On October 20, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln issued this official proclamation (#118) regarding the observance of Thanksgiving:
“Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”
The word “thanksgiving” as well as the concept of being thankful has always been unique to people who fear God. The manner in which they express and demonstrated their thanksgiving verifies this. Saying and expressing thanksgiving are two separate things. Both are to be done. Nevertheless, what has happened is similar to how we think of and express love. How often do we hear (and say) the phrase “I love you”? Does saying “I love you” equate to loving someone? So also, saying you’re thankful does not necessarily mean you are thankful. However, ungodly people can both say and express thanks. The thanksgiving of a Christian is most unique. Indeed, a Christian expresses thanksgiving in word and in deed. But their words do not contradict their deeds. That is the point. That is being Christ-like. Consider this: How many times in the Bible do you read of God or of Jesus saying they loved someone?
In John 3.16, 1 John 4.19, and Revelation 1.5, the apostle John speaks of the love that God and Christ had. But their personal utterance, to my knowledge, is not found. Is there any doubt that that God and Jesus love us? How do we know? We know because of how it was shown (John 15.13; Romans 5.8). We also know from such passages as Romans 3.5 that our thankfulness for God’s love cannot be shown by unrighteousness. We are no more at liberty to determine how we will thank God any more than we are at liberty to “do what is right in [our] own eyes” in the matter of worship. God has not left us in the dark as to how to thank him any more than he has left it up to us as to how we will worship him. Worship is unacceptable when offered with heartless lip service and when the transitions we observe are contrary to what God has commanded (Matthew 15.8-9; John 4.24).
Our worship is not to be unrestrained for we have divine guidance as to what and what not to do. So also, godly living is not an unrestrained lifestyle. Without divine guidance, people will become unrestrained (Proverbs 29.18). God’s grace is abused when we continue in sin simply because his grace abounds. We are to deny all ungodliness and worldly lusts (Titus 2.11-12).
The apostle Peter also affirmed that God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1.3). These “things” are to be added to our faith, that we might not live unrestrained (2 Peter 1.5-9). As we add them to our faith, we are expressing our thanksgiving. Worship and godly living are only acceptable when exercised in obedience. This is also true in regard to thanksgiving by the child of God.
Thankfulness is a discipline that needs to valued for its spiritual benefits. But like anything that is of value, it needs to be exercised (i.e., nurtured and expressed). That it is to be expressed is seen from such passages as, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Psalm 118.1; 1 Thessalonians 5.18). But god has declared that our zeal must be “according to knowledge” (Romans 10.1-3). Thus, the nurtured aspect of giving thanks must be by this knowledge. Being truly thankful begins with recognizing how entirely dependent we are upon God’s mercy and his ability to provide. Thankfulness is expressed out of confidence that he will (James 1.17ff). When our thanks is expressed in obedience, an ongoing benefit is that pride will be rooted out of our lives. If not, pride will dominate our lives (James 4.6).
Thanksgiving and obedience are inseparable, for true thanksgiving is only in obedience to God’s will. That is seen from Psalm 50. In condemning his own people Israel, God said, “Offer…a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High; call up on me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor me.” But to the wicked, God said, “What right have you to tell of my statutes and to take my covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, and you case my words behind you.” The only acceptable expression of thanks is in giving God what God most desires, and that, by his own declaration, is our hearts (Psalm 51.17; Joel 2.13).
Let us return to him in obedience, and recognize his rightful authority to rule over us. What he promised (and did for) Judah, he will do for all who will trust and obey. God said he “let them find him” (2 Chronicles 15.15). Jesus gave the same assurance (John 7.17). Thanksgiving will always be blessed of God when it does as Jesus spoke: “If anyone loves me, he will follow my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14.23).