“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” – G.K Chesterton
What are you thankful for?
That’s the question to ask this time of year. Last Friday night we had our youth group write what they were thankful for on a big dry erase board at the church. On Thanksgiving day, some families pass around a basket, drop in a kernel of corn, and share what they’re thankful for. Indeed, these are good and vital practices of reflection, especially in today’s fast-paced, consumer-crazed culture. “What are you thankful for?” is an important question we must continually ask ourselves.
But there is a bigger, more important question at stake here: WHO are you thankful TO?
If a box of chocolates is left on our desk, we want to find out who the giver is in order to thank them. If we receive a heart transplant, we might enshrine the person whose heart we received by hanging their picture above the mantel or reaching out to their family. There’s a desire, a compulsion, to do so. Because we naturally feel thankfulness when we benefit from something good, and we need to direct that thankfulness somewhere.
Most people, at some point or another, recognize the good things in their life like the company of loved ones, the pleasure and sustenance of food and drink, the beauty of art, the provision of a good job, or even the thrill of just being alive. We look at all these things and know that our possession of them does not rest solely within our own power or accomplishment. We feel an intrinsic sense of indebtedness.
But to whom?
For the atheist, this burning sensation of the heart has no explanation. Their good fortune is the result of nothing but coincidence. The same coincidence that caused everything to come from nothing. The same coincidence that caused life to randomly appear. Within the giant, random void of the universe, my microscopic life just so happens to feature a few enjoyable things along the way to dull the insignificance of my existence.
The outlook isn’t much better for the agnostic or the deist. Sure, there’s a higher power out there somewhere, but it’s not actively involved in the world. Certainly not in my world. There might be a vague force that has had some impact on my life, like “fortune” or “providence”, but it’s not an intimate, personal involvement. I wasn’t given my home, my health or my family—something can only be given when one party actively and intentionally bestows it to another—I was just lucky enough to have fate, or whatever power controls things, swing my way.
In these worldviews, thankfulness cannot exist because there was no benevolence or generosity for which you can be appreciative. The good things in your life are nothing more than cold, dumb luck.
Even for the polytheists of old, one’s thanks was divided among the gods. You had to give one portion of thanks to the god of the sun, and another portion of thanks to the god of the rain, and another to the god of the harvest. There was not one source of harmonious blessings, but a plethora of deities competing with one another. Polytheism produced segments of thankfulness here and there, but not the full, rich gratitude we feel for all that we have at once.
For the theist, that intrinsic thankfulness has a real and singular outlet. There is a God who made us, who sustains us, and who has blessed us with everything that we have. There is someone on whom we can bestow the undeniable and overpowering gratitude that grips out hearts every time we look into the faces of our loved ones, lay our head on a soft pillow, or take another breath of life. We realize that what we have is a gift, and we have a living, personal source to thank for it.
But for the Christian, thankfulness goes even deeper. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the greatest cause for thanksgiving. We worship a God who not only made everything and provides everything, but who gave the fullness of Himself in order to provide us with the ultimate blessing. Not only does He bless us with the common grace of the rain and the harvest, but He personally paid the highest price to bless us with the crop of special, saving grace. Not only are we given bread, but the Bread of Life. Not only are we given drink, but streams of Living Water. Not only are we given life, but eternal life, and the life of Jesus Himself, who is Life.
Giving thanks without faith in an involved, personal God is like wanting to sing but having no voice or wanting to run but having no legs. The deep, sensational urge within you has no channel. The grand appreciation you feel has no source. But for the Christian, thanksgiving makes sense. What could be more natural than to look at our life, see its beauty, and praise the God from whom all blessings flow?