Thanksgiving: Understanding Two Sides of Giving Thanks

Recently I went with a couple of friends to the Starbucks Reserve in downtown Chicago. What an experience—especially as a coffee connoisseur! I couldn’t wait to order a flight of coffees to try. After ordering, I respond to the barista who took my order, “Thank you so much!” I made my way down to watch another barista prepare my coffees in this siphon almost chemistry-like contraption. When he finished and handed me the coffees I said, “Thank you!”  

As I sat there sipping on my flight of Hawaiian, Guatemalan, and Pantheon blends of coffee, these exchanges got me thinking about this whole idea of thanks, thanksgiving, or giving thanks.

My “thanks” was a cultural mannerism that I and others use to be polite. But I got to thinking, was I really giving her thanks for my coffee? Was I really thankful for someone doing what I was entitled for them to do? The coffee was mine! I paid for it… in fact, I paid a lot of money for it. Therefore, subconsciously I felt entitled to the coffee that I thanked the barista for.

Such an exchange got me thinking about this whole idea of thanks, thanksgiving, or giving thanks on Thanksgiving. 

Here’s a question that comes to my mind:

Are you truly giving thanks if you believe you are entitled to what you “give thanks” for?

In other words, if you believe you are entitled to something, have earned something, or paid for something, can you truly be thankful for it?

It seems we live in an entitlement culture. [To be clear: the entitlement culture is not just reserved for millennials. This type of culture spans generations.] 

People think they are entitled and owed certain things. Take kids for instance. Many believe they are entitled to play the gaming system as long as they want. Many believe they are owed a smart phone like all their friends. Many believe dinner at the house should be menu-style as opposed to what momma is cooking. They want bedtimes to be optional.

When parents allow them two hours for gaming, cook them a nice homecooked meal, or send them to a bedroom with a bed, mattress, covers, and pillows they aren’t grateful nor thankful because they feel owed or entitled to these things.

This brings me to the meaning of thanksgiving or giving thanks—something that Thanksgiving is all about. 

To truly understand what thanksgiving or giving thanks means, we have to understand its two sides—particularly from the biblical viewpoint. 

If we fail to understand the two sides, then our thanksgiving will either be missing, misdirected, or misunderstood.

Two Sides of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving (or giving thanks) in the bible has at least two sides: confession and praise. 

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are two words that are translated into English as “thanks.” First, the word “Yadah”—not to be confused with Yoda—is expressive as it is mostly associated with praise; second, the word “Towdah” (which comes from Yadah) is confessional as it is mostly connected with offerings (sacrifices) of thanksgiving.

Here are some examples of Yadah and Towdah:

Psalm 47:17—“I will perpetuate your memory through all generations; therefore the nations will praise [yadah] you for ever and ever.” (NIV)

Psalm 75:1—“We give thanks [yadah] to you, O God, we give thanks [yadah] for your Name is near; men tell of your wonderful deeds.” (NIV)

Isaiah 12:4—“In that day you will say: Give thanks [yadah] to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.” (NIV)

Psalm 95:1–2—”Come, let us sing or joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving [towdah] and extol him with music and song.” (NIV)

Psalm 116:17—“I will sacrifice a thank [towdah] offering to you and call on the name of the Lord.” (NIV)

Jonah 2:9—“But I, with a song of thanksgiving [towdah], will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.”

Thanksgiving, giving thanks, or being thankful, in short, is both expressive and confessional. 

To help apply these concepts to our lives, when we think of thanksgiving as “confessional” it may be helpful think about who we are and what we deserve.

When we think of thanksgiving or giving thanks as “expressive” it may be helpful to think about what we have received and how we should respond. 

Both the “confessional” and “expressive” elements of thanksgiving are inextricably linked to mercy and grace. 

Maybe you’ve heard mercy described as God withholding what we DO deserve, and grace being described as “Gods…Riches…At…Christ’s…Expense”—or God giving us what we DO NOT deserve.

We believe the Bible teaches humans are rebels who committed treason against the King of Glory. Mankind attempted to rob God of His glory and of His throne. As a result of sin, humanity shattered God’s image on their life and damaged the created order. What God created good, man ruined. As such, mankind deserves to be judged, sentenced, and executed. In short, as depraved, rebellious, and sinful human beings, we deserve, we are entitled to, we are owed no good thing. That’s the foundation of our confession…our thanksgiving. 

If we are going to practice true thanksgiving (or giving thanks) we must realize who we are and what we deserve.

However, God did not give man what he deserved. He did not order a judgement, a sentence, or an execution—punishments and consequences yes; but not a condemning sentence or execution. Rather, He lavished them with a Father’s love! He pursued them, promised them redemption, and properly clothed them. What God gave man and continues to give man—both through general and specific revelation—is grace!

Every good thing we have in life has been generously dispensed from the gracious hand of the Father. And the ultimate good that has been lavished on us is the sacrificial, atoning, and substitutional death of His Son, Jesus Christ.

However, our praise is that in God’s mercy and grace—which is ultimately realized in Jesus Christ—we have something to praise, worship, and supremely THANK God for. We have received something that constitutes offering our bodies as living sacrifices, and thus living in a constant state of praise and thanksgiving. It isn’t something we have earned, nor are entitled to. 

TRUE THANKSGIVING flows from a heart that has experienced GREAT GRACE. 

My prayer this Thanksgiving is that those who follow Jesus will truly give thanks to the Lord for every good thing that we have for we deserve no good thing! However, in Jesus, the Father has given us the treasure of heaven! 

As the psalmist says:

Enter his gates with thanksgiving (towdah); go into his courts with praise. Give thanks (yadah) to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation (Ps 100:4–5).

Pastors, Church Leaders, and Churches: A Work in Progress…

Earlier this year, my family moved to Wheaton, IL. As we familiarized ourselves with the town it became apparent that their roads are a work in progress. Throughout the town, road construction was being done. We’ve said multiple times over the last month or so, “We’ll be glad when they get done!” As you know, sometimes road work can be an inconvenience. If it lingers long enough, it becomes downright annoying. 

When it comes to the life of a believer, we too are a work in progress. The Apostle Paul pens this idea when he writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6 ESV). So, our whole lives are lived “Under Construction.” 

As one who is a work in progress, I can attest to how many times I feel that my “work in progress” (or lack thereof) is inconvenient, tiring, irritating, and annoying. Honestly, I just want to be complete; I just want to be whole. 

As a pastor, I’ve had to face the reality that both the congregation and me are a work in progress—under construction. As a result, ministry can be met with struggle, heartache, loss, affliction, disappointment, difficulty, opposition, and suffering. Such can lead to cynicism, fatigue, burnout, and depression. In addition, it can have negative effects on our mental health, personal health, marriage, relationships, and overall view of ministry. 

Anyone who has ever been in ministry knows it is tough, difficult, and weighty. Things don’t go according to plan. What you thought was…isn’t. You thought you would be further along than you are. Some of the people that were with you in the beginning, aren’t with you anymore. You’re criticized and under constant microscopic scrutiny. Money is scarce. Maybe you’re seeking a new season of ministry and you feel as though no one is looking at you and giving you a second look. And there are times when you are left wondering if it (ministry), if you (the minister), are even good.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves struggling with our state of being a work in progress? 

Remember it isn’t your work but God’s. 

I’m a fixer. If I see a problem or someone tells me their problem, I want to fix it—unless it is house related, and then I call a handyman. When it comes to problems in our personal life or in our church, pastors tend to be fixers. If we have problems, we tend to go at solving them alone. It may be a frustration we are having, a person who is causing us issues, an addictive pattern we can’t seem to break, a feeling of depression, or a struggle we are having in our marriage. And rather than truly consulting God, and inquiring to Him, about how He would have us handle it, we try and tackle it on our own. In short, we put all the pressure on ourselves to solve the issue.

If we see ourselves as the foreman of the work, we will become vulnerable to the weight of ministry. When that happens, the jar of clay (the minister) will be crushed by the weight of the ministry. Pastor, church leader, we must hand our lives and our ministries back to the ONE who put them under construction in the first place. 

According to Paul, the one who put the sign up on our lives, “A Work in Progress,” or “Under Construction,” wasn’t us, but God. Paul notes, “…he who began a good work…” (Phil 1:6). Therefore, it would only stand to reason that the ONE who began the work would continue the work. 

Remember that God has a perfect track record of bringing His work to glorious completion.

I recently started coaching my eldest son’s basketball team, which reignited my affinity for basketball. It reminded me of when I was really into basketball—during the Michael Jordan era. I remember watching the Bulls growing up and seeing Michael Jordan hit game-winning shots, like the one against the Cleveland Cavilers in 1989. But did you know that Michael Jordan was only 50% on game-winning shots? In short, the greatest basketball player to ever play the game (arguably) didn’t have a perfect track record. 

I know as pastors we want the ball; we want the control. Control is a descriptive of fixers. However, our track record—if we were honest—is like Michael Jordan’s, imperfect. Just like failing to hit a game-winning shot, many cases of frustration, fatigue, burnout, and even (some cases of) depression are brought about by failing to see the desired outcomes. 

However, God’s track record for starting and completing a work is perfect. What He starts, He finishes. What He promises, He fulfills. Just think about Genesis 1. Could you imagine being alongside God during the creation project without knowing the specificity of His plan? As you stood beside Him you may not fully understand what God is doing, what He is building, but what He is doing is methodically and intentionally working to bring and shape something very good into existence.

We may not be in control, nor fully understand what God is doing.

We can trust that God—since the beginning—has a perfect track record of working something to glorious completion.

As one of the contemporary praise songs suggests, “He has never failed us, and He won’t start now.” 

Remember the process is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ.

I was recently on a panel at a conference where the question was asked, “What keeps you in ministry?” A few years back, I probably would have said, “Because I was called.” However, in my almost 20 years in ministry, I’ve experienced both mountaintops and deep dark valleys. Truthfully, the deep dark valleys have taken their toll on me, humanly speaking. 

But when I answer that question now, I quote Philippians 3:10 where Paul expresses, “that I may know him (Jesus) and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death….” 

I believe in the call as pastors. However, the call to ministry is answering the call to suffer. Again, this isn’t to take away that the call to ministry is one of joy and experiencing the power of God to move mountains.

However, if you really summarize ministry in the vein of Jesus, it is a call to suffer. Yet, in His suffering there is both life and glory.

In closing, pastor, church leader, your life and ministry are under construction. Both are a work of progress under the foreman of Jesus Christ, worked daily by the Spirit of God. There are certainly times where living in this “work in progress” can bring frustration, fatigue, burnout, depression, and mental illness. But in your struggle, remember the works not your, it’s His, He is good with a perfect track record, and that your life is rooted and anchored in the life and love of King Jesus.