The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

"Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."
—1 Thessalonians 5:18 (
NIV)

Tom Gilbert

The giving of thanks to God for all the various things he has done is an integral part of the daily communication of all Christians with the heavenly Father. Have you ever thought of this practice as a "sacrifice"? That is just what the scriptures call it. We will begin our consideration of this matter by examining the concept of Christian sacrifice. Then we will look specifically at "thanksgiving" as a sacrifice.

The scriptures tell us that the heart and the mouth (including the tongue and the lips) are the most rebellious portions of our being—the hardest to control. The "heart" is used in Scripture as a figure for a person’s thinking and affections, his thoughts, values, feelings, and will. In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus describes the condition of the heart of a fallen human being: "What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’" (NIV).

Ou Mouths Reflect Our Hearts

Our mouths give expression to what is in our hearts. "The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45 NIV). The scriptures are direct in their description of the evil works that this member of our flesh is able to accomplish. "As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness’" (Rom. 3:10-14 NIV). "Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:5-8 NIV).

In view of such uncomplimentary descriptions of the heart and mouth, we may find it a bit odd that the scriptures talk about these as the instruments of acceptable sacrifice to God. If this is true, we must conclude that control of our hearts and mouths by the new creature —the new mind—is of utmost importance. The heart and the mouth must be reined in as the servants of the new creature.

But are the heart and mouth truly involved in performing sacrifices acceptable to God? How can they be involved in "giving up" or forfeiting anything? The understanding of this issue lies in a more accurate understanding of what sacrificing is It is the act of offering something precious to deity, ro God. The important thing, the essence, in any sacrifice is the factthat we are offering, we are giving up, to God something that he regards as precious. And, as we will see, it need not "cost" us some thing; it need not involve forfeiting some earthly thing.

That is not to say, as a Christian, we do not need to forfeit earthly things—hopes, ambitions, etc. Indeed, as we will see, if we are making the offerings (sacrifices) that are truly precious to God, the forfeiting of earthly things will follow joyfully and almost incidentally.

The word "offering" more nearly conveys the important element of things that we do in God’s service. Our focus should not be on what we had to forfeit or do without in order to do the service. Our focus should be on the decision we have made to do God’s service and the joy it brings to us, not on what it "costs" us. God’s focus is on our hearts, our wills. The only notice he takes of what we forfeit to do his service is as evidence of the firmness and sincerity of our commitment to him and of our desire to please him and give him precious gifts.

According to the scriptures, some of the things he finds most precious are joy, praise, thanksgiving, a broken and contrite heart, and doing good and sharing. These are all referred to as "sacrifices" in the scriptures. Only the latter —doing good and sharing—may involve what we normally might think of as sacrificing.

True, the Hebrew and Greek words translated "sacrifice" in the Old and New Testaments mean "a slaughter" (noun) and "to slaughter" (verb), but these have their basis in the sacrificial offerings of Israel’s tabernacle and temple. But even there the focus is on performing a service that God requested, an offering of something that God indicated was precious to him.

In Psalm 51, David records his understanding of God’s thoughts on the importance of these burnt offerings in comparison to other offerings that might be made—offerings of heart devotion and obedience to him. We read, in verses 16 and 17: "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (NIV).

The Sacrifices God Seeks

The offerings that God is seeking—the gifts that are the most precious to him—are the ones voluntarily given to him by his human creation exercising their free will: obedience to his standards of righteousness, commitment to the principles of agape love, praise and adoration, joy in his creations and his plans for mankind, and thankfulness for all that he is and for all that he has done and will yet do. These all originate in the heart and frequently find expression through our mouth.

Anything else God needs, he can obtain. "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it" (Psa. 50:9-12 NIV). But, God can get our hearts only if we offer them to him.

Thankfulness and Thanksgiving

Thankfulness is an attitude of the heart. Thanksgiving is the communication of this to our heavenly Father; it is a precious offering (sacrifice) in his sight. Let us look at some of the texts that speak of this offering.

"Let them give thanks to the LORD for his lovingkindness, and for his wonders to the sons of men! Let them also offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his works with joyful singing" (Psa. 107:21, 22 NASB). The sense of this passage (and other similar ones) is clearer if we substitute the word "offering." Hence, "Let them also offer offerings of thanksgiving." For this offering to be made the heart must be in a thankful, appreciative attitude. The mouth is involved in speaking forth, testifying to God and perhaps to others of his lovingkindness. The use of song as a means of expression is mentioned.

The Hebrew word translated "thanksgiving" here and in the other Old Testament passages actually includes the thought of song, as seen in the definition from Strong’s Concordance: #8426—"properly, an extension of the hand, i.e. (by implication) avowal, or (usually) adoration; specifically, a choir of worshipers." Certainly song is a very beautiful way of offering thanksgiving to God, most often done in the presence of others who reverence him.

"To thee shall I offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call upon the name of the LORD" (Psa. 116:17 NASB). The heart must be in a thankful, appreciative attitude, and the mouth is used to call upon the Lord.

"Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High; . . . He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honorsme" (Psalm 50:14, 23 NASB). Here the Lord clearly states that the offering of thanksgiving is a way of giving honor to him. How relatively simple it is to honor the Lord; it requires only that our mind and our heart take note of what the Lord has done for us and for all humanity and then respond with gratitude and expressions of thanks. And yet while it is so simple, there are relatively few that have this awareness and attitude; thus God regards thankfulness from members of the human family as a very special and precious gift, a sweet offering.

"Hence, let us go out to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. Through him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to his name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased" (Heb. 13:13-16 NASB). This passage speaks about the offering of praise, but note how closely it is tied to verbal expressions of thanks to God. The two are closely related. In the sense that "love is not love until you show it," so thanksgiving is not thanksgiving until you express it as praise.

As we approach another observance in the United States of Thanksgiving Day, let us not overlook the fact that we, of all people, should be the most thankful and the most skilled in expressing that thanks. Use the special holiday as a time to hone your thanksgiving skills—silently in prayer to God and audibly in testimony and song with others. What better thing could we do on that day than give God a bundle of precious gifts!

"Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father" (Eph. 5:18-20 NASB).