Being "thankful" to God is often spoken of as a "duty," and "obligation." While no objection can rightfully be registered to thanksgiving as such, we surely must not limit our understanding of it to this realm. One might as well think of watermelon as being composed only of rind, or of roses only of thorns if we fail to see the purely voluntary and "from-the-heart" side of thanksgiving. While duty and obligation define the obedient nature of the children of God, there is much more to our relationship to God than response to commands.
That being "thankful" is a command is evident from the scriptures. Both the Old Testament and the New remind us not to be forgetful of God's bountiful blessings. Psalm 100:4 teaches, "...be thankful unto him and bless his name..." Colossians 3:15, after reminding us that the peace of Christ should rule our hearts, says, "...and be ye thankful." Without a doubt, we need such reminders. Like little children must be taught not to take favors from others for granted but to say "thank you," so also must we be reminded not to take God for granted. But here is the difference we must strive to see. A little child may be polite and, from the result of training in the home, say "thank you" when given something, observing etiquette alone, without feeling grateful in his heart. This is quite different from actually being thankful for the favor bestowed.
As Christians study the Bible, we are taught to be thankful. This may express itself even by a perfunctory "giving of thanks" at the table. But we should progress beyond the point of merely being "polite" to God and really understand what this means. If we truly understand it, our service to the Lord will take on a fuller meaning than that of dumb service like an ox in a yoke. We will not hear brethren ask, "Do I have to attend every service?" or be in a constant state of turmoil and indecision about how much time, talent and money to allow the Lord. A proper view of "thanksgiving" will put such passages as Matthew 6:33 ("Seek ye first the kingdom of God...") into the right perspective for us all.
Pauls said of himself that he was "chief of sinners" when he persecuted the church. Looking back on that dark part of his life and comparing it with the work of an aposle, he said, "I thank him that enabled me, even Christ Jesus our Lord, for that he counted me faithful, appointing me to his service; though I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: howbeit I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 1:12-14).
Brethren, Paul wasn't saying "thank you" to God perfunctorily, or because he had been taught to do so as a good Jew. He wasn't just being polite. Paul knew that he had been lost and in rebellion to God's will (however ignorantly he may have done it). But by God's grace and mercy, this "chief of sinners" (vs. 15) was forgiven and made whole. In the full realization of this bountiful gift, Paul spoke from the heart about his thankfulness. And, to make the lesson complete, Paul reminds us that "for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering, for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life" (vs. 15, 16). The next verse (17) is somewhat reminiscent of Miriam's song of deliverance on the banks of the Red Sea after being delivered from the enemy: "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." Has any language ever been invented that says it any better? The reader can see Paul's heartfelt thanks in every letter as he considers the wonderful gift of God's grace.
Here is our example, not just of polite words spoken in moments soon forgotten, but from hearts that are lifted up and made free from sin by the unspeakable gift of God's love. We are free! We are children of God! Our names are inscribed in God's Book of Life in Heaven! With this in view, can we dare speak of thanksgiving only as a duty and obligation? Surely we can comprehend a deeper meaning than this. Surely we can. And when we do, there will be an added dimension to our relationship to God, to our service to God, that will transcend any understanding limited only to duty and obligation.
Let no one understand this to be a deprecation of duty, however. It is the base upon which obedience is built. What I am saying is that anyone who considers duty and obligation to be a full and complete understanding of our relationship with God has missed the mark. Such a one has far to go in learning of God. None can go to heaven without "doing the will" of our Father (Matthew 7:21, etc.) and obedience must be "from the heart" (Romans 6:17) which speaks of more than some allow.
Let us learn to be truly thankful for all of our blessings and for the full fellowship with God. Nothing less can satisfy the will of Him from which all blessings flow nor satisfy the nature of man that is made in His image. "Be ye thankful..."
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