My professor, an Old Testament scholar and professional trumpet player, made the comment almost in passing. It was our last class before Thanksgiving break and finals, and he trying to cover as much information as possible. After the hour-long lecture on the Pentateuch, he seamlessly and suddenly shifted gears. “Now, before you go,” he said, “I want to send you off with a question to consider over the break. To whom are we giving our thanks this holiday? Can we give thanks without a recipient?” He paused to let the question sink in. Then, he clapped his hands and dismissed the class.
Almost five years later, I am still wrestling with his question. As someone who lives in two worlds, one that worships God and one that denies Him, the seemingly benign question is complex and controversial.
To be fair, America’s first presidents gave their thanks neither to the universe in general or to Christ in particular. Rather, they expressed their gratitude to a nominally Judeo-Christian deity. In the first Thanksgiving proclamation, George Washington devoted the day “to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, and that will be.” He went on to list “all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”
Similarly, Lincoln, in the midst of the American Civil War, described the day as one “of Thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the universe.”
The Bible, of course, abounds with more specific and poetic examples of thanksgiving. Countless men and women, from the Old and New Testaments, from the Psalmist to Christ, offer thanks to God the Father. I could easily list endless verses.
I find these presidential examples, however, more striking and inspiring. Prayer, in any form, is radical these days. It acknowledges something bigger than, better than ourselves.
Our culture, to the contrary, insists that we can do it all. We need only try hard enough or work hard enough. Everything we have and everything we are is our own creation. Everything we lack and everything we are not is our own fault.
The ancient Israelites, I think, would call those beliefs blasphemous. God is our only Creator and Provider. The presidents knew this. My professor knew this. And, yet, I always forget it.
The purpose of the Thanksgiving component of the ACTS prayer, for me, then, is two-fold. First, of course, it gives credit where credit is due. It acknowledges the supremacy and generosity of God.
Second, however, it reminds us – and reassures us – of the supremacy and generosity of God. It prevents us from believing the we are sovereign creators and providers. It keeps us from worshipping ourselves and others as gods.
After five years of reflection, then, my answer to the professor is simply no. You cannot offer thanks without, at least subconsciously, naming a creator or provider. To say “thank you” is to acknowledge a “you.”
The real question, then, is who is the “you.” Are we treating ourselves and others as gods? Or, are we recognizing and appreciating the Triune God?
Only then, only after answering those questions can we truly embody the example of the Psalmist:
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;/ for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1; NRSV).
The A.C.T.S. prayer, which includes Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, helps me share everything with Christ. The big, the small. The good, the bad. Read more about Adoration, Confession, and Supplication.