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The Biblical Meaning of Thanksgiving

I’m thankful. I’m guessing we’ve all said these words at some point or another. We typically know what we’re thankful for, but do we always know to whom we are thankful?

Practicing thankfulness as a child

I grew up with parents who taught me from a very young age the tedious task of writing thank you notes for every Christmas and birthday gift. Looking back, that’s a good example of not only acknowledging what we’re thankful for, but to whom we’re thankful.

But perhaps there are things in life that we’re typically just thankful for. Meaning, they aren’t a tangible gift we can hold or seemingly attached to any person. 

Keeping the childhood examples going, I think of the gratitude journal my parents had me keep as a young girl. I went through a long, pessimistic phase so my parents started helping me keep a journal where I’d write three things a day I was thankful for. I still have my first and most memorable journal, where—I kid you not—one day I scribbled, “I got to water my plant today.” 😂 Too funny! But I do remember that little plant. I grew it from seeds and the leaves would fold shut when I touched them. It really was something I treasured.

But anyway, my point is that as a little girl writing in my gratitude journal and even as I grew up, I learned to be thankful for things like my family, my friends, the ability to walk, talk, and breathe, and even the simple joys in life. But, it took me a lot longer to learn that there is always a Giver and it is to Him we owe each and every expression of gratitude and word of thanks.

The biblical meaning of thanksgiving

According to Strong’s definitions, the Hebrew word thanksgiving is tôwdâh (to-daw’) and it means confession, praise, and offering. When we give thanks in the truest sense of the biblical word, we offer God our praises and acknowledge to Him that He is the Giver of all good gifts.

Of course, the greatest gift from God is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Even if everything else is going wrong in our lives, we always have the good news of the gospel to give thanks for. We can always praise God for creating and loving us unworthy sinners. We can always praise Him for Jesus’s death and resurrection that paid the price for sin that no good works or intentions could ever pay. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Savior, we can praise Him for the eternal life He has given us and that life with Him lasts forever.

The gospel is our everlasting reason to give thanks. But of course, because God is always good, we can always find more in our lives to be grateful to Him for. This may take some serious digging in darker seasons of trials and suffering. But because God is always with the ones He redeems through faith, we can trust He is doing good in our lives in big, small, and often unexpected ways.

Giving thanks to God

So what does it look like to give thanks to God? As I mentioned above, thanksgiving is an offering of confession and praise. So, what first comes to mind is prayer and worship. We can express our gratitude to Him with words privately or corporately. But, it’s easy to forget that obedience is a form of praise and another important way we express our love and gratitude for God and all He has done for us.

My pastor gave an analogy in reference to loving God that also applies to giving thanks through obedience: Imagine you have a child or teenager who says, “Mom, I love you and I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me. You’ve been so good to me. But, I’m not going to listen to what you say.” Would that make you feel loved or appreciated? Obedience is a response to salvation led by the Holy Spirit. It’s not a work that contributes to our salvation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone! I’m learning in this season that obedience is an act of praise and thanksgiving.

He is worthy

So to conclude, as you and your families gather around the table this Thanksgiving, take a moment to pause. Remember who we offer our deepest thanks to and why. He is worthy of our praise and offerings of thanks because every good and perfect gift comes from Him and He works all things together for good for those who love Him (James 1:17, Romans 8:28).

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Unless otherwise indicated, scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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