Thank God Rightly
November 25, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we gather to give thanks on the occasion of our national holiday – established by President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1864) in 1863. Normally we only observe church holy days, but this is different because Christians think so highly of thanksgiving.
We prize thanksgiving and encourage gratitude because the Holy Scriptures teach us to do so. And this sacred admonition takes precedence over any declaration or encouragement from our government. The Russian author, Fyoder Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) bemoaned our ingratitude – calling man, by definition, an “ungrateful biped” [Notes From Underground (1864), trans. Constance Garnett (Dell, 1960) p. 49]. And we see this same negative view when Jesus heals the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) – and only one returns to thank him. This may well have inspired Martin Luther (1483-1546) to conclude that only “one tenth of the people really perceives God, while the other nine tenths begin” but don’t stick with it (Luther’s Works 23:400). It is right, then, for us to use this national holiday of Thanksgiving Day to promote and defend thanksgiving since ingratitude is rampant. And this widespread influence is a terrible predicament because, as Luther warned,
ingratitude is an evil damnable and pernicious enough to quench all the springs of grace and blessing...; it is like a poison-laden, burning, destructive wind.... For God cannot bless you if you are ungrateful [Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols, ed. J. Lenker (1908) 8:336].
Even so, all our efforts to promote and increase thanksgiving will be in vain if it isn’t done properly. In our society, gratitude or being thankful, doesn’t measure up to what Holy Scriptures say it should be. That’s because most Americans, if they are grateful, give thanks without directly thanking God in Christ Jesus, and furthermore, are only grateful for the good things in life and not the bad things as well. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. Take Ephesians 5:20, for instance. Here is something quire different:
Always and for everything, [give] thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.
In this little verse we have three radical claims completely missing from our society today. The first claim is that being grateful isn’t enough. That’s because it’s too general. It needs to be directed explicitly to God the Father, if it’s going to be true gratitude.
We have a very helpful elaboration in the Lutheran Confessions of this hotly disputed point [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 368]:
Although much that is good comes to us from men, we receive it all from God through his command and ordinance.... So we receive our blessings not from them, but from God through them. Creatures are only the hands, channels, and means through which God bestows all blessings.... [So] we must acknowledge everything as God’s gifts and thank him for them.
So behind all our blessings stands God the Father (James 1:17) – which when either unknown or denied, is a “horrible blindness” (LW 1:128). So when we thank our parents for raising us, for instance – we must not forget about God and thank him primarily, since he is the one who made their care possible in the first place.
And the second radical claim is that even this thanksgiving to
God cannot be in general, but must be done in the name of Christ Jesus.
This is because our thanksgiving – even when it is directed to God –
remains corrupt. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that great admirer of
Luther who lived in
We hanker after and chase after earthly goods and then – in order to rid ourselves of anxiety – thank God. Aha! This is precisely the way in which such a Christendom becomes even more secular-minded than paganism. Thanking God for good days should first and foremost mean undertaking to examine oneself, how one clings to such things; it should mean that one learns to think lightly of all such things. But, instead, we clutch even more tightly and then thank God – in order to keep on possessing these things with complete complacency and security.
Because of such self-serving thanksgiving, we need purging, correcting and cleansing. Thanking God in the name of Jesus does this for us in two ways. First it filters our thanksgiving through his words and those he inspired:
Seek first the
By so doing, our thanksgiving is jolted and given a form that “the world cannot give” (John 14:27). But to make sure this sticks, Christ also “perfects” (Hebrews 12:2) our thanksgiving by sharing with us his perfection (1 Corinthians 1:30). Through our faith in him, his righteousness becomes ours. Then we can glorify him in our thanksgiving – rather than ourselves (1 Corinthians 10:31).
And the third radical claim is that we should also thank God for our sorrows and pain, losses and suffering – and not for just the blessings and pleasures of this life. That is because
God wants us to regard the evils that we experience as coming to us with His permission..... God permits evils to come to us; for it is His will that, when we have been chastened, we cast ourselves on His mercy.... By... these works God aims to humble us that we might... obey His will (LW 13:155).
So “God alternates in what he does.... He brings an end to suffering, grants a break, and then lets it soon begin again” [Luther’s House Postils, 3 vols, ed. E. Klug (1996) 3:244]. This is because “sin is rooted” in our “flesh and blood,” and so God has to send our way, “great misery and anxiety, poverty, persecution and all kinds of danger,... until the flesh becomes completely subject to the Spirit” [SML 3:130]. By suffering so, we learn the hard lesson that our flesh and blood cannot fulfill or save us (LW 14:335).
And in addition to this breathtaking claim, the last part of Ephesians 5:20 also adds the lesser, but still radical, admonition that we should always give thanks for our blessings and not toss them off, quickly forgetting about them (Hosea 13:6). For indeed, when compared to our many and great blessings, what ails us is “barely a drop of water on a big fire or a little spark in the ocean” (LW 14:50)! – and so we shouldn’t let our troubles consume us.
But how are we going to be able to pull off all of this? For we can’t seem to do the good we want to do (Romans 7:18-19)! So we need Christ to go beyond his words and save us by his power (Hebrews 7:25). This power is given to us through prayer and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – the Great Thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist. Regarding the power of prayer (Matthew 17:21), a wonderful way into it, is through Luther’s words [Luther’s Prayers, ed. H. F. Brokering (1967) §§ 204, 64, 50, 205, 81, 59, 52, 45, 44, 14]. From those words I have assembled a ten-part prayer which can pull us into true thanksgiving (see Prayers at flcws.org):
1. In the first part of this prayer we ask for power to use God’s gifts properly so that our discipleship may become all the greater:
Give us grace, dear Father, to use your gifts to the saving of our souls and to the betterment of our lives. Thus may the fruits of the earth serve to maintain and improve the health of both body and soul.
This prayer admits by implication that without God’s help, his blessings will become curses because of our abuses of them.
2. The second part of this prayer asks God to fight against our abuses – which include laziness, lustful distortions, and gluttony:
We ask you to give us the grace to expel the lusts of the flesh. Help us to avoid excessive eating, drinking, and sleeping, and to resist laziness. Grant that by fasting, careful eating, and proper clothing and care for the body we may watch and toil to become useful and fitted for good works.
Here we ask for protection from wealth and pleasure. This is because abundance in hording and gorging must give way to frugality, modesty and discipline – which only God can provide (Luke 18:27). Then our blessings will serve good works which is precisely why God so graciously gives them to us in the first place!
3. And in the third part we ask for power to rejoice in God’s coming kingdom instead of in this wicked world (1 John 5:19, 2:15-17; Matthew 17:17; 1 Corinthians 5:10; BC, p. 434):
Help us to hate this life and to long for the life that is to come. Enable us not to dread death but to welcome it. Release us from the love and attachments of this life, so that your kingdom may be totally completed in us.
It’s hard on us to pray for help in welcoming death (LW 44:85, 114). But if heaven is our home (Philippians 3:20), then we must look forward to dying – for in death we will also be set free from sin and corruption (Romans 6:7, 8:19-21).
4. In the fourth part of this prayer we ask for power to use God’s gifts wisely – spending them in keeping with his will:
Come to us and use our bread, silver, and gold. How very well they are spent if we spend them in your service.
Notice that we use these gifted rightly only when God takes them up and uses them for us in our lives. This can only happen when we let the Holy Scriptures “regulate our lives” (LW 17:144) by making us follow its line of reasoning (LW 25:261) – rather than our own way of thinking things through.
5. And in the fifth part of this prayer we ask for help in becoming hard workers who are also modest. Our tendency is to want to be queen bees rather than worker bees. We prefer being waited on over serving others (contra Acts 20:35). Therefore we need God’s help in transforming our lives (Romans 12:2):
Keep us wide awake and active, eager and diligent in your word and service. May we not be overconfident, idle, and indifferent, as though we owned all things.
This prayer will keep us from trying to turn the creatures into substitutes for the Creator (Romans 1:25) – which is at the heart of idolatry itself (Exodus 32:4).
6. In the sixth part we pray for protection from nature – which we often let usurp the place of God. This helps us keep nature in its place – as the material support for service to God and neighbor:
Protect the fruit of the fields and all the cattle from lightning, poison, wild beasts, and every possible injury.
In these words the truth that we cannot rely on ourselves to keep ourselves safe is reinforced. We are fragile creatures in an inhospitable world (Ecclesiastes 4:3; Acts 27:14-20; LW 15:26) – and so it is only God who can help us make it through (John 15:5).
7. And in the seventh part of this prayer we ask for help in enduring calamity – which only happens when we see how helpful these traumas can be (Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:7-11):
Give us grace to willingly acknowledge and bear all sickness, poverty, shame, suffering, and misfortune as coming from your divine will to crucify ours.
These words drive us to the demanding heart of Christianity – which admonishes us to follow God’s will alone, and never our own hopes and plans and schemes (Matthew 26:39; LW 42:48).
8. And in the eighth part we ask God to help us pray properly – since we don’t even know what’s best for us (Isaiah 5:20, 30:10):
Keep us from desiring anything temporal or eternal that does not praise and honor your name. If we should ask you for any such things, we pray that you would not hear our foolishness.
This prayer keeps us from doting on ourselves since it admits how foolish we can be (BC, pp. 360, 568). When we admit this, then we are beginning to move in the direction of thanking God for all of his goodness and mercy – challenging though it may be.
9. And in the ninth part we ask specifically for a thankful heart – knowing full well that we cannot make ourselves be grateful:
Help us that with all our possessions, words, and works we may praise and honor only you, and not through them seek to win a name for ourselves. We glorify you alone to whom all things belong. Guard us against the shameful evil of ingratitude.
The reason given for being thankful is that all depends on God – which then is pitted against our deep yearnings and corrupt longings for self-glorification.
10. And in the tenth part of this prayer we ask for clarity and courage of mind so that we can exalt Christ Jesus above everything else that we enjoy in this life (Philippians 3:8; LW 23:55):
O Lord, you have given us your Son, Jesus Christ, who is far more precious and dear than heaven, and much stronger than sin, death, the devil, and hell. For this we rejoice, praise, and thank you. In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This prayer helps us see that salvation from sin and the gift of eternal life in heaven are what matter most – which is why we are supposed to seek after them before anything else (Matthew 6:33).
The Great Thanksgiving
And secondly Christ empowers us through the Lord’s Supper – the Holy Eucharist or Great Thanksgiving (LW 35:98; 36:19, 171; 37:144, 313; 38:122-123). For when we eat of the bread and drink from the cup, knowing that “in, with, and under” (BC, p. 575) the consecrated bread and wine we mysteriously receive Christ himself (John 6:56), we can then walk in righteousness and thank God as we should. For in “this most venerable sacrament,” we have
an abiding memorial of his bitter passion and death and of all his blessings, a seal of the new covenant, a comfort for all sorrowing hearts, and a true bond and union of Christians with Christ their head and with one another (BC, p. 577).
This memorial, seal and bond are all powerful. They give us the “abundant life” (John 10:10) that only Christ Jesus can give, which turns us once again into children of God (John 1:12, 14:6; Ephesians 2:3-7). This comes from his death on the cross (John 12:32). And for this we remember and give thanks (Luke 22:19).
And precisely because faith in Christ makes us children of God, we also want to do good works in his name (Colossians 3:17). On this national holiday there can be no better work for us to do than giving up on expecting people to thank us for helping them (Luke 17:9). So while it is important for us to be grateful, and for all people everywhere also to be grateful, we can never demand that of them – nor even expect it from them. This is so even when scientists are mounting proofs that being grateful “leads to increased life satisfaction and optimism” [M. Y. Bartlett & D. DeSteno, “Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior,” Psychological Behavior 17 (April 2006) 14]. The reason, however, for giving up on being thanked is not because we know people are ungrateful bipeds as Dostoyevsky said. It is rather about why we help them in the first place. And the point is that we are not supposed to do this to be thanked – and to feel good about ourselves. No, we instead are to help simply because it’s our duty (Luke 17:10). So if people aren’t grateful for what we do, that’s no reason to stop helping them or despair – provided that what we’re doing is still of some help. No, our only motivation should be to fulfill our duty and help others.
Once again it is Kierkegaard who explains this best. In Works of Love (1847), he shows how our duty to love is what enriches love – saving it from both the “heat of spontaneous love” which is the “sickness of jealousy,” and the “sluggishness” of a love that has been “dissipated in the lukewarmness and indifference of habit.” Love gains this “enduring continuance” when it has “undergone the change of eternity by having become a duty” – which makes our help as glorious as “sterling silver” (Kierkegaard’s Writings 16:32, 35, 36). Being enriched through duty, the help we give is then made steady and truly loving – having been freed from the need to be thanked. And it is this same change of eternity that also helps us thank God in the way that pleases him. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)