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What does the Bible say about thanksgiving?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Chris Elkins: Hello, my name is Chris Elkins, and I am with Denison Forum, and I’m here today with Dr. Jim Denison. Jim, it’s that season of the year that the word thanksgiving is on the minds of all of us as we approach such a big holiday. But I have a question to ask you. Is it fair to say that thanksgiving is the will of God no matter our circumstances?

Should we always be thankful?

Dr. Jim Denison: It’s a great question, especially these days, right? Given what’s going on in the world, given what happens, really, across this fallen world on a given basis, on an annual basis. But especially in difficult times. When we look around at ourselves, we think, well, isn’t that naive? Isn’t that kind of a ridiculous thing, to have this idea that we should be genuinely thankful at a day like this. And yet, really, when you think about it, Thanksgiving is the only American holiday, anyway, that’s mandated by Scripture.

The Bible nowhere requires us to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In fact, it was a long time into Christian history before Christians began actually doing that. The Bible doesn’t even require us to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as a specific day, a specific holiday. Every Sunday is the Lord’s day and celebrating the fact that our Lord rose from the dead on a Sunday. Fourth of July obviously isn’t in the Bible anywhere. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day.

You can find biblical references to those principles, but, as a holiday, as it were, as an expression, specifically, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” That’s a present tense imperative in the Greek. When it says give thanks, it could be translated “continually give thanks.” And again, it’s an order. It’s an imperative. And it says “in all circumstances,” not just when your year is going well, not just when you’re feeling well, not just when your family’s together, not just when your bank account is good, or the economy is roaring, or any of that. Give thanks in all circumstances, Paul said.

He wrote that to believers in Thessalonica, Thessaloniki as it is said in Greece, I’ve been there many times over the years, as we’ve led people on study tours into Greece and Turkey. I can tell you that the Thessalonian Christians were not facing pleasant circumstances. Paul had been ridden out of the city. There was a great deal of opposition to Christianity at that point in their history. And yet Paul says to them what he says to us today: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” That is the command of God for you and for me today.

Since thanksgiving is the will of God, why is it so important?

It kind of seems egotistical, doesn’t it, a little bit. God commands us to be thankful to him, kind of like some egotist that wants to always be thanked, rewarded, complimented, for who he is, what he is—and that’s categorically not the case.

The Lord, first of all, wishes us to worship him because to worship anybody else is idolatry. To worship anybody else draws us away from the one source of our lives and the God who is the God of all life and the God of eternal life as well. And so he calls us then to thanksgiving and gratitude because that’s what’s best for us.

But there’s also a story in the gospel of Luke that I think really helps us with thanksgiving. It’s in Luke 17, that familiar account of Jesus healing the ten lepers. Only one of them returned to give thanks.

And Jesus, speaking to that leper, after he says, “Where were the others? Did the others not come to give thanks?” He says to this one—who was a Samaritan by the way, who was an outcast in their day, and in their religious culture—says to this person, “Your faith has made you well.”

The Greek can be translated: your faith has healed you or your faith has saved you. Your faith, your thanksgiving, has positioned you to experience the fullness of God’s grace. God calls us to be thankful because, when we’re thankful, we position ourselves to experience his best, to experience all that he wants to give us, and what he wants to give us is always for our best.

In this nation, we have a lot to be thankful for, but why do you think so many people fail to be thankful?

Well, if you go back to the parable, there are three reasons that come to mind. One is busyness.

These ten lepers had been healed by the Lord Jesus. Now, they want to get back to their lives. They want to get back to their family, back to maybe their jobs, their homes, back to all that they’ve lost, all that they have missed during this time they’ve been dealing with this dread disease. Same thing can happen to us. We can be so busy in our lives. We can be so busy in the blessings of God and the provisions of God that we forget to thank the God who has given all of this to us.

Leads to a second thought, and that is self-sufficiency.

It’s so easy for us to think that we earned what we have, that we worked hard for it. We got up early. We stayed up late. We worked harder. It’s ours. We’ve earned it. We don’t really owe thanks to anybody but God, when everything we have is from him.

I’m an American. I’ve lived my life in America. I didn’t earn the right to be born in America and not North Korea. I didn’t earn the right to be born to parents who would love me rather than abuse me. I didn’t earn the right to have capacities and abilities and not deal with physical difficulties that so many people deal with in this world. I didn’t earn the right to have the religious freedom that I have by which I can have this conversation with you that so many people in the world do not share. And so it’s so easy for us to think that we have earned what we’ve received and therefore to miss the thanksgiving that God intends for us to offer.

But then a third reason that comes to mind quickly. As I said before, thanksgiving positions us to receive God’s best, to receive all that he can give us that he can’t give us if we’re not close enough to him to receive that.

I think a lot of people just don’t know that. They’ve been healed physically and don’t know what it is to be healed spiritually. They’ve received some blessing and don’t know what it is to experience the abundant life Jesus came to give us. So let’s not do that. Let’s not let ourselves be so busy this season, so self-sufficient, that we miss all that God gives to those who position themselves to receive his very best.

You know, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, you know, to give thanks in all circumstances, not necessarily for all circumstances. Why do you think it’s required in all circumstances?

Now that’s an important point isn’t it? It doesn’t say all things are good. It says we can give thanks in all things, whether they are good or bad. Romans 8 says that God works through all things for good, not that all things are good. You think of Jesus sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s certainly true that following Jesus, knowing him, does not mean that our circumstances will always be that for which we would give thanks. But we can give thanks in them because we serve the Lord who is the lord of them. He is the Lord of our circumstances. He is on his throne no matter what’s going on in our world. And he will redeem them. He redeems all that he allows, and he will work through them to his glory and to our good if we will give thanks in them.

Psalm 100 says that we “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” Thanksgiving is the means by which we experience the presence of God. It’s the way we plug into his power source. It’s the way we walk into his holy of holies. It’s the way we experience the very presence of the God of the universe. And so if we will give thanks in our circumstances, we will experience God in our circumstances. And when we do that, we receive his very best.