I’m told that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 to commemorate the harvest reaped by the Plymouth Colony after a harsh year. Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, and had a harvest feast to which they invited the Wampanoag Indians.
The nation began to recognize Thanksgiving in 1789, when George Washington declared it a holiday. President Lincoln revived it as a way to unite the nation. In 1863 he issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November a perpetual holiday. Both presidents’ proclamations are inspirational, and can be read online.
From then on, Presidents issued annual Thanksgiving proclamations. Their common feature is a prayer to God. So far, that’s still politically expedient—but it must be recognized that not everybody is mindful of God. There are a lot of “harvest festivals” going on out there. For many it’s a time for a vacation or family reunion or cranberry stuffing, but being thankful to God is not part of the project.
I’d like to give you four commandments to keep in mind regarding thanksgiving, not just for this week, but for always.
Thank the Right One
Harriet Martineau was an atheist. One day, she and a friend stepped outside into the glories of a beautiful fall morning. As she saw the brilliant sun shining in a blue sky, the brightly colored leaves swirling on the trees, she was filled with the beauty of it all and burst forth, “I am so thankful for days like this!” Her friend said, “Thankful to whom, my dear?” (E. Achtemeier, Nature, God, and Pulpit, p. 183).
Psalm 100, labeled “a psalm of thanksgiving,” says, “Give thanks to Him; bless His name, for the Lord is good.” Everything we enjoy comes from God. Enjoying the blessings of God’s world without thanking Him would be like praising an ATM machine for handing out money. In fact, even those blessings which we must work to obtain still have their root in God’s provision. We can be thankful that God gave us the strength and ability to work, that God gave us a free country, that God gave us a job, that God gave the sunshine and the rain to provide life itself. If it weren’t for God’s hand, we’d have no money to withdraw, nor would we have cereal, medicine, hamburgers, gasoline, hot water, or air conditioning. Sure, man invented the iPod, but God gave him the brains and raw materials.
Let us be sure that we’re not expressing some vague and sanitized notion of “we’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” (worse yet, “we’re so lucky”). Let’s truly appreciate the source of our blessings, and be quick to tell Him.
Thank God in All Circumstances.
Sometimes, our thanksgiving attitude is inconsistent. The Bible says “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18). It also says we should be “always giving thanks for all things” (Eph. 5:20). Everything and always.
Admittedly, some years we feel more blessed than others. Some may spend the fourth Thursday of November in a hospital bed, or with a newly-empty chair at the dining room table, or with a $7 canned ham and Kraft mac and cheese. It can be a challenge to be thankful in such circumstances.
For the Christian, there are always lavish blessings to count, even in the worst times. We are convinced that God has a benevolent purpose in everything, and that we have redemption and an incomparable eternal inheritance. We can praise God for the good, and we can praise God for the bad.
Thank God Before Asking for Stuff.
I’m really annoyed that man retail stores are open on Thanksgiving. I’m even more annoyed that many shoppers will be there, trampling one another to get toys, video games, and flat screen TVs. Such behavior indicates that grabbing more stuff is quickly superseding being thankful for the stuff we already have.
In biblical prayers, giving thanks comes first. Requests follow. Jesus starts the model prayer “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9) and only toward the end says, “Give us our daily bread.” Thus, Paul advises, “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known” (Phil. 4:6). Make sure all prayers have an overall “attitude of thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2).
Thank God, or Risk Forgetting Him!
One of the symptoms of a doomed world is that God’s children fail to honor him or give Him thanks (Rom. 1:20-23). Maybe Moses said it best, warning the Israelites on the border of Canaan, “when you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God … lest your heart become proud and you forget the Lord … and you may say in your heart ‘My power and the strength of my own hand made me this wealth’ ” (Deut. 8). God is the Creator, Sustainer, Provider, and King. He deserves thanks on a daily basis for our great blessings. Once we stop giving Him the credit, we descend into all sorts of problems. —John Guzzetta