The Common Sense of Thanksgiving

By the “common sense” of Thanksgiving, I’m not referring to the ability to make sound judgments, or to practical savvy upstairs, or to practical suggestions for cooking a turkey or decorating for the Thanksgiving holiday. Rather, I am referring to an intuitive awareness or an instinctive knowledge that is common to all men. Therefore, when I speak of “the common sense of thanksgiving,” I am referring to that intuitive sense possessed by all men of the ethical propriety of giving thanks. All men in their heart-of-hearts instinctively recognize the appropriateness of expressing gratitude to another for benefits received.

Some Indications of the “Common Sense” of Thanksgiving

Is there really a universal awareness of the appropriateness of giving thanks? In light of a national holiday, it certainly seems that Americans recognize the propriety of thanksgiving. Even in spite of the ongoing recession, Americans still feel the need to give thanks. Of course, there are some people who would attribute the American practice of thanksgiving to our Christian heritage. “Americans give thanks,” they would argue, “not so much out of instinct as out of tradition.”

It is certainly true that our national holiday of thanksgiving has Christian roots. Thanksgiving Day is most commonly associated with the Pilgrim’s first harvest feast in 1621. Without doubt this feast was prompted by Christian conviction. The Pilgrims’ Bible made it clear that the giving of thanks was their religious duty.

The leadership of our country has perpetuated this Christian tradition. In his first presidential proclamation, President George Washington declared November 26th, 1789, the first national day of thanksgiving and said, “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” President Lincoln reaffirmed this tradition when on October 3rd, 1863, he invited all his fellow citizens to observe the last Thursday of November “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in heaven.” So undoubtedly, the American practice of thanksgiving is to some degree rooted in Christian tradition.

There’s good evidence, however, that the practice of thanksgiving extends beyond Christian tradition. For example, the American Indians recognized the propriety of giving thanks even before the Pilgrims landed on American soil. One ancient Indian ritual makes this statement: “Our Creator shall continue to dwell above the sky, and that is where those on earth will end their thanksgiving.” So the Indians believed it was proper to thank their Creator. In Dallas, Texas, there is an organization called The Center for World Thanksgiving. And they have several articles on their website regarding the origins of thanksgiving. Allow me to quote some extracts from these articles:

Thanksgiving and gratitude have marked important milestones in American life for hundreds of years, but thanksgiving isn’t only an American tradition. The roots of thanksgiving and gratitude stem from the human universal need to express gratitude through prayer, gift-giving, and celebrations practiced throughout the world.1

Here’s another quote:

Worldwide, the values and traditions of thanksgiving are found in every culture and religion. Indeed, all the major world religions—including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have rituals, observances and liturgies that express thanks to a higher power for the gift of life and its wonders. 2

I wouldn’t advocate the ecumenical agenda of this organization. Nevertheless, I do agree with their observation regarding the universal need to express gratitude. The presence of gratitude in the language and culture of every nation and every religion seems to indicate a common sense of thanksgiving.

Some Implications of the “Common Sense” of Thanksgiving

What is the significance of this common sense of thanksgiving? What implications can we draw from this universal phenomenon?

Our common sense of thanksgiving confirms God’s existence.

You’ve heard of the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments for the existence of God. Well, this is what I am calling the “thanksgiving argument” for the existence of God. How does the universal sense of the propriety of thanksgiving prove the existence of God? In this way: apart from the existence of God, it is impossible to explain the fact and significance of this common sense of thanksgiving. And the only way that we can explain the fact and significance of this common sense of thanksgiving is to presuppose the existence of God.

For example, try to explain the fact and meaning of gratitude from the standpoint of a purely secular and materialistic worldview.

According to secular materialism, you and I are nothing more than a complex cluster of atoms and electrical impulses. And if that’s what we are, then why should one cluster of atoms give thanks to another cluster of atoms? We don’t expect the soil to thank the sun for warming it. We don’t expect the tree to thank the raindrops for watering it. We don’t expect the carpet to thank the vacuum for cleaning it. If we’re basically made of the same stuff as everything else in this universe, then how can we account for this universal intuition among men of the propriety of thankfulness?

Let me approach it from another angle. Most Americans are grateful to have been born in America. Most Americans recognize that there are many benefits and privileges in this country that are not found in other places in the world. Thus, we tend to look down on those Americans who are ungrateful. We tend to expect every American to feel some measure of gratitude for having been born in this country. Now follow me carefully—“Thanksgiving” is defined as an act in which one expresses gratitude to another for benefits received. Here’s the question: if thanksgiving is an act whereby we express our gratitude to another, then to whom should Americans give thanks?

Someone says, “We should thank our parents.” True, inasmuch as our parents have faithful cared for us and provided for our needs we certainly owe them thanks. Someone else says, “Americans should thank their government.” I agree that inasmuch as our government faithfully upholds the laws of the land and protects our liberties, we can give thanks to our government. Former President George Bush said that we ought to thank our fellow Americans for being such a generous people. I agree that we should appreciate the kind acts of our fellow Americans.

But let us remember that neither our parents nor our government ultimately determined that we would be born in America. Yet there is something inside of us that prompts us to offer our thanks to Someone greater and higher than either the government or our parents. This is why multitudes of Americans still gather in churches and temples and synagogues and mosques and shrines in order to give thanks to the One who created them.

You see, the common sense of thanksgiving—the universal recognition of the propriety of gratitude—proves and confirms the very existence of the God to whom all men owe thanks. One writer has observed, “Were there no God, we would be in this glorious world with grateful hearts and no one to thank.” But the truth of the matter is—were there no God, there would be no such thing as grateful hearts!  But there is such a thing as gratitude. And that gratitude confirms the existence of God!

Our common sense of thanksgiving reveals a primary purpose for our existence.

Why did God create man? The Bible tells us that God created man for His own glory (Isa 43:7). This is why the Shorter Catechism teaches us that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. What does it mean to “glorify” God?  Basically, it means, to honor God. And one of the primary ways by which men honor and glorify God is when they give Him thanks. Indeed, the Bible closely connects the ideas of glorifying and thanking.

Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine — where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:15-18; emphasis added).

If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks? Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:30-31; emphasis added).

And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever (Rev 4:9; emphasis added).

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen” (Rev 7:9-12; emphasis added).

These passages teach us that we were created to glorify God, and one of the primary ways we fulfill our purpose for existence is by rendering Him thanksgiving.  And if this is so, then we cannot expect to live happy and productive lives unless we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. The great theologian, Augustine of Hippo taught that the human soul is restless until it finds its rest in God. Likewise, it can be said that the human soul is never truly happy unless it’s overflowing with gratitude to God.

Our common sense of thanksgiving exposes our sin of ingratitude.

At some level in their consciousness, all men recognize that they should be thankful to Creator—that’s the very purpose for which they were created. However, as we consider our fellow men, and ourselves and as we reflect upon our attitudes and actions, we have to conclude that God does not receive that gratitude He really deserves.

Think for a few moments of all the benefits, which God has bestowed upon men.

First, consider the fact that God created us and the beautiful world in which we live. Did God owe us our existence or a place in His created universe?  Of course not; it’s a gift!

Second, consider that fact that God sustains our existence every day. God is the one who gives us the food that we eat, the water that we drink, and the air that we breathe. These too are gifts for which we ought to be eternally grateful.

Third, consider the great dignity with which God has endowed mankind.  Consider the engineering marvel of our bodies. We can taste, we can feel, we can smell, we can see, and we can hear. All of these are wonderful blessings. And think of our minds and emotions. We have the ability to reason and think and calculate. We have the ability to experience joy and love and even warm feeling of gratitude!

Beyond all of this, consider the fact that the Invisible God who created us has also chosen to reveal Himself to us. The heavens declare the glory of God! Our own conscience and heart bear witness to the reality of God. And not just that there is a God, but a GOOD God! As Paul the Apostle once declared to a city of pagans, “God has not left you without a witness, in that He did good and gave you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Now if we truly appreciate God’s goodness to mankind, and if we weigh it against man’s attitude and expressions of gratitude, I’m afraid we find human gratitude to be greatly deficient!

How often to you see people in the restaurant bowing their head before a meal to given thanks? How often do you hear successful businessmen, give God the praise for prospering their work? How often do you hear our government leaders thanking God for the blessings and liberties this country enjoys? We don’t hear it often, do we? Not as often as we should!

This is what the Scripture means when it teaches, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It’s not that all men fail to be as glorious as God is glorious. Rather, it’s that all men fall short of rendering God the honor that is due to His name! God deserves the highest measure of gratitude that men can give. But how little thanksgiving we hear offered to God! And when we do hear men thank God, it’s often not the true God who created them. Consider the witness of Romans 1:18-23:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (emphasis added).

This is a general indictment against mankind. Although all men are intuitively aware of their Creator, they give Him neither the appropriate honor nor the appropriate thanks that He deserves. This ingratitude does not have to take the form of atheism. According to this passage, men may be very religious, and yet fail to thank their Creator. They may exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for an image of their own making.

Earlier I alluded to the multitudes of Americans who because of a common sense that they ought to be thankful gather in churches and temples and synagogues and mosques and shrines in order to thank their Higher Power. The sad reality is that most of those people are giving thanks to the wrong god. They are withholding the gratitude they owe to the true God—the God they know in their heart-of-hearts—and they are offering that gratitude instead to a false god.

Imagine a wife who is deeply devoted and faithful to her husband. Imagine that her husband goes away on a month long business trip. During that time she faithful cares for his children and administers the affairs of the home. Then at his coming homecoming, she fixes up the house, buys a new dress, arranges for a babysitter, prepares his favorite meal, and sets the stage for a romantic evening.  Imagine how that faithful and devoted wife would feel if for the whole evening her husband did nothing but praise another woman with whom he had been working.  She would be terribly grieved and hurt.

That is exactly how God feels when he loads men with countless benefits, and yet they give their thanks and praise to another! It grieves and breaks His holy heart!  Such is the ingratitude of our sinful heart. And our very sense that we should be endlessly thankful exposes the sinful reality that we are so little thankful.

Our common sense of thanksgiving reveals our desperate need for forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

There is a God. Our chief end is to be grateful to this God. But we miserably fail to do so. Therefore, our common sense of thanksgiving reveals that we desperate need to be saved from this ingratitude. Like the leper cleansed of his leprosy, we need to be cleansed of our ingratitude. We need God to remove our heart of stone, and replace it with a heart of flesh.

Are you an ungrateful person? Do you rarely feel compelled to pause and give thanks to God? Are you always complaining about something or someone?

Then I encourage you to flee to Christ!  He died for ungrateful sinners like you and me that we might have the forgiveness of sins. And I encourage you to ask God to give you a new heart—a heart that overflows with gratitude.

Bob Gonzales

  1. “Thanksgiving—One of Humanity’s Most Universal Gestures” (accessed Nov 27, 2008).
  2. “Gratitude and Thanksgiving—A Worldwide Tradition” (accessed Nov 27, 2008).