Years ago, a friend of mine sent me an email, listing her reasons for being thankful. I noticed that, in her abundance of thanksgiving, however, a certain aimlessness to her gratitude. Yes, she offered thanks, and offered it with a joy and intensity that few people possess. But, despite the unmistakable genuineness of her thankfulness, the focus was on the gratefulness itself, with no object.
To what, or whom, was she thankful? God? What sort of “God” did she thank? My guess is, she embraced a hybrid “God” composed of the more agreeable attributes of the Christian God mixed with more Eastern ideas of benign cosmic energy. (I could be wrong, which would be nice.) She never mentioned any form of God, however; she merely exulted in her thankfulness.
Around this time each year, I think about that email, feeling sad that my friend exemplified such a generic gratitude. Thanks, however, must be directed to an actual benefactor. It cannot simply be flung out to an impersonal universe that had very little to do with the blessings we enjoy. Someone with a personality, as well as a personal interest in us, bestowed those blessings as an expression of His kindness.
Abraham Lincoln had a very specific benefactor in mind when, in 1863, he proclaimed that the fourth Thursday of November be a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Look at the complete text:
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
Whether Lincoln truly was a biblically defined Christian or not, his proclamation leaves little doubt that he intended this holiday to focus on the Christian God, even to the point of national repentance. To him, that God was the necessary object of thanksgiving.
Bringing the Lord into thanksgiving, especially a Lord that both deals with us in anger for our sins and remembers mercy, causes us considerable discomfort. We’d much prefer to thank a mindless universe than acknowledge how indebted we are to an actual Person! If we are in His debt, it follows that He has some type of authority over us. And none of us, if we’re honest, embraces that idea!
The implications of true thanksgiving challenge our increasingly secular culture, compelling Americans to make the day about food, family and football, to be followed by Black Friday bargain hunting. If we must talk about thankfulness, we prefer to keep that aspect minimal, emphasizing our blessings over the God Who blesses us. In short, we insulate ourselves from our debt to Him. And that insulation is incredibly sad.