Many of us are giving thanks today, but are we thanking God, thanking our friends or throwing into the air an undirected thanks?
I thought about the direction of our thankfulness after spending a weekend with a successful writer who is an atheist. (Call him Ahab.) We debated basic theology on Saturday and had a good time. But on Sunday, we had a rancorous time when discussing today's biggest issues: gay marriage and abortion. That got me thinking; why was the first discussion fun and the second painful?
My sense is that the rancor of the second discussion grew out of an unresolved matter during the first: whether "thank" requires an object. Ahab mentioned a recent vacation in which he was swimming peacefully in a calm fragment of the Atlantic Ocean. He felt enormously thankful for his opportunity to be in such a beautiful place. I asked him whom he was thanking. Maybe book buyers who had helped him become affluent? (But they didn't make the ocean.) Maybe his parents and wife? (But they didn't make the ocean.)
I felt he was impoverished by being able, in that situation, only to say, in essence, "I thank" -- rather than, "I thank you." Because he would not credit the Creator, the experience was not as rich as it otherwise could have been.
What does that have to do with our second-day rancor? Only this: That thanking God, for a Christian, is also bound up with trusting God. Christians (I'm one) are thanking God for grace, unmerited favor. Especially because we have not earned such compassion, we thank God for seeing exactly who we are and giving us what we need to change.
We love God not as equals, but as recipients of his kindness and respecters of his omnipotence. That's why the Bible tells us he is our Father in heaven and why the Apostles' Creed begins, "I believe in one God, the Father almighty." And so when God tells us in the Bible to believe or do something and we don't fully understand why, we still try to do it; God has done so much for us that we give him the benefit of the doubt.
If we say "thank" instead of "thank you," God does not get that benefit. Given our natural egos, we are more likely to ignore him or even declare that he does not exist. So Ahab and I could agree that it's not right to murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet, but he is unwilling to define murder to include the work of abortionists because he wants abortion to remain a right. And Ahab thinks marriage should be expanded to include not only homosexual nuptials, but polyamorous groups.
I can't agree with him because of what the Bible says. Curiously, we became rancorous about applying the second half of the Ten Commandments, but it's the first commandment that makes sense of everything that follows: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."
Thanksgiving is a time to thank God by reaffirming -- not just in theory, but in experience -- he and the Bible have proved worthy of our trust. At the times we feel let down, we still know -- because we have learned through hard experience -- God is the only source of light. Even the bleakest of the 150 psalms, Psalm 88, recognizes that.
If our deliverer sometimes asks us to affirm certain tenets that cause us difficulty or surpass our understanding, we should do so because of the relationship he established with us, one that causes us to say not "thank," but "thank you." In the end, we give thanks not because God has given us a lot of food (or a little), but because he changed our hearts.