As a thought experiment, imagine a country where everyone was gradually becoming color-blind (to borrow from H. G. Wells). As more and more people were born without the capacity to perceive colors, their shadows and shades of grey would appear to comprise a realistic picture of all reality. At first dim memories of distant experiences might persist, but colors would eventually be dismissed as wishful thinking, legends or superstition. In general usage, “red,” “yellow” and “green” would be reduced to common synonyms for “grey,” while scholars would begin to advance novel theories about the subconscious origin of color language. Most would come to regard those few who insisted upon the reality of colors as dangerously mystical or suspiciously mad and out of touch with reality.
The point of this parable is simple: When we neglect to give God thanks, our hearts become darkened, and we perceive everything in shades of grey. Our minds spin in futility, unable to grasp the reality of colors beyond our grasp. We live in unrecognized idolatry, failing to see or to trust in the reality and grace of God. Our beliefs about God become merely empty words (like “red”) without experiential meaning.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:21)
According to Rom 1, we suppress the truth about God by refusing to give thanks. To have a thankless heart is to choose a futile mind, to darken our thinking with rebellion. Yet to give God thanks is to remember our Redeemer, and to clear our minds of idols in exchange for the vibrant colors of a greater reality.
As the rain hides the stars, as the autumn mist hides the hills, as the clouds veil the blue of the sky, so the dark happenings of my lot hide the shining of thy face from me. Yet, if I may hold thy hand in the darkness, it is enough. For I know that, though I may stumble in my going, thou dost not fall. (Gaelic prayer)
It’s not a choice between giving thanks or being realistic. To give thanks is not to retreat in a naive escape from the realities of this world, but to rid ourselves of the schizophrenic thinking of living in God’s reality without acknowledging God. Who perceives more truly the reality of an autumn scene – a color-blind person or the one who perceives the colored leaves and rightfully thanks God?
Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me, and to the blameless I will show my salvation. (Ps 50:23)
According to Ps 50, giving thanks opens our eyes to see God’s salvation. This is why thanksgiving is the hallmark of a life of love for God. In Luke 17:11ff, the one leper who responds with thanksgiving is healed of more than leprosy.
Thanksgiving is spiritual Drano, to open up our clogged thinking to see God, to cleanse our minds from idolatry. Just a little dose of it will open the drain clogged by pain, weariness, despair and fear. Thanksgiving is healing medicine, which frees us from narcissism – from self-centeredness – and restores our perspective of reality. Thanksgiving is taking off the dark glasses, allowing the Holy Spirit to give us new eyes with color vision.
To “give thanks in all things” is an exceedingly perplexing command; but more than a command, it is truly a promise of hope. For by beginning to give thanks we begin to recognize that God’s nature is unchanging, and that his almighty love – which raised us with Christ from the dead and turns even evil to good – is present among us even in (especially in) our places of pain and brokenness. By giving thanks we cease to order the world ultimately around ourselves, our needs, our crises, our concerns, and our limited perspective within the present moment. We encounter the mystery of God’s presence among us, even when his almighty love seems hidden from sight (Col 3:3), and we begin to view our circumstances with hope in the permanent good he has in store for us. Therefore evil remains evil; good remains good. We dare to weep intensely, without despair; we rejoice profoundly, without shallow optimism (Rom 12:15).
We praise Thee for the grace by which Thou dost enable us so to bear the ills of the present world, that our souls are enriched by a fuller experience of Thy love, a more child-like dependence on Thy will, and a deeper sympathy with the suffering and the sad. (Scottish Prayer Book)
A habit of thanksgiving carries us beyond the limits of our subjectivity, washing narcissism down the drain. Thanksgiving orients us away from self-righteousness, self-condemnation, fear and despair, and toward God instead. A disposition readily to give thanks to God is likely the most obvious indicator of our spiritual vitality:
A quiet disposition and a heart giving thanks at any given moment is the real test of the extent to which we love God at that moment.” (Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality, pg. 8)
There is perhaps no other practice so revealing to us of our spiritual condition than our alertness to perceive what good things God is doing and to readily give thanks to him for those things, regardless of circumstances.
When spiritually numb, we perceive a world cast in shades of grey. When we give thanks, we come alive in one suffused with vibrant colors. Thanksgiving is a window to reality; our chief means of spiritual perception.
Matthew Dowling is a former biologist turned preaching minister who is broadly interested in systematic theology, particularly theology proper, Protestant Scholasticism, confessional Protestantism, the English and New England Puritans, and the work of Stephen Charnock. He is the preaching minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Plymouth, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewdowling.org.