November 25, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, November 25, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Thanksgiving and gratitude key to Christian belief about God, self, and the world
In today’s edition of The Briefing we’re going to do a worldview analysis of Thanksgiving and gratitude and in the background of this, of course, are the incredibly ominous headlines that we faced not only in recent days, but weeks and months, indeed, going all the way back to November 2014 when last we observed Thanksgiving in the United States. Thanksgiving as a day is a particularly American holiday. The very first President of the United States, George Washington issued a Thanksgiving declaration and now it has become a national holiday, successive presidents have acted in similar fashion, and one of the important things for us to recognize in terms of the political acts whereby Thanksgiving has become a national holiday is the fact that beginning with our first chief executive, presidents of the United States and other government leaders have felt the need to express gratitude for the safety and security of the nation and of course this points back to the pilgrims as they are called, those Puritans who crossed the Atlantic and came to the United States in order to establish a community that could be ruled by Scripture and those Puritans as they came over, later called the pilgrims, as we know they did observe a Thanksgiving meal, along with local Native Americans and even as this has become something of a rather hot historical debate in terms of the exact details and circumstances, the reality is that those very first Europeans coming to the United States, in particular those English Puritans who came here, they were looking for the opportunity to establish what they understood to be a godly society and they came to understand that their survival in this very difficult place at the time was entirely due to the Lord’s protection.
In the year 1621, the pilgrims celebrated what they confirmed as the goodness of God, and they feasted with friendly local Native Americans. In reality, the pilgrims had faced far greater adversity than they had expected, the climate was harsh, the crops were sparse and the native peoples were often hostile, their own ranks were thinning, hunger, disease, discomfort and discouragement were ever close at hand. In 1789, President George Washington declared the first national day of Thanksgiving and in his words, he called Americans to,Show Full Transcript
“Unite in most humbly offering our prayer and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of nations.”
Now whatever that statement is, it certainly is not a statement of a secular worldview. Later, presidents who followed Washington’s example include Abraham Lincoln who issued very moving Thanksgiving proclamations during the Civil War. It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who regularized the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States and in the midst of the trial of the Second World War; he issued a presidential Thanksgiving declaration with these words,
“The Almighty God has blessed our nation in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth…. So we pray to Him now for a vision to see our way clearly–to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for our fellow men–to the achievement of His will, to peace on earth.”
While some they describe this merely as an expression of civil religion in reality, the most striking thing about it is how natural this language was to these presidents and how dependent they understood themselves to be upon divine guidance and how dependent the nation was upon divine protection. There is also the simple affirmation, as we’ve previously said about Washington that whatever worldview is reflected here, it certainly is not a secular worldview. It is a worldview that understands that there is a God who rules over the nations, and who has offered a particular set of blessings and a particular protection to the United States. So how exactly should Christians in particular think about Thanksgiving?
First, we need to recognize that Thanksgiving, which is also a form of gratitude, is a deeply theological act when it’s rightly understood. As a matter of fact, thankfulness is a theology in microcosm, you come to understand an entire system of theology, an entire set of doctrines and beliefs by what the Christian believes about gratitude and this is thus the key to understanding what we really believe about God, what we really believe about ourselves, what we really believe about the world we experience. A haunting question is this, how exactly do atheists observe Thanksgiving? There are modern guides to secular Americans about being thankful. I can easily understand that an atheist or an agnostic with think of fellow human beings and feel led to express thankfulness and gratitude to all those who both directly and indirectly have contributed to their lives, but what about the blessings that cannot be ascribed to human action or human agency? Those are both more numerous and more significant and more basic, ranging from the universe we experience to the gift of life itself. We have to ask a very basic question, can we actually truthfully be thankful if we’re not thankful to someone? It makes no sense to express thankfulness to a purely naturalistic system.
The late Stephen Jay Gould, an atheist and one of the foremost paleontologist and evolutionist of his day, described human life as in his words,
“But a tiny late arising twig on life’s enormously arborescent bush.”
Gould was a clearheaded evolutionist who took the theory of evolution to its ultimate conclusion. Human life, he believed, is merely an accident, though a very happy accident for us. Within that worldview, how would thankfulness actually work? Back in 1991, famed astronomer and cosmologists, Carl Sagan, another very famous unbeliever wrote,
“The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. But there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.”
We’ll take into this logical conclusion and that’s very near at hand, Carl Sagan seems to suggest that we should be thankful primarily to ourselves for our custodianship of life’s meaning, for our own wisdom and courage, those as a matter of fact are his very words.
Back in the year 1897, one of most famous unbelievers in American history, a man by the name of Robert Ingersoll, preached what he called a Thanksgiving sermon, but Ingersoll was certainly not thankful to God, he didn’t believe in God. He repudiated all Christianity and specifically biblical Christianity. He also said that he wouldn’t thank nature. He asked the question,
“Why should we thank Nature? If we thank God or Nature for the sunshine and rain, for health and happiness, whom shall we curse for famine and pestilence, for earthquake and cyclone—for disease and death?”
He said that he would thank instead other people who had made contributions to human history. It’s notable that the people he began to thank in this sermon were all long dead, they had no idea of his gratitude. He said,
“I thank the great poets—the dramatists. I thank Homer and Aeschylus, and I thank Shakespeare above them all. I thank Burns for the heart-throbs he changed into songs.”
“I thank the great scientists—those who have reached the foundation, the bed-rock—who have built upon facts—the great scientists, in whose presence theologians look silly and feel malicious.”
As I said Ingersoll wrote those words back in 1897. Unbelief isn’t new, nor is that basic quandary. How exactly would an unbeliever be thankful in any meaningful sense? The apostle Paul points to a central insight about thankfulness in Romans chapter 1, when he instructs the Christians in Rome about the reality and consequences of idolatry and unbelief. After making clear that God has revealed himself to all humanity through the created order, Paul asserts that we are all without excuse when it comes to our responsibility to know and to worship the creator. Let’s remember his words from Romans 1:20-22. Paul wrote,
“For since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened, professing themselves to be wise, they became fools”
That remarkable passage at its very center is an indictment of thanklessness; they did not honor him as God or give thanks. The apostle Paul wants us to understand that the refusal to honor God and give thanks is the raw form of primal sin. This leads to a very interesting development in historical theology. The eastern and the western churches, that is the Eastern Orthodox churches on the one hand and Western Christianity on the other, have been divided over the essence of original sin. What was the very origin and impetus of that original sin? The Eastern churches have been inclined to define it in terms of some kind of bodily sin driven by lust or another bodily or physical appetite. But Western Christianity from the very beginning has defined the very essence of sin and thus the impetus behind all sin as being an amalgam of pride and ingratitude, because seen rightly they are the very same thing. The apostle Paul makes that clear in this very passage in Romans chapter 1, when he describes those who do not believe as those who also will not give thanks.
Theologians have long debated that foundational sin and nevertheless we have to understand that in every sin there is a mixture of virtually everything that is sinful. But at the very root is a lack of Thanksgiving. Being unthankful, that is refusing to recognize God is the source of all good things, has to be very close to the essence of the primal foundational sin. What else would explain the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden? They lacked a proper thankfulness and that was at the very core of their action of their sin. God gave them unspeakable riches in abundance, but forbade them the fruit of only one tree. A proper thankfulness would’ve let our first parents to avoid that fruit at all costs and to obey the Lord’s command out of gratitude. Taken further, this first sin was also a lack of thankfulness in that the decision to eat the forbidden fruit indicated a lack of thankfulness that took the form of an assertion that we creatures and not the creator know what is best for ourselves and intend the best for ourselves. It is God who knows what is best for us; it is God who knows what is right for us. Breaking God’s law breaks that basic relationship of Thanksgiving and gratitude that should mark constantly the response of the creature to the creator.
“They did not honor him as God or give thanks.”
Clearly, honoring God as God leads us naturally to Thanksgiving and to thankfulness. To honor God as God is to honor his limitless love, his incomparable and his uncountable gifts, to fail in thankfulness, thus, we understand is to fail to honor God. And this is the biblical description of fallen and sinful humanity. We are as sinful human beings a thankless lot.
Sinners saved by the grace and mercy of God know a thankfulness that exceeds any merely human thankfulness at any other level. How do we express thankfulness for the provision the father has made for us in Christ? The riches that are made ours in him and the unspeakable gift of the surpassing grace of God. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”
That’s 2 Corinthians 9:15. Those Puritans we call the pilgrims, who gathered together with some neighbors from Native Americans on that first Thanksgiving day, understood that only the providence of a benevolent and loving God, only the providence of a sovereign God could explain how they had safely come across the Atlantic, how they had found a hospitable place, how they had lived through an arduous series of months that had taken many of them, had thinned out their ranks, how they had survived pestilence and famine and disease and other horrifying realities that had afflicted them. They came to understand not that they would complain about the bad things that had happened to them, but rather that they would address God with a basic thankfulness and gratitude. But we need to note that the gratitude that was demonstrated by those early Puritans in the United States was not limited merely to the fact that they had survived safely thus far. Their gratitude was grounded even more so in the gifts of God in creation and especially the gift of God in Christ. They were more thankful than anything else for the grace of God that had been demonstrated to sinners through the atoning gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We look at some of the issues now framing headlines in terms of America’s domestic life, our political controversies and the rest and we should compare that to the era of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln was driven to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation, it was not only a statement of Thanksgiving that God had allowed the nation to survive to that point, but was also a statement of Lincoln’s continuing understanding that God had blessings for this nation and intended for this nation to be a blessing for others as well. Then we fast-forward in terms of our review of American thanksgivings to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and we remember those dark days of World War II and we think about what it meant for the President of the United States in a radio address to the American people to ask the American people to join him in a prayer of thanksgiving. We shift to an understanding of what’s going on in the international stage, we see recent events in Paris, in Mali, in Belgium and elsewhere, and we come to understand that indeed we are living in a very dangerous world. But in one sense it has always been dangerous East of Eden. From the very moment that Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden because of their sin, because of their unthankfulness and their ingratitude, human beings have faced a world of hostility and of danger. Indeed, as the hymn reminds us,
“Of many dangers toils and snares.”
But even as day by day on The Briefing we seek to understand these headlines from a Christian worldview, and we seek to think together from the basis of the authority of Scripture as to how we are to understand these things, this is a good reminder for us that in the background, indeed in the foreground to all of our analysis must be an ever present attitude of Thanksgiving to God, of the understanding that as the creature we are owed nothing by the creator who gave us the gift of life, but he has indeed given us not only the gift of life, but as Christians understand our Thanksgiving is grounded in the reality of what God has done for us in Christ. And we look at what God has given us in terms of other blessings even in this life not to mention blessings in the life to come. As millions of Americans, even this day are in motion and in transit to gather together with friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember as Christians what’s really at stake here. It is the question of belief versus unbelief; it is a question of whether or not we will worship the one true and living God or resort to some form of idolatry, any form of idolatry. And as we come to understand from the apostle Paul, that idolatry is inevitably rooted in a lack of Thanksgiving to God. In essence, nothing should come so naturally to Christians as gratitude, as Thanksgiving to God.
So observe a wonderful Thanksgiving, but realize that a proper Christian Thanksgiving is a deeply theological act that requires an active mind as well as a thankful heart. We need to think deeply, widely, carefully and faithfully about the countless reasons for our thankfulness to God. It is humbling to see that Paul so explicitly links a lack of thankfulness to sin, foolishness and idolatry. A lack of proper thankfulness to God is a clear sign of a basic godlessness. Millions of Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving with little consciousness of this truth and far more attention to the menu. Their impulse to express gratitude is a sign of their spiritual need, but that’s a need that can be met only, adequately, fully in Christ.
So have a very happy Thanksgiving and remember that giving thanks is one of the most explicitly theological acts any human being can contemplate. As 1 Chronicles 16:34 instructs us,
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his loving kindness is everlasting!”
This Thanksgiving Mary and I will be celebrating in a particular way and we’ll be particularly thankful, because we will be celebrating Thanksgiving with our new grandson, our first grandchild, Benjamin Miller Barnes, who will be three weeks old on Thanksgiving Day. We wish for you and for your family and for all those gathered with you in Christ, a very happy Thanksgiving Day as well.