Christians and their neighbors generally agree on thanksgiving, but they differ on the object. Secular society apparently wants to be thankful but doesn’t know who to thank. For instance, psychotherapist and best-selling author Amy Morin claims science proves that “giving thanks can transform your life.” Thankfulness, she says, helps with making new friends, improves sleep, and even makes us physically stronger. She advocates for gratitude, but she stops short, at least in Psychology Today, at pinpointing to who or what we are to be thankful.
This dilemma hasn’t been completely ignored. The Atlantic magazine dealt with the question a decade ago in an article aptly titled “Gratitude without God.” The writer says, “faith doesn’t have much bearing on the way Thanksgiving is talked about in public life, from Butterball commercials to the Macy’s Parade. Gratitude is the animus of these secular rituals, but the object of the gratitude is unclear. If people aren’t thanking God, who are they thanking?” That’s a good question. Who are we thanking?
Our pragmatic culture promotes giving thanks as a psychological life hack apart from an object of gratitude. The New Testament, however, teaches that thanksgiving is a form of prayer and thus a path to fellowship with God.
The New Testament example
Jesus Himself is the perfect example of utilizing thanksgiving as a form of personal prayer. For instance, the gospels mention about 20 instances of Jesus in prayer. Frequently, those examples include overt expressions of thanksgiving.
For example, only John records the raising of Lazarus. As a result, it is the only gospel that mentions the prayer of Jesus as the stone was rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, “…And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me’” (John 11:41). When Jesus fed the 5000 and later the 4000, He publicly thanked God on both occasions (John 6:11; Mark 8:6). Additionally, He thanked God in prayer for revealing truth to His disciples (Mark 11:25). Jesus also thanked God during the Last Supper as He contemplated the cross, “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). Approximately one-third of the recorded prayers of Jesus in the gospels are prayers of thanksgiving. As in all things, what Jesus modeled we should mimic.
Paul was also a fan of gratitude. He used thanks, thankful, or thanksgiving in reference to prayer in each of the 13 New Testament letters which bear his name.
Clearly, expressing thanks is an important part of the Christian life. So, how do we increase our thanksgiving in prayer?
Drench every prayer in thanksgiving
We know thanksgiving in prayer is an antidote for an anxious life. From Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:6, we learn about overcoming anxiety; but a few other things about thanksgiving as prayer become obvious as well. For one thing, we learn that praying with thanksgiving is to be a part of everything we pray about. The text says, “…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Naturally, many occurrences in life are horrific, and we don’t thank God for evil. We can, however, thank God in every circumstance, because we know He loves us and answers prayer. After all, the instruction says, “in everything by prayer” rather than “for everything.” Imagine every prayer, therefore, even those filled with disappointment, uncertainty, or lament, as a request bathed in thanksgiving. It would be a game changer.
Thanksgiving prayer exhibits faith
For another thing, thanksgiving exhibits a high level of expectant faith when every request we offer to God is buttressed by an expression of thanksgiving. We declare our faith in God, no matter how deep the need or how difficult the trouble, because He knows what is best; and we can be confidently thankful even before He answers. Remember, the Scripture says, “…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). God encourages us to request answers to prayer, and He expects us to thank Him before a single answer comes.
God expects prayers of thanksgiving
Thanking God for His goodness while we’re still in the process of making a request is biblical prayer as God intends it. God wants us to thank Him. In fact, Jesus was once astonished that people who had experienced a healing which was medically impossible in those days disregarded the opportunity to give Him thanks. A group of 10 lepers, a disease without a cure in the first century, were all miraculously healed by Jesus after they prayed for His mercy. Surprisingly, only one returned to Jesus with a prayer of gratitude. Luke 17:15-17 tells us the story.
“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?’” Consider the convicting question of Jesus. Many people in Luke’s story gladly received the miracle but thoughtlessly ignored the proper response of prayerful thanksgiving. One lesson of the narrative is that the Lord not only deserves thanks, but He also expects those of us who have received His mercy to lavish thanksgiving upon Him.
This kind of thanksgiving is radically different than a culturally vague sense of gratitude aimed toward no particular entity. Instead, thanksgiving as prayer is fully directed at the Lord Himself. Considering all this, we are confronted with the question of our own prayer life: Is there enough genuine thanksgiving when we pray?
Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans, of course; and we will devour 46 million turkeys – a combined total of 1.4 billion pounds consumed over the holiday. It’s our second favorite holiday with food, family, friends, and football in abundance. We should all enjoy it. But as Christians, our thanksgiving isn’t measured by the quality or quantity of food we enjoy but, instead, by the opportunities we seize when we express prayers of gratitude.
As Adrian Rogers once said, “Many of us need to pull out some of the groans and shove some hallelujahs into our prayers. If you don’t already, begin putting some thank-yous in your prayers.”