Many of us are giving thanks this week on a day designated for that purpose, but are we thanking God, or thanking our friends, or throwing into the air an undirected thanks?
I thought about the direction of our thankfulness after spending a weekend with a successful writer who is an atheist (call him Ahab). We debated basic theology on Saturday and had a good time. On Sunday I deliberately ratcheted up the tension by prompting discussion of today's most controversial questions, gay marriage and abortion. We had a rancorous time, and that got me thinking: Why was the first discussion fun and the second painful?
My sense is that the rancor of the second discussion grew out of an unresolved matter during the first: whether "thank" requires an object. Ahab mentioned a recent vacation in which he was swimming peacefully in a calm fragment of the Atlantic Ocean: He felt enormously thankful for his opportunity to be in such a beautiful place. I asked him who he was thanking. Maybe book-buyers who had helped him become affluent? (But they didn't make the ocean.) Maybe his parents and wife? (But they didn't make the ocean.)
I felt he was impoverished by being able, in that situation, only to say in essence, "I thank"—rather than "I thank you." Since he would not credit the Creator, the experience was not as rich as it otherwise could have been.
What does that have to do with our second-day rancor? Only this: Thanking God, for a Christian, is also bound up with trusting God. We know (particularly if before becoming Christians we messed up big time) that we are thanking God for grace, unmerited favor. We praise the attributes of omniscience and compassion by which He saw exactly who we are and then gave us what we needed to change.
We love God not as equals but as recipients of His kindness and respecters of His omnipotence. That's why the Bible tells us that He is our Father in heaven, and why the Apostles' Creed begins, "I believe in God, the Father almighty." And so, when God tells us in the Bible to believe or do something and we don't fully understand why, we still try to do it: God has done so much for us that we give Him the benefit of the doubt.
If we say "thank" instead of "thank you," though, God does not get that benefit. Given our natural egos, we are more likely to ignore Him or even declare that He does not exist. So Ahab and I could agree that it's not right to murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet, but he is unwilling to define murder to include the work of abortionists, since he wants abortion to remain a right. He is unwilling to define adultery to include gay sex, because he has gay friends.
My problem, though, is that I can't say his gay friends are doing what is right. My unwillingness comes not because of hatred, fear, or social science data, but because God says that what they are doing is wrong. Ahab thinks marriage should include not only homosexual nuptials but any polyamorous group of people in whatever quantities they choose: Love should not be denied. But I love God and the Bible, and I cannot and will not deny that love.
We became rancorous about applying the second half of the Ten Commandments, but it's the first commandment that makes sense of everything that follows: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Thanksgiving is a time to thank God by reaffirming that He has proven worthy of our trust. And even if we feel that He has not—even if, like Heman in Psalm 88, we reside in darkness—we know that God is the only source of light.
If our Deliverer sometimes asks us to affirm certain tenets that cause us difficulty or surpass our understanding, we should do so because of the relationship He established with us, one that causes us to say not "Thank" but "Thank you."