehemiah 12:8).
In fact, while the old food offerings are not totally forgotten in the latter parts of the Old Testament, for instance, we still see Amos joining the food offering with praises (Amos 4:5), the singing of praise becomes the dominant way in which God’s people express their thanksgiving. Psalm 26:7 speaks of telling of the wondrous deeds of God as thanksgiving, Psalm 69:30 speaks of magnifying God’s name with thanksgiving, Psalm 95:2 equates songs of praise with thanksgiving as does Psalm 100:4. Psalms 107:22 and 116:17 speak of a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” in the context of singing praises and Psalm 147 speaks of singing to the Lord with thanksgiving accompanied to the sound of the lyre.
Probably the most profound statement, though, on this matter, comes from the prophet Jonah. Being supernaturally preserved in the depths of the sea, held in the belly of the great fish, Jonah cries out to God in repentance and states: “with a voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you.” There is no other way to interpret this passage but that of a song of praise. His very context precludes anything but a song (or most likely a psalm) of praise.
When we combine this Old Testament context with the language of the New Testament, the idea is only reinforced. The author of Hebrews writes that the fruit of our lips is a sacrifice of praise. What a contrast that is to the mouth of the wicked, which breathes out lies and venom (Romans 3:13). Indeed, how naturally this language fits with what we are commanded by Paul in Colossians 3:16 that we are to come together with singing and thankfulness in our hearts.
Vows too, play an important role in the worship of God’s people and are often mentioned. Note that Jonah, in the passage above, also promises to fulfill the vows that he made and Hosea speaks about returning to the Lord not only with sacrifice but with a commitment to fulfilling the vows of our lips (Hosea 14:2). If we look at the language of the thanksgiving in the Old Testament psalms, you will notice that vows are repeatedly incorporated into them — vows to obedience and vows to tell others of the goodness of God. Shall we not do the same.
And, when we cry out to God in our time of distress, should we expect anything else but to honor him as our response to his deliverance? How often, professing Christians have a view of God as a celestial power that exists to meet their personal needs. The Bible, in contrast, presents mankind as persons designed to submit to the Almighty God and to worship him. A God that exists to serve us is not worthy of worship and thanksgiving, but a God who is sovereign and demands our praise and thanksgiving is a God that can also demand our obedience. You are either submitting to the whole of God’s revealed will or you are bowing down to an idol of your own making; we cannot have it both ways.
As Americans, we have many reasons to spend time giving thanks. We have freedoms that we enjoy, both religious and secular. We have an abundance of wealth and resources here — I’ve spent time overseas in a number of places and even the poor in America have far more resources than the poor elsewhere. We need to be grateful for that, though not use that as an excuse to ignore the poor in our midst. Did our Lord not say that we will always have such as these around us? And don’t the Scriptures demand that we care for those who cannot care for themselves?
In most of our cases, this day is a day where we gather with friends and/or family members and celebrate the blessings we have been given around a table laden with food. I think that it is safe to say that the abundance which most Americans enjoy is unsurpassed in this world. So, as I sit here, reflecting this morning before I put our own family’s turkey in the oven, what concerns me the most is that in America, most people will spend the day oblivious to the great spiritual truths for which we ought to be grateful.
Yes, it is true, that in many homes, some sort of a recited “grace” will be offered, asking God to bless our food. Giving God thanks is proper. In many homes as well, there will be a time where people share those things for which they have been grateful — family, jobs, friends, a warm home, and good food. And again, it is right to be thankful for these things. But is there not more?
Of all the Psalms that we have, only one of them is explicitly listed as a “Psalm for Thanksgiving” or as a “Psalm for Giving Thanks” (depending on your translation). That is Psalm 100. Sure, there are many other psalms that speak of giving thanks, do not misunderstand me, but only one whose superscript contains these words.
What is more interesting than that happens to be what the Psalmist gives thanks for. He does not give thanks for friends and family and food and homes — those things for which we normally give thanks — but he ultimately gives thanks for the character and goodness of God and commands that we respond with worship — not just with a prayer around the table…but with worship.
I wonder what it would look like in America if at every Thanksgiving Table, Psalm 100 was at the heart of the prayer of thankfulness — and it was sincerely prayed. I think that the time of worship would overshadow the time of eating. But that is what I think — I’m the preacher, I’m supposed to think like this. But what would it look like if all of us as Christians thought like this? I wonder if God would bless that with revival in our land or in our communities. How interesting it is when Christians speak about desiring revival, yet never act in such a way that would engender revival in their own lives. In most cases, where we were speaking about someone else, what would we call that? Hypocrisy? Maybe? This year, may we not be hypocrites. May we genuinely desire revival and in doing so, may we reorder our lives in such a way as to make the soil of our hearts and family fertile ground for God’s seed to be planted therein.
The Problem of Thanksgiving for the Unbeliever
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).