Thanksgiving is upon us, and your preparations are likely underway. Maybe you’re cleaning your home in anticipation of the friends and family who will soon arrive. Maybe you’re cooking and baking in advance for all the mouths you’ll need to feed. Or perhaps you’ve simply staked out a comfortable place to watch football and gently slip into your food coma. Whatever the case, you likely have a plan for your Thanksgiving celebration this week.
But here’s a question far too few believers have considered: In all your plans for the big day, where is God? As you make elaborate preparations for a day set aside to celebrate your thankfulness, have you given much consideration for the One to whom your thanks belong?
Last month we considered what it means for believers to be in the world but not of it, and how our separation from the world ought to point others to the gospel. At the end of that study, we applied the principles to Halloween, looking for ways to adorn the gospel in the midst of the world’s celebration. Today, we want to help you think the same way about Thanksgiving.
Frankly, nothing pleases Satan more than the way the world celebrates Thanksgiving: a perfunctory word of thanks to a mysterious, unknown god, followed by a festival of gluttony, mindless entertainment, and self-indulgence.
That’s particularly tragic when you consider that Thanksgiving Day is one of the rare holidays—along with Christmas and Easter—when the unsaved world at least pays lip service to God’s existence. Many people will go through the motions of offering thanks to their deity of choice—some might even mean it. And in an increasingly godless culture, we cannot waste the rare opportunities when unsaved friends and family may be open to hearing the truth about God and His Word.
The pressing question then for believers is, How can we celebrate Thanksgiving in a distinctly Christian way—one that honors the Lord and adorns His gospel?
Legalism is not the answer, so don’t mistake this as a call to shun all the familiar trappings of Thanksgiving. Just as there is nothing inherently wicked about turkey and football, there’s nothing inherently godly about disconnecting your satellite dish for the day and serving gruel.
But at the same time, let’s work to keep those traditional elements in proper perspective. Let’s remind ourselves that, despite what some people think, there is no eternal merit in a perfectly cooked turkey, and no heavenly reward for watching every last minute of football (or whatever your preferred TV marathon is). On a day that’s largely been swallowed up in a tidal wave of man-pleasing and self-indulgence, believers need to stand apart.
That means we need to keep God at the forefront of the day, which, as John MacArthur explains in an article titled “Rekindling the Gratitude,” is one of the great blessings of the holiday to begin with:
The Thanksgiving season is a wonderful time to heighten your sensitivity to the blessings bestowed by God. Thanksgiving grabs your attention, shakes the cobwebs loose, and reminds you of all God’s most precious gifts. That’s one reason Thanksgiving has always held such a special place in my heart. It rekindles in me the kind of God-centered gratitude that our Lord demands and deserves—the kind that should readily be on our lips year round.
The author of Hebrews exhorts believers to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15). Paul echoes that sentiment in Colossians 3:17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” For those who know and love the Lord, Thanksgiving isn’t merely a holiday—it ought to be our perpetual attitude, as we consistently praise and thank God for His rich blessings and His work in our lives.
However, if we’re honest, that’s not a consistent pattern for most of us. It’s easy to forget how every day depends on God’s sustaining grace, and to fall out of a routine of thankful praise. Instead, we tend to focus our thanks on the “big” things, like monumental blessings and long-awaited answers to prayer. We ought to be embarrassed and ashamed by that tendency, and discipline ourselves to be more consistent and comprehensive in expressing our gratitude to the Lord.
With that in mind, here are some categories and examples to help shape your thankfulness—not just this week, but every day.
God It’s not hard to remember to thank God for what He’s done, but how often do we thank Him simply for who He is? The Psalmist instructs us to do just that: “Be glad in the Lord, you righteous ones, and give thanks to His holy name” (Psalm 97:12; cf. Psalm 30:4). Set aside time to dwell on God’s attributes, and thank Him for His holy character.
Scripture Obviously, believers are thankful for God’s inspired Word, and the truth it teaches us about Him, His Son, and His plan for our redemption (2 Timothy 3:16). But have you considered the day-to-day fruit of knowing and studying Scripture? John MacArthur explains:
Thanks to God, you and I have an eternal, objective, incontestable, irrevocable standard we can depend on for all matters of life. From the truth of Scripture we can understand the ebb and flow of life better than all the educators, philosophers, politicians, and social pundits combined. God’s Word offers us a window on the real issues people battle. We know how to be good employees, to love our spouses, to raise our families, to truly love our neighbors. Meaning in life is not a question, it's a fact.
The blessings of knowing and growing in God’s truth ought to be a source of unending thanks for every believer.
Christ & Salvation The apostle Paul perfectly sums up what ought to be the believer’s perpetual attitude: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57; cf. Colossians 1:12-14). Here’s how John MacArthur describes his thankfulness for God’s greatest gift to us:
No work of God’s is more beyond my comprehension yet closer to my heart and more worthy of gratitude than salvation. Before coming to know Christ, each of us lived in a self-imposed prison. Guilty, condemned, spiritually blind, and with no means to pay our debt, our destiny was one of eternal separation from God.
But Christ not only rescued us from the power and penalty of our sins, He also lifted us to a place of blessing. He delivered us from punishment and brought glory. He took away the threat of hell and gave us the hope of heaven. He dismissed us from divine wrath and brought us a divine benediction.
What’s more, through Christ we can have assurance of our salvation (John 6:37). Believers can rest in the confidence of Christ’s guarantee, which is another cause for thanksgiving.
Spiritual Growth We can rejoice that God doesn’t merely save us, but that through His Spirit and His Word, He refines and sharpens us for the work of His kingdom (1 Timothy 1:12-14). We should be ever-thankful that He doesn’t leave us in the infancy of our faith, but that He continues to sanctify us throughout the rest of our lives (Philippians 1:6).
We should also remember to be thankful in the midst of life’s storms (James 1:2-3). Here’s how John MacArthur explains this unlikely source of thanksgiving:
Perhaps the most difficult time to be thankful is when we're in the midst of a setback, a challenge, or a trial. When the storm comes, giving thanks is rarely our first reaction. Being thankful for adversity is never easy, but it is always right. From experience I know the difficult times are the ones in which God seems to be most at work in our lives, strengthening our weak spots, comforting our hurts, and drawing us to greater dependence.
Fellow Believers There’s another aspect of sanctification we don’t consider nearly enough—God’s work in others. The epistles are full of examples of praising the Lord for the evidence of His sanctifying work in other believers. Consider Paul’s encouraging words to the Thessalonians:
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
Rarely do Christians live in total spiritual isolation. God has surrounded most of us with brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. He’s forged those relationships for our growth, encouragement, accountability, and spiritual sharpening (Proverbs 27:17), and we ought to be thankful for it.
Everything And if you exhaust all those specific categories, Paul reminds you that you still haven’t scratched the surface of reasons to be thankful: “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
In the end, Thanksgiving Day presents us with an obvious opportunity to proclaim God’s grace and faithfulness through our thankfulness. And how we choose to celebrate ought to be driven by how we can best magnify His goodness and His gospel to the watching world.