What are you thankful for?
There's no question that in the modern West, we have much to be thankful for. In the United States where food is so plentiful and easily accessible that obesity is a health epidemic, we forget that many people in the world don't know when their next meal is coming, if it is coming at all. When people are rioting and protesting in the streets because they're upset about Donald Trump being elected president, we forget that we live in a country that doesn't mow its people down with tanks whenever we criticize the government. Ask people what they're thankful for and you get a vague, somewhat predictable list of pleasantries. Friends, family, a job, a roof over your head, health.
Certainly, these are all good things to be thankful for. We should be thankful for freedom and feasts, cars and computers, music and movies. But what happens when we no longer have those things? What happened when the car gets stolen, your wife leaves you for the pool boy, your daughter dies of cancer at twelve years old, you lose your job and get diagnosed with a fatal illness? In one of my favorite movies, the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo starring Jim Caviezel, young Edmund Dantes is given an offer of something "priceless":
More than anything, Edmund wants his freedom back. I think we would agree that freedom truly is "priceless", but (as Richard Harris's character points out) it can be taken away. He offers knowledge in its place, implying that knowledge is irrevocable. However, I would argue that even knowledge can be taken from us. It cannot be taken from us by the actions of other people, to be sure; knowledge cannot be stolen or revoked the way freedom or possessions can be, but it can be lost. The life of New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace provides a striking example of how this can work. Wallace was an accomplished scholar and had written several textbooks on Koine Greek when he was diagnosed with a virus affecting his brain. Over time he lost all knowledge of the language that had undergirded his entire academic career and later, after being cured of the disease, would have to relearn Greek from the textbooks that he himself had authored. In his book, Tortured for Christ, Voice of the Martyrs founder Richard Wurmbrand tells of how his many years imprisoned under the Romanian Communist government led to him forgetting all of his sophisticated theology and doctrine, even how to read and write. A disease, a sharp blow to the head or other afflictions can take from us things we often consider unassailable. What then are we to be thankful when everything is taken from us?
Thankful in All Things
Throughout the New Testament, we are told to give thanks to God. This is not merely a suggestion or a reminder to being grateful when life is good, rather it is a command to be carried out regardless of the circumstances.
For many of us living in the West in the 21st century, it can be difficult to understand the extents of intentional thanksgiving that the Apostle Paul is talking about in these passages, but a few examples can help us grasp it.
First, Paul gives us a peak into the life of an apostle and traveling missionary in the first century. In 2 Corinthians 4, he writes:
He gives us more details in chapter 11:
Pressed, perplexed, hunted, knocked down, suffering, in constant danger, whipped, facing death, beaten with rods, lashed, stoned, shipwrecked and adrift at sea, sleepless, hungry, thirsty, cold and stressed. But in all of that, there is reason to rejoice and be thankful. Why? Because...
Because Jesus is raised from the dead. Because we have been saved from our sins and the punishment that we deserved. Because the gospel is going out and changing lives.
As a second example, Corrie Ten Boom relates a story in her book, The Hiding Place. She and her sister had just arrived at a Nazi internment camp. Their beds would be little more than flat sheets of wood shared with multiple people. The toilets were overflowing onto the floor. Disease was rampant throughout the overcrowded facility. The building they all lived in was crawling with fleas. Though they did not know it, Corrie's sister, Betsie, would never leave that place alive. Even still, Betsie insisted that they retain a heart of thankfulness despite the circumstances and they soon found reasons to be thankful, though they seemed small. They were thankful for the bible they'd smuggled in. They were thankful for the nightly worship and study services they were allowed to hold. Later they learned that the fleas Corrie had complained about early on were preventing the guards from coming in to stop those nightly services. And they were thankful for the fleas.
In Tortured for Christ, Richard Wurmbrand tells of a young girl he knew who, in the middle of her wedding, was arrested and taken away by the Communist secret police.
This is a level of intentional thankfulness that many of us have never known and will never know.
Thankful for the Small Things
When was the last time you were thankful for water? A 2014 Facebook survey found people throughout the southwest United States stated that they were thankful for rain, thunderstorms, or rainbows – presumably because these things are beautiful and essential to life – but how many people are aware of just how remarkable water is?
In the 2014 documentary Privileged Species, Michael Denton lays out several fascinating aspects of water that are finely tuned and absolutely essential to life. Some of these properties are finely tuned for advanced life, such as its viscosity, but it also retains a few unique traits that enable it to support life in ways we'd never expected to find. For example, it is well known that water expands when it freezes, but what is less well known is what would happen if water did not do this. Expanding as it freezes enables ice to float, which prevents the oceans from freezing from the bottom up. Water also is remarkably stable in its temperature which contributes to our planet's ability to maintain a stable environment that doesn't sway from freezing to scorching temperatures on a daily or even seasonal basis.
How about the moon or other planets? Scientists have found that the moon is fundamental to our planet's ability to maintain a stable rotation, it creates tidal forces that refresh our environment. Gas Giants like Jupiter and Saturn act as guardians over our planet, pulling in or sweeping away large amounts of astronomical debris like meteors that would otherwise bombard our planet like a World War II air raid.
We live in a universe that has been finely tuned to allow and support life at it's most basic level, from the fundamental laws and constants that govern the physical world, to the initial conditions of the expansion speed and mass of the universe split seconds after creation. On top of that, we live on a planet that has been meticulously crafted through hundreds of independently operating systems all so that, for a few thousand years, the human race would rise, thrive, explore, and create.
No gravity, no life. Stronger gravity, no life. Weaker gravity, no life. Stronger electromagnetic forces, no life. Weaker electromagnetic forces, no life. Larger sun, no life. Smaller sun, no life. Older sun, no life. Younger sun, no life. Without sulfate processing enzymes we would have no metals and we'd still be stuck in the stone age. Without a rich fossil record filled with countless shells, bones and other organic materials, we would not have the fossil fuels that have powered science and technology since its earliest forms, nor would we have limestone from which we make concrete and build skyscrapers.
While many atheists would argue that these are simply cosmic coincidences, I don't believe that's the case. To me, all of this screams out as testimony of an all-powerful creator who spent billions of years honing and crafting a home for creatures that would betray, blaspheme, ignore, mock or rebel against him, for only one purpose: He loves us.
Thankful for What Truly Cannot be Taken Away
As we've seen, there are many things we consider unassailable but are not guaranteed. We can lose our knowledge, our freedoms, our health and our families. Even so, there is one thing that we can always be thankful for that will never be taken away from us. No matter what happens, we have the gospel.
No matter what we do, no matter how badly we screw up, there is nothing we can do that will keep God from loving us. No matter what we do, we have God's love. No matter how bad things get in this life, we have Heaven waiting for us, and when we finally see it, it will blow our minds.
And that is something to be truly thankful for.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.