Here in Canada this is Thanksgiving weekend. Early settlers and explorers gave thanks for a safe journey across the Atlantic; later settlers gave thanks for a good harvest; Loyalists coming to Canada from the United States after the American Revolution brought their customs with them. What many Canadians don’t realize is that our current Thanksgiving celebration is mandated by Canada’s Parliament which in 1957 proclaimed “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed … to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”
Although the celebration has Christian roots, at this time of year even pagans and those who profess no faith recognize the value of gratitude. But what are we thankful for? How deep does our Thanksgiving go? In spite of the current economic turmoil, all Canadians – pagan, agnostic, atheist and believer – can agree that we in Canada have been richly blessed with prosperity, abundant food, peace, safety, freedom, and stable government. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I freely and gladly confess that these blessings come to us from the hand of a good God. But as a believer in Jesus, I also need to take my Thanksgiving celebration a little bit deeper.
What if I lived in the Philippines today, in the wake of the two recent typhoons? What if I were a Vietnamese believer, knowing that my pastor was suffering in prison at the hands of the Communist regime? What if I were a Christ-follower in one of the many African nations where AIDS is rampant, or in Orissa State in India, where Christians are currently undergoing severe persecution at the hands of Hindu radicals? Could I still give thanks?
Recently I was struck by the words of the Apostle Paul when writing to his infant congregation in Thessalonica. These were people who had come to faith in Christ only a few years previously, and had undergone many trials since. From the time they had first heard the message of Christ, they had faced severe opposition. Paul himself had only stayed in the community for a few weeks after first preaching the gospel, soon moving on to other parts, but he sent Timothy to find out how they were doing. Later he wrote a letter to encourage and instruct the young church. Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4 :
We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no-one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.
He didn’t lament over the fact that they were suffering persecution, he told them it was part of their destiny. He didn’t tell them he felt sorry for them, he told them this was what they should have expected. He didn’t pray for the persecution to end, he prayed for them to stand firm. He said this because he knew that for those who stood the test, beyond the pain lay a glorious, eternal destiny in a renewed creation where Jesus would reign openly as Lord. And so later on in the same letter, he spoke these memorable words – which are far more powerful when we realize they were spoken to a suffering church undergoing persecution : Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
We in the comfortable Western church complain so easily. We are so easily discontent. We so easily think we have it hard. We need to examine ourselves to see if we are really in the faith. There is nothing wrong with enjoying material blessings, peace and freedom, but when we think that these are the most important reasons for thanksgiving, we show that we do not really understand the good news. Our preoccupation with physical comfort has blinded our eyes to our own poverty and our desperate need for the mercy and power of God. We need to ask the Spirit of God to open our eyes so that we can see again how blessed we are, and change our hearts so that true gratitude overflows into willing service, using whatever gifts God has entrusted to us to advance His Kingdom. Lord, have mercy upon us.