Thanksgiving, Ingratitude, and Idolatry

By David Gunn

The pages of the New Testament are positively saturated with the concept of giving thanks. By my count, the epistles discuss the importance of Christians giving thanks to God eight times. The New Testament writers mention their own practice of giving thanks—or even spontaneously break into words of thanksgiving mid-sentence—twelve times. And the Lord Jesus’ practice of giving thanks to God is mentioned nine times. Clearly, thankfulness to God expressed in words of thanksgiving is one of the marks of New Testament Christianity.

Probably the most famous New Testament passage on thanksgiving is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which instructs us, “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” According to this passage, the obligation to express our thanks to God is all pervasive in its scope; while we may not be required to give thanks for everything, we are expected to give thanks in everything, i.e., at all times and in all circumstances. It is probably fair to say, therefore, that a truly spiritual life will be one marked by regular thanksgiving. And conversely, a life devoid of regular thanksgiving cannot really be regarded as a spiritually healthy one.

As we draw near to the Thanksgiving holiday season, I have been reflecting on the concept of thanksgiving in the New Testament and asking the question, “Why is this particular practice—the act of giving thanks to God—emphasized so much throughout the Scriptures?” The most obvious answer springs to mind immediately: God is eminently worthy of our thanks, just as much as He is worthy of our praise, because of Who He is and all He has done for us. Therefore, we ought to thank Him regularly. It’s a simple enough concept (although easier said than consistently done).

But there is also a second (and perhaps less obvious) reason that we ought to cultivate a practice of giving thanks to God regularly: it helps us to resist the related sins of ingratitude and idolatry, and in so doing it contributes directly to the sanctification process, molding us into people whose characters, hearts, and minds are more in tune with the God Whom we serve.

Ingratitude and idolatry are the two sinful postures that we humans, naturally and by default, tend to adopt with respect to God’s blessings and provision. In the former case, we take for granted all God has given to us. Material prosperity. Friends and family to enrich our lives. The many blessings of the natural world that add variety and texture to the human experience—from the flavors of well-prepared food to the magnificent colors of a vibrant sunrise or the wonderment that comes from gazing into a starlit sky. Over time, an attitude of ingratitude can dull these things and create in us an attitude of entitlement and apathy toward them and toward the One Who provided them for us in the first place. Left unchecked, that’s exactly what our human hearts, with their inborn inclination toward selfishness, will do. But regularly stopping to give thanks to God for all He has bestowed upon us and all the privileges He has given to us militates against this tendency. It reminds us of our inherent helplessness and our dependence upon the Creator, not only for life itself, but also for all the things that make life worth living.

The second sinful posture we can adopt toward God’s blessings is idolatry. This happens when we allow ourselves to love the things God has created and the blessings He has given to us more than we love God Himself. It happens when we define our lives by material things or earthly relationships or hobbies and pursuits and enjoyments more than we do by our knowledge of God and our relationship to Him. When we allow that to happen, we are engaged in the sin of idolatry—perhaps not overt idolatry, of course; we probably don’t literally bow down to our material possessions or extracurricular preoccupations and venerate them. But it is an idolatry of the heart, a giving over of our affections and loyalties to the Creator’s blessings rather than to the Creator Himself.

Interestingly, there is a relationship between these two sins, such that the former typically leads to the latter. Reflecting on the descent of the pagan world into the depths of depravity, Paul noted that mankind, in its fallenness, had begun that descent with an attitude of ingratitude: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful” (Rom. 1:21a). This led inexorably to a darkening of the human mind and an exaltation of the human spirit (vv. 1:21b–22), which in turn resulted in idolatry: they “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (v. 23).

It was at that point—when ingratitude had led to idolatry—that God decided to give them over to their depravity, allowing them to reap the full consequences of their foolishness (vv. 24–32). Why? Because He no longer cared about them or loved them? No. I would suggest it was because there is something unique about these two sins that causes us to become unresponsive to God and calloused to the things of the Spirit. Those who cultivate an ungrateful heart toward the Giver of all good things or who love the Creator’s gifts more than the Creator Himself have, to one extent or another, cut themselves off from spirituality. They have rendered themselves unable to understand or commune with God in any meaningful way, because God must be approached on His own terms; and a proper understanding and appreciation of the Creator-creature distinction is fundamental to that. When we allow ourselves to wallow in ingratitude and engage in idolatry, we obliterate that distinction. And we do so to our own spiritual peril.

The antidote, of course, is thanksgiving. May our lives be ever marked by it. May we take great care to cultivate a heart of thankfulness to God, and may we express that thankfulness regularly and unreservedly. All we have is from God. All we are is from God. Every blessing we receive and every good thing we experience—whether material or spiritual—we have received from His hand. And recognizing these truths, we give thanks.

It is my prayer—and the prayer of all of us at Regular Baptist Press—that you and your family will have a most happy and blessed Thanksgiving and that God will pour out His richest blessings on you in the days ahead as you serve Him and give Him thanks.

David Gunn is director of Regular Baptist Press.

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