Benefits of Thanksgiving

Williamsburg Conference 2004

Trevor Brierly


Col. 3:12-17

    Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. [13] Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. [14] And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

    [15] Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. [16] Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. [17] And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.


Over and over again in Scripture we hear the command to "be thankful".  Why?  Why should we be thankful?  For some people the fact that God has commanded us to be thankful is enough.  We hear and we obey.  But I think it is entirely appropriate for us to investigate a little further, and try to understand why God tells us so often to be thankful.  David writes in the 119th Psalm:


Psalm 119:15

    I meditate on your precepts

        and consider your ways.


Based on this passage and others, I've always felt that it was appropriate for us to ask questions about God's commandments and the reasons behind them.


Lets ask another question: does God need our thankfulness?  The answer of course is, no, God doesn't need anything from us. 


However, David writes in Psalm 69:


Psalm 69:30-31

    I will praise God's name in song

        and glorify him with thanksgiving.

    [31] This will please the Lord more than an ox,

        more than a bull with its horns and hoofs.


God appreciates our thanksgiving, it pleases him.  It is one of the ways that we show Him we love Him.  So it does benefit Him.  But as with so many things, when we give to God, we also benefit.  The things we give to God, such as praise and worship, our sacrifices of time, energy, money and sanity, these things also benefit us.  They bring us closer to God.  They transform our character, our minds and spirits.  They are part of our spiritual growth.


I have come to understand while reading and reflecting in preparation for this talk that thankfulness is one of the most powerful means we have for our spiritual transformation.  I have come to realise that developing an "attitude of gratitude" can radically change our character. While preparing for this talk, I settled down and brainstormed a list of the benefits that can arise from having a spirit of thankfulness.  Since I'm a generalist, I then tried to discover the links and commonalities between the various things I listed.  And it ocurred to me that what all these things have in common is that developing an attitude of thankfulness is a way of learning to concentrate our attention on the positive things in our life, to have a positive outlook. Through the act of thanksgiving, repeated over and over again until it becomes a way of life, we can acquire a mindset which emphasizes what God has done for us, what God has given to us, rather than what we don't have, what we might feel we deserve.  In short, thanksgiving helps us to shift our thinking from the negative to the positive.


This is what Paul is talking about when he speaks of "overflowing with thankfulness".   He writes to the Colossians:


Col. 2:6-7

    So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, [7] rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.


This is more than just simply listing some things we are thankful for in our daily prayers.  The image that we are given is of a brook which is bubbling over its banks.  It is thankfulness as a way of life, deep and radical thankfulness.


So let's take a closer look at thankfulness as a way of life.  What happens to us when we begin to be deeply thankful? 


Thankfulness glorifies God.


When we are thanking God, we are glorifying him.  To glorify God means to make His goodness and righteousness known by recounting and meditating on what He has done for us.  The Israelites worshipped and magnified God through public thanksgiving, by reminding themselves of what He had done for them.  Not just personally, but for the nation as a whole, throughout its history, beginning with the promises made to Abraham, through their rescue from out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. One of these public prayers of thanksgiving can be found in 1 Chronicles 16:


1 Chron. 16:8-9

    Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;

        make known among the nations what he has done.

    [9] Sing to him, sing praise to him;

        tell of all his wonderful acts.


The Israelites gave thanks to God for what He had done for them, and recounted these events to eachother many times and regularly.  Not because God needs to be continually thanked, but because by thanking God for his "wonderful acts", the Israelites were affirming again that Yahweh was their God, and they were His children.  They were acknowledging that the God who had covenanted with their ancestor Abraham, and who had rescued their people from Egypt, was their God and that He had remained faithful to the covenant.  This strengthened the bond between God and the Israelites and when they forgot to thank God, they gradually slipped away from Him.


Similarly, our thanksgiving glorifies God.  We should never be afraid to thank God publically, for this glorifies Him.  (Note: It was a prominent part of the service in the 1st century church, see 1 Cor 14:16) By giving thanks to God for the "wonderful acts" He has done in our lives, we affirm that God is our God, and we are His children.  We remind ourselves that He has been faithful to the covenant He made with us at baptism (even though we have often failed to be faithful to that covenant).  Our attention is drawn to God and his faithfulness.


Thankfulness is "applied humility".


Through thankfulness, we recognise that what is good in our lives comes ultimately from God, not from our own efforts.  It reminds us of our proper place as receivers of His providence, his  provide-ance”.  Humility is not the same as putting ourselves down (that is either false humility or self-hatred), but rather a recognition of our proper place in the scheme of things ("a little lower than the angels").  Humility is about having a "right relationship" with God, neither lifting ourselves up higher than we ought, nor lowering God to our level.


As Paul wrote to the Romans:


Romans 12:3

    For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.


Paul uses the phrase "sober judgment".  "Sober judgment" of ourselves is an honest assessment of ourselves which comes when we recognise that whatever we have been blessed with comes from God ultimately.  Thankfulness helps us put the focus on God, not on ourselves. It helps us to never be too proud of ourselves.  Instead it can help us be humbly and deeply grateful for our blessings, and more willing to use them to do His work.


Thankfulness helps us develop peace and contentment


We always have a choice before us when we examine our lives and situations.   Choice between envy and discontent on the one hand, and contentment on the other hand.  With envy and discontent comes greed and ungodly ambition.  The end of this path is idolatry and grief.

This is a particular temptation for those of us here in the wealthiest nations that have ever existed.  We have so much, yet our neighbours always have more.  Our civilization has developed a sophisticated and powerful system which is designed to awaken desire and envy.  This is the motto of materialism: There is always one more thing out there that you really want.


Yet Paul says: 


1 Tim. 6:6-10

    But godliness with contentment is great gain. [7] For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. [8] But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. [9] People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. [10] For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.


(Note: pierced themselves, this is a powerful image.)


Paul's life was characterized by thankfulness, often thanking God, and encouraging others to thank God.  Also characterized by contentment, and I think there is a connection between the two.  Gratitude helps us develop contentment.  Thankfulness helps us to focus on what we have, to be satisfied with what we have already been given. 


And there is an even more dangerous form of discontent.  I'm speaking here of a creeping discontent that makes us unhappy with our lives, with our marriages, with our life-situation.  This kind of discontent may be the result of boredom, resentment, jealousy or anger.  It festers, draining the joy out of life.  And sometimes it  breaks forth to ruin lives and families through divorce or abandonment or other things.  It is a discontent which comes about through a continual focus on the negative, on what we think isn't going right.  To break this kind of discontent, it is helpful to learn to become thankful for that which you do have, learning to love and appreciate again what you have come to despise or hate.  This is not often easy, to undo the knot, but learning thankfulness is a powerful tool when trying to overcome this kind of problem.


Thankfulness increases faith and trust in God


When we are thankful to God, we remember how He has helped us in the past.  This helps us to trust Him in the future.  Not only how He has helped us personally, but also His provision for  Israel and for the Ecclesia, all of His children and our brethren throughout the ages.


David was an example of one with great faith


Psalm 28:7

    The Lord is my strength and my shield;

        my heart trusts in him, and I am helped.

    My heart leaps for joy

        and I will give thanks to him in song.


Helps us to overcome anger with God, or spiritual deadness.


We will sometimes pass through periods of "spiritual deadness".  These are times when we can't seem to do any of the things we should be doing.  We can't praise or pray or sing or read or confess.  We don't want to think about God or come to meeting.  Sometimes this comes because we are angry with God, sometimes just through other more subtle factors.  These are dangerous times, and many have been lost during these times.   There is no single answer that applies to each person or each circumstance.   But I do believe that part of the answer can be thanksgiving.   I have found when I am in these times that all I can do is simply thank God for the things that He has given me.   This small slender thread of connection with God means we haven't cut ourselves off from God completely.    If we can still thank God, then that is a foundation upon which later on a basis for healing and restoration can be built.    Again, what we are doing is focusing on the positive through thanksgiving.  Perhaps through thanksgiving even anger with God can be overcome.   If we are angry with God, but at some level know that we shouldn't be, and don't want to be, then perhaps thanksgiving can help shift the focus from where we feel God has wronged us, to the places where he has blessed us.


Thankfulness can help us deal with anxiety.


Paul writes to the Philippians:


Philip. 4:6-7

    Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. [7] And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


Thankfulness can be an antidote to anxiety.  Instead of worrying, we can present our requests to God and trust in Him to take care of us.  Through thanksgiving we remember what He has done for us already, the care that He has already shown us.  This helps us to be less anxious.


Thankfulness can be an antidote to sinfulness and foolishness.


Ephes. 5:15-20

    Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, [16] making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. [17] Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. [18] Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. [19] Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, [20] always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Dealing with sin is never easy.  We spend alot of time struggling against ourselves, trying to overcome those parts of ourselves that don't want to do God's will.  Paul suggests something else which will help.  He says that we are to "be filled with the Spirit" instead.  I think that what he means here (and in other places where he talks about being filled with the Spirit) is that if you want to have a godly character and get rid of negative aspects of yourself, then fill your life with positive things.  You may eventually find that the power the negative things have over you dwindles, as you focus on other things.  In the passage we just read Paul emphasizes the role of music, of filling our mental lives with psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, with thanksgiving.  These things have a power to transform us, not least because we are not focusing on negative things, but also because spiritual music and thanksgiving have the power to change our minds.


So we've worked our way through a list of the benefits of thanksgiving.  We've seen that thanksgiving is a powerful tool for helping us to concentrate on what is best, and for helping us to grow closer to our beloved heavenly Father and develop godly characters.


In conclusion, let me encourage you to make this year a year of thanksgiving.  Concentrate this year on acquiring an "attitude of gratitude", a mindset which is characterized by thankfulness, "overflowing with thankfulness".  If this seems hard to you, if you feel that you are in the grip of a spirit of envy or discontent or anger or resentment or anything that is keeping you from gratitude as a way of life, then make it a priority to do something about that.  Pray to God about it.  Talk to a trusted friend about it.  There are resources available to help you deal with whatever, from God directly and through His servants.  But one of the steps you can take is to begin to thank God for what you have, to learn to have an attitude of gratitude.


1 Thes. 5:16-18

    Be joyful always; [17] pray continually; [18] give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.