From its inception as a holiday, Thanksgiving has provided occasion to express gratitude for food, family, friends, freedom, and, more recently, football. Indeed, ask any Christian about the object of their appreciation this time of year, and their minds will most often drift to things like good health, stable employment, edifying relationships, etc. And such material things are blessings, aren’t they? But is this what biblical thanksgiving is all about?
Surveying the “tweet-deck” the other day, I found what I believe to be a helpful biblical corrective to the tradition American view of “thanksgiving” from pastor/author Michael Youssef: “Biblical thanksgiving does not focus on our circumstances, but on the character of God. Circumstances change; God does not.”
Now, undoubtedly, the Bible does not discourage thankfulness for material or earthly things. The psalms illustrate this principle, as they often praise God for deliverance, shelter, children, and life itself. Yet, though quick to praise God for the “lack of no good things” (Psalm 34:3), the psalmists rarely stop there. In fact, his praise and thanksgiving for earthly things always results in pleas to “magnify the Lord with me” (Psalm 34:3).
The greater point that Youssef is making though is perhaps even more crucial. If we just thanked God for just good things and in good times, what happens when things and times aren’t so peachy? Can we have thankful hearts when the previous year saw the loss of a job, the death of a spouse, a serious sickness, brokenness, and deep sorrow? This question is much more pressing, as many more people in our fallen world are suffering than are not.
Youssef, and the Bible, answer this question, “Yes!” Job, the standard bearer of suffering in the Bible, states, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). So in loss of everything or gain, Job blesses God. How can Job have this attitude? Because He trusts in God’s unchanging character in his changing circumstances.
Paul in prison exhorts his fellow Christians to “rejoice always” (Philippians 4:4) and to fill their prayers with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6) even though he himself had few earthly things for which to be thankful, except things like imprisonment, beatings, and persecution. The reason is that he had counted the material and temporal as “dung” for the sake of the unchanging Christ (Philippians 3:7-8).
Thus, though he might encounter sword, suffering, or even death itself, Paul thanked God that he possessed all he needed and desired in God Himself and Christ (see the latter part of Romans 8).
This Thanksgiving Day, may our hearts be directed to thank God for provision and protection, jobs and joy, turkey and toys. But most of all let us praise Him for who He is—the unchanging “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us will all the spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).
A native of Austell, Ga., Bryan Cribb came to Anderson University following a five-year tenure at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga. Dr. Cribb holds a BA in political science and a BS in mathematics from Furman University in Greenville, S.C. After being called into the ministry, he received his master of divinity in biblical and theological studies and his doctor of philosophy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His primary emphasis in PhD work was Old Testament theology, with minor areas of study in New Testament theology and Old Testament languages.
Dr. Cribb is married to Elizabeth, and they have three sons—Daniel Luther, Josiah John, and Nathanael Bryan. Elizabeth is an RN and a stay-at-home mom, who also holds a master of divinity degree from Southern Seminary.