Gratitude offers benefits for our health and well-being, and science confirms this power of thanksgiving. But is there more to thanksgiving for Christians?
If someone told you there was a technique you could adopt to sleep better, improve your interpersonal relationships, be happier and suffer from fewer aches and pains, would you be interested?
According to psychologist Lisa Firestone in a November 2015 Psychology Today article, these benefits are just a handful of those possible through gratitude. This power of thanksgiving is well attested in scientific literature, and many self-help books urge readers to practice gratitude for their own well-being.
Even so, science has not considered the greatest benefits of thanksgiving. That’s because science, by definition, focuses on the physical, but these benefits are spiritual.
Thanksgiving in Scripture
The words thanks or thanksgiving appear in the Bible more than 100 times. Not only are we told to “offer to God thanksgiving” (Psalm 50:14), but we are twice told that when we approach God, we should do so with thanksgiving (Psalm 95:2; 100:4).
In fact, thanksgiving is so important that there is even a specific type of sacrifice dedicated to it (Leviticus 7:12; 22:29). But why? Is God in need of affirmation from His children? Of course not! All that God does and commands is based on His unsurpassed love for us. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and what He asks us to do comes from that love.
We can gain a better understanding of the true power of thanksgiving—how it works in the lives of Christians and how it benefits us—by looking at the apostle Paul. His epistles, or letters, account for nearly a third of the uses of the words thank, thanks, thankful and thanksgiving in Scripture.
Quite a few of those uses appear immediately after the greetings at the beginnings of Paul’s epistles. Using such expressions as “I thank my God” (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philemon), “thanks be to God” (2 Corinthians) or “we give thanks” (Colossians, 1 Thessalonians), Paul made it a point to let the various congregations know that he thanked God for them.
Praying with thanksgiving
The concept of thanksgiving, however, is sprinkled throughout his letters. Writing to the church at Philippi almost a decade after he had founded it, Paul urged members to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Notice that the admonition to give thanks is paired with one to avoid anxiety. Perhaps you find such a link surprising. Why would anyone who has reason to be anxious, whether due to health issues, money problems or other worries, offer thanksgiving? Yet that is the very thing Paul admonished the Philippians to do.
The church at Philippi was not experiencing great trials or troubles at the time. There was no widespread persecution, nor was there conflict among the members as there was in Corinth. Paul’s advice was general, included in an epistle considered by at least one scholar (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Philippians) as “the most personal.”
On the other hand, Paul himself was in the midst of a severe trial. He had been arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 21:30-33) and imprisoned in Caesarea for two years, from A.D. 57-59 (Acts 24:27). When Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:10-12) as a Roman citizen, the authorities had no choice but to send him to Rome, where Paul spent another two years (Acts 28:30-31).
It was while he was imprisoned in Rome, awaiting the decision of the emperor as to whether he would live or die, that Paul wrote to the Philippian church.
Giving thanks in the midst of trial
In his opening remarks to the church at Philippi, Paul refers to his chains four times (Philippians 1:7, 13, 14, 16). He also mentions the “palace guard” (verse 13).
What is so striking about Paul’s letter, in view of his personal situation, is his first statement after his greeting: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you” (verse 3). Facing the potential of execution, Paul continued to follow his custom of thanking God for the congregation he was writing!
The church at Philippi would have been aware of Paul’s circumstances. When Paul urged the members to “be anxious for nothing” as they prayed with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6), they knew that the apostle didn’t merely suggest how they should pray, but that he lived his advice.
This sentence includes two Greek words denoting different aspects of prayer. In the New King James Version, those words are translated “prayer” and “supplication.” These words come from the Greek proseuchē and deēsis. According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, the first word “denotes the petitioner’s attitude of mind as worshipful,” and the second “denotes prayers as expressions of need” (Vol. 11, p. 152).
This twofold aspect is important in understanding Paul’s own practice as well as his teaching. Thanksgiving is an integral part of worship, and it is also important in making requests of God.
Thanksgiving in worship
Few people would argue with the idea that prayer is an important component in worship. Most would also agree that praise is essential. After all, most hymns praise God. But where does thanksgiving fit into the picture? It’s nice, it’s important, but is it really part of worship?
As mentioned earlier in this article, thanksgiving was so important in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament that there was a specific type of sacrifice dedicated to it. That’s because no one can sincerely give thanks to God without first acknowledging His blessings. And acknowledging God’s blessings implicitly means recognizing who God is, understanding His power and yielding to His will.
All of this requires humility, and humility is essential in our relationship with God. If we are not in the proper frame of mind, we cannot expect a positive response from God. As James wrote, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). So, thanksgiving helps connect us with our God.
Giving thanks before asking for blessings
Thanksgiving also makes a huge difference when we ask God for specific blessings. Paul undoubtedly asked God to free him from Roman imprisonment, and he probably asked many times during the four years he was in chains. Yet even as his imprisonment dragged on, he continued to thank God, recognizing God’s hand in his trials.
Only someone who thought deeply about his circumstances could write, telling the church at Philippi, “The things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).
After you have consciously set aside what makes you anxious, praying with thanksgiving, according to Paul, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).Instead of bemoaning his personal fate, Paul looked at how God was using this imprisonment to open doors for the gospel. Not only did the palace guard come to appreciate the significance of Paul’s house arrest (verse 13), but other Christians became bolder, able “to speak the word without fear” (verse 14).
Coming to understand how God uses our trials to accomplish His will changes the way we approach God, and it could very well change the way we thank Him and how we make requests. Instead of thanking God for only those times that He has answered our prayers according to our specifications, we come to the point that we can thank God for how He has used our trials to achieve His purposes.
In an epistle to another congregation, Paul confirmed this concept, telling the members that they should “in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). “Everything” leaves no room for exceptions in thanking God, whether or not our prayers have been answered according to our expectations.
The true power of thanksgiving
Once we start approaching God this way, setting our anxieties aside, we make it our habit to approach God with thanks in our heart—even when we are facing severe trials. To do so, we must think about how God has blessed us, or perhaps used us to bless others.
We also begin to see that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Knowing that our calling is based in God’s purpose and not in our immediate goals, we can more readily see how “things work together for good.”
The result can be surprising. After you have consciously set aside what makes you anxious, praying with thanksgiving, according to Paul, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
This peace comes because we choose to concentrate on God’s will and God’s purpose. This does not mean we ignore our problems, but they no longer dominate our thoughts.
Thanksgiving helps us approach God in humility, worshipping Him as the Almighty God who loves us. Thanksgiving helps us focus on all that God has accomplished in our lives. Thanksgiving changes us, and that is the true power of thanksgiving.