Friday, November 26, 2010

Biblical Thanksgiving

So it's the day after, and your turkey is digesting, or digested. So let's talk about giving thanks.

So often in our culture thanksgiving comes down to me thanking God for making my life more comfortable. Thank you, God, for my house, family, food, cars, bank account, freedom, church, safety. Thank you that the lady in the VW pulled out just as I wheeled into the parking lot so I got that choice parking spot. It's about me and what I define as good in my life.

What if we gave thanks instead for God and what he defines as good?

This would quickly become a much more biblical view of giving thanks. In the Bible, especially in the book of Acts which is a template for Jesus-followers both individually and corporately, you will almost never find people thanking God for (or making a priority of) their own comfort. They are caught up in God's priorities and viewing reality from God's perspective. What is God's priority? Getting the word out about Jesus' resurrection and the new era that has dawned because of his victory over sin, death, and hell. So Peter, Paul and the rest see that which serves to get the good news of Jesus out as good, and that which hinders the spreading of that word as bad. So, for example, in Acts 5 Peter and John rejoice that they have been counted worthy to receive wounds for the name of Jesus. They pray not for protection but for boldness to continue speaking in the face of danger.

I don't think there's anything wrong with praying for protection, just like I don't think there's anything wrong with a three year old praying that there will be ice cream for dessert. For an immature child, that is an appropriate prayer. For a mature adult to pray for ice cream, however, would be pathetic and self-centered. If I pray for protection, it says that I believe God has nothing more important going on than keeping the four wheels of my vehicle in the proper lane, on dry pavement. If I am caught up in the purposes of God and sold out for his goals, it's his job to protect me if that best serves his interests. We may indeed come to the place as we grow in maturity where we recognize that my suffering, or the frustration of my own desires, may well serve God's agenda better than my comfort.

This is how we come to biblical thanksgiving, in which it is entirely appropriate for James, Paul, and the rest of the Bible's writers to encourage us to give thanks for our sufferings. These writers had lived through enough trials to recognize that God works in our suffering for both our good and for the advancement of his goals. As I suffer as a follower of Jesus, my character is formed and shaped to be more like him, and my suffering becomes a tool God uses -- both short term and long term, to spread the news about Jesus to others.

So as Jesus followers, perhaps we need to recognize that

1. the gift of freedom in this country has not only given rise to a plethora of churches and amazing creativity in ministry, but also to widespread complacency and immaturity in the church -- so maybe it's at best a mixed blessing.

2. the gift of turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and no pressing engagements after supper so we all lay on recliners in the living room is contributing to an ongoing pattern of weight gain, indolence, and self-satisfaction that may get in the way of God getting the word about Jesus out to people, so maybe we need to rethink our prayers of thanksgiving.

3. the lady pulling out of the parking place at that precise moment so I could walk less than fifty feet to the door for the amazing in-store door-buster specials the day after thanksgiving robbed me of the opportunity to stretch my legs and work off a few more calories I'd ingested the day before.

You get the picture? Maybe we're not as blessed as we think we are; maybe we're just self-indulgent so we see every consumable we receive as a blessing from God. God may want to lead us in a totally different direction, but our stomachs and our souls are so full we can't begin to sense the movement of his Spirit.

That's why fasting is a spiritual discipline, and why it's appropriate for us to give thanks when our stomach growls. Culturally it's a little weird but biblically it makes perfect sense.

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