The simple act of saying “Thank you” is a part of the social contract that governs Western relationships. If you give something to someone and he does not communicate gratitude, he is thought to be an etiquette clod. You could club the offender and no one would blame you.
Is this Western secular value simply borrowed capital from the Christian worldview? More likely it is instinctive: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks …” (Rom. 1:21a, nasb). In the depths of our beings, God makes us to respond with gratitude to His creative acts, for He is “understood [by all] through what has been made” (v. 20, nasb). Our eyes see it, our minds understand it, and something tells us to go to our knees.
But why? Why would God propel us toward this virtue and not some other?
The sin of ingratitude is one of humanity’s most wicked rebellions because the logical “why” behind Romans 1:21 is powerful and clear to heathen and saint alike. Follow me closely. Before a person can do or earn anything, he must at least exist—one cannot act before one exists. Just as self-creation is irrational, self-congratulations for one’s existence is also ruled out de facto. And since being is a chief attribute, the Scriptures teach that my primary attitude toward our Creator God ought to be one of recognition of the gratuitous character of existence. All who live are to give thanks to God, and failure to do so is to fail to manifest the first fruit of life—thankfulness. Logic requires it.
In his Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin turns over an often-untouched rock of the Scriptural “why” behind Romans 1:21. He notes that the purpose of the first commandment, “ ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ ” (Ex. 20:3), is that the Lord alone will be exalted in His people and will claim them entirely as His possession. That this may be so, He negatively wards us from all superstition and, for the same reasons, positively instructs us to worship Him rightly.
Worshiping God rightly includes obedience of all types (Rom. 12:1), and Calvin summarizes the various duties that we owe to God as follows:
Adoration: All veneration and liturgical worship. If God be God, He must be worshiped. Stephen Charnock said: “If a man makes an ingenious machine, we honor him for his skill; if another vanquish a vigorous enemy, we admire him for his strength: and shall not the efficacy of God’s power in creation, government, redemption, enflame us with a sense of the honor of His name and perfections? What sensible thoughts have we of the power of the sun, the noise of storms of the sea! These things that have no understanding have struck men with such a reverence, that many have adored them as gods. What reverence and adoration doth this mighty power, joined with an infinite wisdom in God, demand at our hands!”
Trust: Secure resting in Him under an ever-growing reckoning of His perfections. John Newton explained this in a brief letter: “He is not like a man that should fail or change, or be prevented by anything unforeseen from doing what He has said. And yet we find it easier to trust in worms than in the God of truth. Is it not so with you? And I can assure you it is often so with me. But here is the mercy: that His ways are above ours, as the heavens are higher than the earth. Though we are foolish and unbelieving, He remains faithful; He will not deny Himself. I recommend to you especially that promise of God, which is so comprehensive that it takes in all our concernments, I mean, that all things shall work together for good. How hard is it to believe, that not only those things which are grievous to the flesh, but even those things which draw forth our corruptions, and discover to us what is in our hearts, and fill us with guilt and shame, should in the issue work for our good! Yet the Lord has said it. All your pains and trials, all that befalls you in your own person, or that affects you upon the account of others, shall in the end prove to your advantage. And your peace does not depend upon any change of circumstance which may appear desirable, but in having your will bowed to the Lord’s will, and made willing to submit all to His disposal and management.”
Invocation: Going to Him and Him alone for His promised aid for all ventures and needs. Ralph Erskine underscores this point from Isaiah 54:5, “Thy Maker is thine husband” (KJV), when he poetically exegetes this verse rooted in the creative ordinance of God, saying:
Hell-furies threaten to devour,
Like lions robb’d of whelps:
But lo! in ev’ry perilous hour,
Thy husband always helps.
That feeble faith may never fail,
Thine advocate has pray’d;
Though winnowing tempests
Thy husband’s near to aid.
Thanksgiving: Gratitude that ascribes to Him all praise for all things through Him. Richard Baxter preached: “Especially, when you pray, resolve to spend most of your time in thanksgiving and praising God. If you cannot do it with the joy that you should, yet do it as you can. You have not the power of your comforts; but have you no power of your tongues?… Every man, good and bad, is bound to praise God, and to be thankful for all that he hath received, and to do it as well as he can, rather than leave it undone. Most Christians are without assurance of their adoption; and must they, therefore, forbear all praise and thanksgiving to God? Doing it as you can is the way to be able to do it better. Thanksgiving stirreth up thankfulness in the heart.… [Satan] would turn you off from all thankfulness to God, and from the very mention of His love and goodness in your praises.”
If Calvin and these authors are right, when we receive things from God and refuse to thank Him for them, we shatter the first commandment by not acknowledging God as the source of all, from first to last. We rebel against the Creator God of the Bible and create a god in our own image, one from whom all blessings do not flow. And we bend the knee toward what we perceive as the source of our blessings, either in genuine worship or idolatry.
As Baxter points out, we often do not feel like thanking God. We can always find a way to be ungrateful, especially in a culture that exalts the victim. There is an underlying bitterness toward God in most of us, anger that He has not given us more fleshly reasons to be grateful. Need-driven religious institutions have recognized this, attempting to find emotionally satisfying remedies. But modern efforts to make us thankful focus on bolstering our psychology, not our doxology. We will find sanctification in our thanksgiving as we grow more God-centered, not less.
Let us go forth “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19b–20). It is what He commands and what we know is right from our inmost beings.