While a meal of Thanksgiving had long been celebrated in America, it did not become a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln’s declaration in the midst of the Civil War. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln declared:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
It is striking to me that in the midst of division, Lincoln calls for the nation to give thanks to God the Father and intercede on behalf of others that God may heal our wounds and restore our unity.
Lincoln’s declaration reminds us of the power that giving thanks can have in the midst of difficult circumstances. While I’m not sure what inspired Lincoln’s declaration, he touches on many of the themes we find in the New Testament regarding giving thanks. On this Thanksgiving Day, reminding ourselves of who we give thanks to and what we give thanks for may just make a difference in our own divided nation.
Give thanks to God the Father
The pattern we see in the New Testament is giving thanks to God the Father through or in the name of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:8; Eph. 5:20; Co. 1:3). The motive for our thanks is the character and work of our great God. All of our blessings come from the Father through Jesus Christ and are secured by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3-14; 2 Thess. 2:13).
Always and In All Things
Giving thanks is the means by which we express our confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God. Our gratitude is not dependent on our circumstances—whether in want or plenty. We give thanks “always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20) and we do so because giving thanks in all circumstances is the will of God. Giving thanks always and in all things is an expression of our submission to God’s will.
For God’s Work In and Through Others
Many of Paul’s letters begin with thanksgiving, in which he thanks God for His work in and through believers. Thanksgiving turns our hearts not only towards God but towards others. He thanks God for the Corinthians “because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4). He thanks God for the Romans “because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom. 1:8). He thanks God for the Thessalonians “because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” (2 Thess. 1:3). He thanks God for Philemon because of his love and faith towards the Lord Jesus and love towards others (Phm. 4-5). Paul found ways to celebrate the work of God in others, even when there were reasons for correction and growth (just read the rest of 1 Corinthians).
These three aspects seem to come together so clearly in Colossians 3:15-17:
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching, and admonish one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
Notice that thankfulness guards the unity and peace believers enjoy together. We ought to give thanks to God for this unity and for the specific people with whom we enjoy it. When that unity is in jeopardy, it can only be retained by returning in gratitude to God who restores and rules in peace through Jesus Christ. Also, thankfulness is the gauge of how well the word of Christ is doing its work in and through us. When the gospel dwells in us richly, gratitude will flow out us freely. This gratitude will be displayed through our relationships with one another–bearing with one another, forgiving each other, and loving one another. Finally, thankfulness marks the entire Christian life. Whatever we do, whatever our circumstances, we thank God for who He is and what He has done. Thankfulness helps us fight against selfishness and discontentment in our own hearts. It turns our eyes to what God has given us rather than what we lack. It turns eyes to see others through the lens of the character of God and the work He can do in them. It turns our eyes to see our circumstances in light of God’s sovereignty rather than our lack of control. Colossians 3:15-17 presents a thankful church made up thankful members in whom the peace of Christ rules their relationships, the word of Christ dwells richly in their hearts, and the name of Christ shapes every aspect of their lives.
As our nation seeks to heal its wounds once again, Thanksgiving Day reminds us where we must turn—towards God with gratitude for who He is and what He has done. No doubt, a little bit of gratitude and kindness for the common grace we all share would go a long way in helping us bind up our nation’s wounds and seek unity within our communities. However, I am convinced that the answer to our divided nation is not just being more grateful people in general but being a more united and grateful church. To say that a grateful church is the answer is to say that God is the answer—it is His peace that brings unity, His word which gives life, and His name which defines who we are and what we do. A grateful church puts the character and work of God on display for a watching and wounded world.