"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
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’m not sure of all the reasons why, but it definitely has something to do with the menu and football. I am also pretty certain that the minimal consumeristic exploitation of the holiday has something to do with it.
Obviously, there is no such thing as a non-commercialized holiday in the American calendar, because finding a way to monetize everything is part of our national ethos. But as far as our holidays go, Thanksgiving has been the least hijacked by our materialism.
Perhaps Turkey Day has been overlooked by market forces because it’s sandwiched between the crowned jewels of the retail industry, Halloween and Christmas. But the bottom line for me is that it’s an almost stand-alone day that is intended for food, family, friends, and the simple, essential, and yet far-too-often neglected practice, of reflection.
When the Apostle Paul described the decadence and opulence which surrounded first-century Christians in the Mediterranean world, he traces the godless corruption, pagan practices, and sexual deviancy back to the some unsuspected roots of individual ingratitude and indifference, writ large.
Or said differently, Paul's evaluates an anything-goes, ancient, mainstream culture that included things like temple prostitutes and violent combat for sport, and he's making the claim that, of all things, thanklessness and thoughtlessness about God going viral. Paul may be wildly out of touch and hyper religious, but let's pretend he's a credible voice for now and at least explore how this could be true.
In Paul's theology, the heart of sin is a disregard for God; a willful ignoring of that which deserves and demands our attention; a refusal of the smallest expression of our rightful allegiance. And because Satan is the enemy of our souls, the least obvious and intrusive advancement of his agenda, is to keep us distracted from Jesus and discontent with any and every aspect of our lives.
Brothers and sisters, this means that neither ingratitude nor indifference toward God are morally neutral categories. God is not unaffected by our ungratefulness, nor is he indifferent toward our indifference. A vague awareness of God without a particular mindfulness of and appreciation for God is inherently dishonoring to God. He is honored only when our hearts are provoked to a conscious relief and joy and gratefulness to Him for all that He is and all that He does. Anything less than that is sin having it’s way in and through us. Indifference is not stagnancy or status quo. Directionally speaking, even our inattention toward God is moving us away from him and the life He's created and saved us to experience.
Indifference is not really any better than ingratitude. It's just passive ingratitude. And both are contrary to thankfulness, which is one of the most forceful commands in all of Scripture when weighted by the sheer frequency of the imperative in it's various forms.
“Praise the Lord!” “Rejoice in the Lord!” “Give thanks to the Lord!”
All of these are different ways of commanding thankfulness. And anytime God commands something we can be sure it is both a moral good and a non-normal human trait. Gratitude, therefore, is unnatural. Thankfulness is non-instinctual. The tide of the human heart always pulls powerfully toward grumbling, complaining and discontent. That’s why over and over again, God implores us to intentionally nurture in our own hearts, and to consciously cultivate in our own communities, an attitude of appreciation for the Lord, and a clear sense of our indebtedness to the Lord, for the full range of His goodness and grace to us.
Paul is making the case that if a culture can be accurately characterized by the extreme moral categories of evil, wickedness and corruption, it can be traced back to the very ordinary, acceptable and ignored sins of thanklessness and thoughtlessness.
For a culture to slide into utter moral degradation, Paul is warning us that it only requires a high enough concentration of individuals within that culture to be characteristically ungrateful toward God. We don't know what number or percentage of people tip those scales within a given social environment, but we can easily determine that each person will contribute to the overall movement of a culture on the moral continuum. We will each either drift with the worldly and fleshly tide away from godliness, or we will swim against that powerful pull of godlessness, toward a better future together.
If we take Paul's connections seriously here, than it radically intensifies our engagement with Thanksgiving as a holiday, but it highlights our much greater need for thanksgiving as a way of life.
I wonder which one more aptly characterizes you. I know I'm ashamed to consider for a moment how compulsively and chronically I tilt my own family, community and social environment toward the tragedy of Romans 1. If you're with me in that, then here is our next best opportunity to reverse the trend and swim against the tide. We can thank God right now, for his grace to us, in Jesus, which anticipated our pathological discontent and gave us something to be grateful for even at our worst... and that's the Jesus has already paid the price that our sin demands and absorbed the shame, humiliation and embarrassment for our pervasive cynicism and narcissism.
Repentance is the real beginning to thankfulness. An act of faith in which we simultaneously acknowledge our failure and receive the gracious gift of God's forgiveness and His generous provision of a way forward, free from bondage to our indifference and ingratitude.
As Christians, we also know that we're in need of God's mercy even at our best. And as we live with a consciousness of that, our personal character and our relational culture is to become normatively defined by thankfulness to the Lord. This requires an other worldly, unearthly intervention.
We need the supernatural rescue of the Holy Spirit to make us constantly, or at least consistently, mindful of and oriented toward that which God has done and is doing in our world and on our behalf. And we need the moment-by-moment, Spirit-empowered will to choose to live in the light of those realities, rather than in the darkness of the lesser realities, such as unpleasant circumstances or uncomfortable situations in which we inevitably find ourselves.
Thanksgiving, friends, can be a one-day break from our normal malaise toward God; a one-day blip that socially sanctions sentimentality. Or, it can be a supernaturally-charged reminder of what is to be ordinarily descriptive of us as God’s people; a day that gives us a hyper-concentration on what should be normal among us every day. Maybe, with God's help, this Thanksgiving can be more than a national holiday. Maybe it can be more of a declaration of war against the kingdom of darkness. And maybe we can enter the fray and stay in the trenches year 'round.