Here in the United States, we’re creeping up on a somewhat nebulous holiday called “Thanksgiving.” American Thanksgiving had its origins in 1621, when the white Pilgrim settlers brought in their first harvest in the New World. They had come woefully underprepared for the punishing New England winter the year before, and plenty of them died; but they worked terribly hard, and the Native Americans taught them how to plant corn and catch eel, and God kept their miserable hides alive, and so they were able to bring in the harvest the next year. So they had a feast of thanksgiving.
It’s notable, isn’t it, that they thanked God by having a feast for themselves to eat? This is how we do it to this day: We throw ourselves a party to say “thanks.” Our modern Thanksgiving feast isn’t some secularized, watered-down way to celebrate Thanksgiving; this is how the Pilgrims did it. They thanked God by having a party with lots of food.
In 1863, when President Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday, it was surely to express gratitude to God, but also because it would be good for the nation to have a day of thanksgiving. We were emerging from a terrible civil war, and to declare a day of thanksgiving for the victory of the union was a way of making a statement that we were, in fact, unified. It solidified that victory and gave the country a day to celebrate. It was, in short, more about what the country needed than about what God needed.
And there it is again? We’re so grateful to God for the end of the war, we’re throwing ourselves a party! But there’s not a thing wrong with doing it that way. In fact, it’s inescapable. Giving thanks is always more for our benefit than for God’s.
Here’s an example. The other night, I couldn’t sleep, in the worst way. I was in the middle of too many projects, feeling inadequate for too many tasks, anxious about too many problems, real, imagined, past, present, and future. The hours ground by and I couldn’t fall back asleep, but I wasn’t alert enough to get anything else done. Exhausted and desperate, I started to spiral down into worse and worse anxiety, and all my usual mental tricks seemed stale and repulsive. Then I thought to try something new: I slowly started to list the things I was grateful for, and I thanked God for each one of them.
“I have a good husband. Thank you, Lord. I’m covered with warm blankets. Thank you, Lord. I really like the colour orange, Lord, so thanks for that. Yellow is also good. Thank you. My three-year-old has a really soft belly, Lord. Thank you. The electric bill isn’t overdue this month, Lord. Thanks. Hey, there’s Brahms and Bach on the internet, Lord. Thank you.” And so on.
You’ll think I’m going to say that, as I worked through this litany of gratitude, I began to feel enrapt in a nurturing, comforting nest of gratitude and eventually became ecstatically aware of all the goodness and kindness that follows me all the days of my life. But that’s not actually what happened. After about twenty-five minutes of thanking God, I got bored, and my limbs began to feel very heavy. The idea of being awake began to seem stupider and stupider, until finally I stumbled my way into sleep. Until a mouse started scratching, and then I woke up again, moved to the couch, did some writing, had a little fight with the cat, and then fell back asleep. The point is, I did get some sleep.
Well, thank God.
Did God reward me with sleep because He was pleased with my gratitude? Not at all. It’s just that same old paradox: gratitude is good for us, the grateful.
I should end *all* my days with a litany of thanks, rather than the hasty mental hat-tip I manage here and there. But it’s just a fact that saying “thank you” to God over and over and over again gave my mind something restful, something solid, something other-than-me-and-my-anxiety to lean on; and eventually, I slept, which is what I needed to do. I don’t believe that God minded at all that I used Him like that to help me settle down and fall asleep. God is always glad for us when we turn to Him, in big ways and in small, because He loves us and wants good things for us.
God gives us good things because goodness flows out of Him because He is God, and that is who God is: Him from whom good things flow. Who we are is children who receive His goodness, and when we’re doing well, to thank Him for it. He delights and is glad to hear us thank Him, but it doesn’t *encourage* Him to give us good things, any more a stream is encouraged to keep on flowing when a deer stops to drink in it. Flowing is what the stream is for, and it’s not going to pack itself up and leave in a huff if the deer isn’t properly grateful.
The deer, however, may suffer if it can’t linger long enough to enjoy having its thirst quenched.
So it’s completely legit to give thanks to God with a big feast for ourselves once a year; and it’s completely legit to bore ourselves to sleep with a long string of thank-yous, too. Thanksgiving, with a small “t,” has always been for our benefit, not His. He will not withhold good things from us if we forget to thank Him; but we always ought to thank Him. Not because He needs it in any way, but because it makes Him glad, and because it sets our own hearts straight.