Lutheran Church of Elmont

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Dear Friends in Christ:

It is the season of giving thanks. Even the unreligious cave in to the notion that one ought to be thankful as a matter of good comportment—even if one does not quite know whom to thank. The opposite of an attitude of thankfulness is an attitude of entitlement: God owes me; society owes me; the one percent owes me; the church owes me; the government owes me. While at least one political party cultivates this kind of thinking, election season is over at the beginning of the month, and no one really likes to be around anyone with an attitude of entitlement for very long. It is far more enjoyable to be around people who give thanks than people who make selfish demands.

But even if one acknowledges that we all ought to give thanks, there is still a bit of a problem in knowing what to give thanks for. Our fallen condition and perverted values are always suspect—even when we do gratitude. One can imagine a mass murderer giving thanks for all of his victims, or a credit card fraudster thanking God for all of the money with which God has richly blessed her.

There is also the need to distinguish between giving thanks for the proper use of something as opposed to the misuse or abuse of the thing. Imagine a children’s sermon in which the participants are asked what they are thankful for. “My Xbox,” a child shouts with great enthusiasm. Here is a box which probably has good and proper uses. However it can easily teach values of violence and conquest in the form of games. Here is a box that insulates a child from proper social interaction with her family or her peers. Here is a box that can be positively addictive to use a term from psychology or positively demonic to use a term from theology.

“Did God give you the Xbox or did the devil give you the Xbox?” asks the pastor as he feels the whole sermon careening toward the ditch.

“Mom ordered it on Amazon,” responds the child.

The pastor quickly winds up the sermon, realizing people want to get home and thank Butterball for their turkeys.

Premodern Christians had no trouble discerning between proximate causes and the final cause. Amazon’s fulfillment center in Ohio is the proximate cause of the aforementioned child’s Xbox. The devil may have had a hand in its development and in its present usage, but assuming there is a proper use for the Xbox, its final cause is God to whom thanks and praise are due. Butterball’s packing plant in Arkansas is a proximate cause of the turkey on your table. The final cause is God to Whom thanks and praise are due.

This brings us to the conundrum of modern Christians’ celebrating the agricultural holiday of Thanksgiving. If we merely hold in our hearts a vague notion of thankfulness for things in general to a god in general who is no god in particular, we debase our faith.

One ought to name and list the particular things one is thankful for, recognizing that regardless of the proximate causes, the final cause is God. As we are naming and listing the gifts we are thankful to God for, we are compelled to recognize that there are proper uses of them, and improper uses. We are accountable to the Giver of the gifts to use those gifts properly. Repenting of one’s perverted values and one’s misuse and abuse of God’s gifts is best left for another day, but soon. On Thanksgiving, one ought to name and list the particular things one is thankful for—not to a god in general which is no god in particular—but to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever blessed. Ironically, knowing in particular Whom to thank, changes our perception of the gifts so that we are less likely to misuse or abuse them. We thank the One Who is the (final) cause of “every generous act of giving and every perfect gift (James 1).” We thank Him for the gifts and for leading us into the proper use of them. We thank Him on Thanksgiving, and every other day of the year.

Yours in Christ,

John Shepherd McKenzie