Gunner is a three-month-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel owned by Richard Wilbanks of Estero, Florida. “We were just out walking by the pond,” Wilbanks told CNN, and an alligator “came out of the water like a missile. I never thought an alligator could be that fast.”
The animal grabbed Gunner and dragged him underwater. Richard said adrenaline or instinct kicked in, and “I just automatically jumped into the water.” He pried open the alligator’s jaws, which he said was “extremely hard” and left his hands “chewed up.” However, he saved his puppy, who had a puncture wound in his belly but is doing fine after a trip to the veterinarian’s office.
Watching the dramatic video, the thought occurred to me: Gunner will never need to wonder if Richard Wilbanks loves him.
Why Thanksgiving was odd for me
A farmer was showing his pastor a plot of ground he had spent the last year cultivating from a patch of tangled briars and weeds into a beautiful garden. The pastor commented on what a wonderful work God had done. The farmer replied, “Reverend, you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.”
Thanksgiving is an odd holiday for secular Americans. I know—I used to be one.
Our family never attended worship services when I was growing up, but we always observed Thanksgiving—at least the food and football. I remember wondering why we should be thankful to a God I had never experienced (so far as I knew) for what we had through our own hard work.
I’m not alone. When asked what Thanksgiving means to them personally, Americans rank “to be thankful” behind “to spend time with the family.” Our families are tangible, and we enjoy sharing a generic feeling of gratitude with them.
However, this feeling passes quickly. Someone might say a prayer over the meal, which then becomes the focus of the event, followed (and often preceded) by football. The reason Thanksgiving is not more memorable for more people is that many misunderstand its true nature and significance.
Cutting flowers at the roots
Scripture calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We are to “give” thanks, not “feel” thanks. The holiday is Thanksgiving, not Thanksfeeling.
True thanksgiving requires an object, just like friendship or love. We do not feel friendship generically—we feel friendship toward a friend. We do not feel love in an abstract or impersonal sense—we feel love for a person we love.
The problem is that to give thanks ultimately requires us to acknowledge the existence and relevance of the God to whom we owe such thanks. We won’t celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday by thanking our employers for our jobs or our doctors for our health. There is something spiritual about true thanksgiving.
However, this is a dilemma for secular people. They want the experience of thanksgiving—a sense of gratitude shared with family and friends—without the reality upon which it is based. They want experience apart from reality in other ways as well, as when they seek sexual intimacy without marriage.
Many will do the same with Christmas. I was walking in my neighborhood yesterday and passed a yard sign for the company that installed Christmas lights on the roofline of the house. I noticed that the sign advertised “Holiday Lights,” not Christmas lights. We will hear “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” over the coming weeks.
This is not primarily because we don’t want to offend our Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu neighbors, since they make up less than 6 percent of all Americans. It is because secular people want the experience of Christmas without the reality of Christ. They want to enjoy the birthday party while ignoring the guest of honor.
Our culture cuts the flowers off at the roots and then wonders why they die.
Is God a cosmic egotist?
As a means to choosing thanksgiving over thanksfeeling, this week we’ll explore reasons to be grateful to the God who deserves our thanks. For today, let’s close by asking, Why does God seek our gratitude?
His word commands us to “give thanks to the Lord” (Psalm 107:1), to “offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Psalm 50:14), and to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). Is this because God is a cosmic egotist whose feelings must be placated?
On the contrary: Giving thanks to God is best for us.
Like the farmer in today’s article, we are not truly thankful for what we believe we have earned by our own hard work. I may say “thank you” to someone who provides a commodity or service for which I paid, but I do not actually feel myself in their debt. When we try to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), the cardinal sin of the human condition, we are unwilling to be led, forgiven, healed, or helped by the God with whom we are competing for the throne of our lives.
But if we take time to recognize how much God has given us by his unmerited favor and to express genuine gratitude for such grace, we position ourselves as creatures before our Creator with the humility that seeks what we cannot earn but only receive. If we acknowledge that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), we will open our hearts and hands to receive his best.
Like Gunner, you owe your life to Someone who did for you what you could never do for yourself. Not just in this life, but in the life to come as well.
How will you respond to such grace today?
NOTE: For more on today’s topic, please see my latest video, “What does the Bible say about thanksgiving?“