How should a non-Christian society celebrate Thanksgiving?

In our culture, we make Thanksgiving about enjoying life’s blessings more than really thanking God for them. To continue to call the day “thanksgiving” in a secular culture doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So why did one famous Christian talk about thanksgiving every time he was talking about theology with non-religious people?

In the Bible, Acts 14 records the Apostle Paul’s unusual encounter with the ancient city of Lystra. Paul was trying to explain who Jesus is, but the audience becomes so enthralled with Paul’s eloquence that they start worshipping him as a god. There’s a major disconnect in Lystran thinking—they believe in a pantheon of cranky gods who demand sacrifices from us, whereas Paul is explaining the true God sacrificed himself to save us.

So how does Paul plead with them to stop? Thanksgiving.

“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:15-17, emphasis added)

In other words: there’s one God who provides for all mankind, giving us heartbeats and harvest times. We can’t impress him with our sacrifices, just like you guys are trying to impress me by sacrificing to me as some sort of god. God is the one who provides for us. Aren’t you thankful?

Then, in Acts 17, Paul preaches to a similar group in Athens. The Athenian religion was so expansive that it even had a place for worshipping “the unknown god” just in case somebody missed one (Acts 17:23). Again, that’s way different from Paul’s worldview. So he says:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25, emphasis added)

Keep in mind, Paul isn’t preaching any hidden religious mysteries. He is explaining what is obvious to anyone who on this planet. We are all dependent on a higher power, an ultimate reality, our Creator, God. And that God doesn’t need us; we need him.

Finally, another part of the Bible basically records a fuller version of Paul’s message for non-religious audiences. Again, Paul makes it about thanksgiving:

“For what can be known about God is plain to (man), because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:19-23, emphasis added)

So what why should thanksgiving make sense to non-religious people?

1. Thanksgiving reminds us that God is real.

Thanksgiving doesn’t prove God exists. But it does target our intuition—the deep-down knowledge that God deserves our gratitude.

That’s why Paul wrote, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world” (Romans 1:20). Nature is enough proof that he is real. God gives us all food, land, air, water—our entire existence. We are wholly dependent on him.

So why are there atheists? Answer: a lack of thanksgiving.

If you want to feel like God is far away—so far away that he might not even exist—it may be because you’re ungrateful. You thank waitresses, cashiers, and people who hold the door open, but you’ve never really thought about everything God provides.

Think about how often your heart beats. Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Ba-bum. You can’t control it. It wouldn’t take very much to make it stop beating, yet it has kept up your entire life.

Try holding your breath for a minute. Good luck! Within a few seconds, you’ll start feeling more thankful for air. Did you make air? Did you create your lungs? Nope.

God doesn’t just keep our bodies running; he also holds together the very fabric of reality. Paul quoted the Athenians’ own poetry when he told them, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Paul also wrote that Christ, who is God in human form, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Someone else in the Bible wrote that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

A true thanksgiving mindset makes it difficult to remain an atheist.

Yet Paul explains, “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” (Romans 1:21, emphasis added).

2. Thanksgiving displays God’s goodness.

Why do people generally believe God is good when life is good, but doubt his existence when life is hard? It’s because deep inside, we know that if God is real, he is also good. When we don’t experience goodness, we start thinking God is somehow missing.

Thanksgiving helps us see God objectively. We get a more accurate picture of him by focusing on his goodness as one of his grandest character traits. It even makes us want him.

Contrast your attitude with the attitude of David, who wrote Psalm 16: “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you” (Psalm 16:2). No good apart from God, David? What about food and sex? Wow.

Can you imagine seeing God as your only true joy in life? We don’t usually think of God that way. But if he really is the infinite, ultimate good, it would make sense for us to crave him more than life itself. What gets in the way? Our own selfish, dark hearts.

3. Thanksgiving reveals that God is totally above us.

God doesn’t just keep our bodies running; he also holds together the very fabric of reality. Paul quoted the Athenians’ own poetry when he told them, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Paul also wrote that Christ, who is God in human form, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Someone else in the Bible wrote that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Paul’s audience didn’t understand this. They believed they could keep their gods at arm’s length, appeasing them with religion and generally skirting by.

But God’s transcendence means that he needs nothing from us. Paul had to explain that God doesn’t live in the temples we build him or need the sacrifices that pagan religions offer him (Acts 17:24-25).

We’re the ones who should celebrate thanksgiving for him, not the other way around. We can’t impress him. He deserves our total love and obedience, but he certainly doesn’t need us.

4. Thanksgiving confronts us with God’s patience.

As you start giving thanks for all God provides, you’ll inevitably realize his extreme patience. Nothing he gives us is deserved.

Jesus said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). That’s why many wicked, selfish people in America can still enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner without God necessarily striking them all dead. That’s why men like George Carlin could shake their fists at Heaven and survive.

God’s patience to this planet is incredible. Paul even says that God ensured that throughout human history, everyone would somehow be able to reach out and find God—which includes plenty of people who don’t deserve that kind of opportunity (Acts 17:26-27). No one will be able to look God in the eye in eternity, wag their finger at his fearsome face, and say, “It’s your fault I never found you!”

Right now, God doesn’t always treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). He keeps us alive for decades, each day tolerating our lies, lusting, hatred, and ungratefulness to him.

For now.

5. Thanksgiving reminds us that we deserve God’s wrath.

Every time Paul explains God’s patience, he adds a big “but.” See for yourself:

“We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God.” (Acts 14:15, emphasis added)

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31, emphasis added)

“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:4-5, emphasis added)

Does it frighten you to think that each breath of air is being handed to you by God, one at a time? That he could end your life right now, and he’d be perfectly justified in doing it because of your sins?

If that don’t make you grateful, you need to examine your heart. God’s perfection demands that he punish us for all our sins. There is no way a holy, righteous God could be so good to us and never call us to answer for our disobedience, selfishness, and apathy. Do you honestly think that your love for God is so great that his forgiveness is just going to come automatically? You and I truly deserve his wrath in Hell.

This all sets the stage for Paul’s real focus.

6. Thanksgiving whets our appetites for Christ’s sacrifice.

If you have tasted each Thanksgiving truth—God’s existence, goodness, transcendence, patience, and holiness—then your tongue should be absolutely parched in thirst for God’s mercy. Not the temporal mercy of food and shelter that most of us enjoy already; eternal mercy. Forgiveness.

So 2,000 years ago, God rolled out the tablecloth, set all the places, and laid before us a meal more satisfying than any Turkey dinner. It’s a spiritual meal: the bittersweet, savory, satisfying cross where Jesus died. God can fully forgive you because Jesus died and paid the punishment for all your ungratefulness and sin. And because Jesus also rose from the dead, you can be raised from the dead someday and enjoy God forever.

Christ’s love for you is the most satisfying thing God offers, so much so that the Bible constantly compares Jesus to the finest food. He is the bread of life (John 6:35) and the endless fountain of living water (John 7:38). His broken body is the heartiest bread for your soul; his blood is the sweetest drink (John 6:56). God invites you to fill yourself with Christ’s love to your heart’s content.

Thanksgiving means nothing if we don’t sink our teeth into God’s greatest gift of all. So Paul instructed believers to be “rooted and built up in (Christ) and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7, emphasis added).

So stuff yourself at God’s table! Consume the sacrifice of Christ’s death and resurrection by believing it and betting your life on it. Taste Christ’s love, and see how good God is.


Image credit: Martina Photography (CC 2.0)

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