How Our Thanksgiving (or Lack of it) May be Revealing Our Idolatries

In Thanksgiving, we do not need to import another American custom into India. But these five reflective questions could help us turn away from idolatry and grow in our gratitude to God.

Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude, feasting and celebration is alien to Indians. Most families do not celebrate it. Hardly anyone puts a turkey on their dining table. It is not a public holiday.

A vast majority of Indians do not know what Thanksgiving Day really is, why it is celebrated, or when.

Surely, we do not need to mindlessly copy and import an American custom into Indian culture. Even more so, because of some colonial undertones in the origin of this celebration.

Besides, Thanksgiving is not even a Christian holiday, though the underlying idea of gratitude is deeply biblical.

There is no reason Indians need to pay any attention to the quintessentially American celebration of Thanksgiving Day. But there is every reason we must pay more attention to the biblical posture of thankfulness.

It is not wise to get sucked into all the Thanksgiving-related social media buzz and shopping frenzy. Nor do we need to completely ignore this American celebration.

A better, third approach is to use this time as a fresh reminder to be grateful to God.

Our Gratitude and Our Spiritual Well-being

In the busy pursuits of this earthly life, we are all at least a little guilty of being less thankful than we ought to be.

So this could be a time for some honest reflection on our thankfulness to God or the lack of it. Both may help us uncover some idolatries that we may not be aware of, or not paying enough attention to.

Most of us will readily agree that being thankful reflects godly character. We have all experienced how the gospel re-orients our hearts to greater thankfulness.

But we may not always fully grasp the grave peril that a lack of gratitude to God can push us towards.

The Bible warns us that a lack of thankfulness is sometimes the first sign that we are drifting away from faith in God and toward sin and idolatry.

As Romans 1:21 argues: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

The extent of thankfulness we are experiencing in our hearts is a good measure of how well we are being rooted and built up in Christ.

The Bible also encourages us to thankfulness as strongly as it warns us of the consequences of its lack.

The apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians is an exhortation to wait well until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his closing notes in this letter, Paul calls believers to live in a perpetual state of thankfulness, irrespective of life circumstances. 

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

This is not a call to ignore or deny the hardships of life. Nor is this call to put on fake faith and bravado in times of trouble.

Instead, Paul is calling us to see the sufficiency of Christ and his eternal and unshakeable blessing for us despite every struggle. 

As we fashion a wise, measured and nuanced response to Thanksgiving, here are five questions that may help us grow in this biblical posture of gratitude.

1. Are We Thankful Enough?

It is not easy to be thankful when we are busy. City life in India generally gushes forth at an unrelenting pace. There is generally little time to pause, leave alone be thankful. 

Besides, a pursuit of things we do not yet have is the general state of being in busy cities. We overlook the things we do have. This too is not conducive to contentment, or the gratitude that flows from it.

It is no surprise that the apostle Paul was wise and prescient in including being thankful as a necessary step in the process of growing in Christ.

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col 2:6-7).

Put another way, the extent of thankfulness we are experiencing in our hearts is a good measure of how well we are being rooted and built up in Christ.

2. Why Are We Not Thankful Enough?

This pointed question can help us unmask our idolatries. 

We all tend to turn good things into ultimate things. We over-love or over-desire some good gifts, pinning our entire joy and hope on them.

These idols of the heart, enslave us and keep us running behind them, but they never satisfy us. Ultimately, they always fail us.

Idolatry makes the temporary things that we do not have seem far more valuable than the eternal blessings we already have in Christ.

There could be another sin lurking beneath our lack of gratitude.

The literary opposite of gratitude is ingratitude. But the theological and functional opposite of gratitude is entitlement.

A sense of entitlement is another reason we are ungrateful.

“I have earned all I have. I don’t need to thank anyone for it.” We may never verbalise this disposition of our hearts, or even be aware of it. But this false notion often lurks in our subconsciousness.

Entitlement is an unseen current that causes us to drift away from enjoying God’s goodness and steadfast love.

3. What Are We Mostly Thankful For? And, What Are We Generally Not Thankful For?

It is good to be thankful to God always and for everything, small, and big (Eph 5:20).

But if we are abundantly thankful for a certain kind of gifts God gives us, but experience far less gratitude, or none at all, for other blessings, it may be a pointer to our idolatrous inclinations.

Entitlement is an unseen current that causes us to drift away from enjoying God’s goodness and steadfast love.

One example is being overwhelmed with gratitude for every career success, but not experiencing enough thanksgiving for the many joys of a loving family. Patterns like this should be warnings of potential idolatry.

Only a few pockets of thankfulness in our lives may give us a false sense of spiritual well-being.

The gospel—who Jesus is, what he has already done for us, what he is presently doing for us, and what he will do for us in the future—is powerful enough to stir us to a whole life of gratitude.

Partial thankfulness suggests a partial appropriation and enjoyment of the good news of grace.

4. What Are We Grumbling About Instead of Being Thankful?

If a lack of thankfulness is perhaps a clue to the early stages of idolatry, then a constant and bitter grumbling or grief over something may suggest that the idolatry is already full-blown.

Grumbling is a sin. But some other negative emotions in themselves are not cause for alarm. It is reasonable to experience grief, disappointment, and even anger in some circumstances. In fact, expressing many such emotions is vital for emotional, spiritual, and, even physical well-being.

But our idolatry alarms should start ringing when the negative emotion we experience is disproportionately more intense than what the setback or concern causing it warrants.

5. What is Our Greatest Reason For Thankfulness?

In Colossians, Paul exhorts us to let the “word of Christ” dwell in us richly, leading us to teach one another in all wisdom, singing with thankfulness in our hearts (Col 3:16).

What is this “word of Christ” that must dwell in us richly, producing thankfulness?

It is the gospel, or the good news, that Jesus Christ came to preach and accomplish.

Here is the ultimate test of authentic biblical thankfulness. Are we truly more thankful for this “word of Christ” than career success, a joyful family, or, any other blessing?

A heart of gratitude, in general, draws us closer to God. But deepest intimacy with God is most experienced when our lives become a heartfelt melody of thankfulness for the infinitely costly sacrifice that Christ made to accomplish our salvation.

Only an indescribable joy of salvation can deliver us from every idolatry.