The Importance of Thanksgiving Amid a Pandemic

           Looking for and finding reasons to be thankful amid a global pandemic where hundreds of thousands of human beings are dying while millions more are getting sick is both difficult and challenging. Many people would find this topic to be absurd, paradoxical, and foolishly naive. Although it may sound bizarrely optimistic and paradoxical but from the biblical perspective, people of faith are not only exhorted to praise God in times of crisis but required to give Him thanks even when extreme suffering is afoot (James 1:2). Like so many other aspects of Christianity, the walk of faith is a paradoxical one juxtaposed along-side of the secular world. This article will explore the biblical call to people of faith to be confident in the sovereignty of God during this pandemic while giving Him thanks for we have in this world.

           First, let us tackle the paradoxical relationship believers have with the secular world. This is not only difficult to comprehend but it is even harder to practice. Early on in biblical history God sets a predicate for this separation from the secular world and people of faith. He establishes this with the creation of the people of Israel; “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7 ESV). After God leads His people out of Egypt He directs Moses and the Hebrews to Mount Sinai where he declares: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7). We see the early stages of God separating His chosen people from the rest of the world to sanctify, commune, and educate them. This is the basic theme of Leviticus. While some Christians may grapple with the basic rationale and relevance of the book of Leviticus (the secular world certainly does); its purpose could not be more relevant to our topic. The book of Leviticus could be summed up in one word: holiness. “Holiness was essential for the presence of God to remain in the tabernacle. In that holiness also involves ‘separateness,’ holiness was demonstrated when the nation distinguished itself from other nations; this distinction in effect constituted Israel as a ‘holy’ nation (Exodus 19:6).”[1] Here we see a precedent for living outside of normal culture and realizing that living a life in faith, at times, calls for believers to reason, act, and obey God contrary to the mainstays of normative cultures and common customs of our secular counterparts. This theme is further exemplified in the New Testament with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven and salvation through Jesus Christ.

           Now that we have established an Old Testament foundation for Holiness and the philosophy of separation leading toward a better relationship with God, we can unpack what the New Testament requires of people who follow Christ concerning the world. This is where theology and pragmatic application of said theology is so crucially important. Jesus Christ echoes these same points all through His gospels but with greater division. In the gospel of John Jesus speak of the world hating believers because of Him and therefore hating the Father (John 15:18-25). In Luke He calls on disciples to renounce all that he/she has to follow him. The book of Mark has Jesus speaking of gaining the whole world yet losing their soul (Mark 8:36). Even in the book of Matthew Jesus calls on followers to deny themselves (Matthew 16:24). Not to mention the verses that speak to family division and unrest. Christ outlined a life lived unto Him and His glory meant recognizing that truth could, and would, call for separation from the life around us and within us; “do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).

           The Apostles supported this lifestyle of living by faith and not sight (2 Corinthians 5:7); that is the world around us that we see, interact, live, etc. To be a true disciple of Christ, the believer will elevate the scriptures and exhortations of Jesus Christ over the incitements and urgings of societal normative misgivings; “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

           This might seem as if we are belaboring this point and by now you might be thinking “ I thought this was about thanksgiving” but herein lies the rub; Christians have a hard time separating living in the world, with all the secular entrapping’s that entails, and walking in faith. This is where sound theology and practicality clash. In all things and all circumstances, people of faith elevate and exult the word of God over the bastions and conventions of the secular world. This is our mandate. What does that look like? How is the separation of secular society (in which we live) and biblical doctrine relevant to thanksgiving during a pandemic? Only scripture can answer that.

           One principle of biblical doctrine in both the Old and New Testament that is abundantly clear is that fear, for a believer, is not something that should engulf our life or response to a crisis. Fear and panic are a virus, unto itself, for the believer because it leads to a lack of faith that God is both present and in control of all things. We are asked to only fear God; “ And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day” (Deuteronomy 6:24). The Old Testament is replete with scriptures about fearing God, not the world around us. Proverbs declares that the genesis of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (9:10). Jesus himself tells us not to fear for our own lives because the Father knows exactly what is good for us (Matthew 6:25-34). Fear leads to panic and panic leads to rash and irresponsible decision making. Just look at the misinformation disseminated over the internet and the level of animus in the United State Government. Panic and fear are infesting our society and our culture that may change how we interact with each other for years to come. As followers of Christ, we rise above the fray. It is time to let our light shine (Matthew 5:16) for others to witness our lack of fear knowing that we abide in Christ (1 John 2:5-6) who abides in us (John 15:4).

           Words and definitions are important. We see in the media how easily you can manipulate those listening/watching/reading by showing ambiguity or misusing words to garnish a particular outcome. Words, and their proper meaning, in context, matters. So how do we look biblically at thanksgiving? That word invokes images of puritans and Indians sitting joyously around a picnic table with a cornucopia and turkey. That is not the biblical image we are presenting. Here is a strictly textbook view of biblical thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving – (תּוֹדָה, todah; εὐχαριστία, eucharistia). The act of offering thanks or being thankful, usually to God. Often connected to provision, deliverance, or God’s character. Commonly associated in Scripture with meals and worship. The concept of thanksgiving evolves theologically throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is closely tied with the verb “to bless” (בָּרַךְ, barakh; e.g., Deut 8:10). The most common Hebrew noun used for “thanks” (תּוֹדָה, todah) derives from the verb “to praise, confess” (יָדָה, yadah) … In the New Testament, thanksgiving is often a response to the redemptive work of Jesus (e.g., Rom 7:25).[2]

This means so much more than simply giving thanks for something you are grateful for. It is an act of worship in which you praise God for what HE is doing for you, through you, and to you. It is God-centered and God-focused. This theologically appropriate understanding matters and cannot be overstated or overemphasized.

           So, what does all this mean in light of this pandemic? Where is the paradoxical point of living a separate yet, interwoven existence with the secular and pagan worldviews? Simply stated: believers act contrarian to popular and conventional wisdom. When the world panics, we are calm. When society fears, we have hope. When people loathe, we have joy. When civilizations questions God’s benevolence, we give thanks and praise God. Christianity is the true, and first, counter-cultural movement and continues from the ancient of days to today.

This all leads to our main thesis:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7).

Knowing that God is in control, and despite our worldly desires, believers not only rejoice but give thanks to God for this time at hand. Pray always and be thankful for the shape and position you are in. Look for God’s glory and faithfulness in this predicament. I.e., if you are dismayed because Churches cannot meet (as is this author); we can meet online. You might be sick, but others have died. You cannot go to work; be thankful to spend more time with your family. You might be furloughed, but stimulus checks are in the mail. You did not get a stimulus check; most companies are forbidden from shutting off services. Your service was shut off; people lived for thousands of years in the most primitive conditions and survived with joy in their hearts. Someone you know died from coronavirus; they are now with our Heavenly Father without worry, pain, or remorse. If you simply allow yourself, you can bless God by being thankful to him in the most grievous of circumstances.

Thankfulness is more than respect toward God or a mandate, it is a healthy way to look at life. Thanksgiving is a biblical approach to combat the terrible manner in which most people, who do not know Christ (and unfortunately some who do) exist. In a way it is an act of spiritual warfare; “you will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Corinthians 9:11-12). You can proclaim the good news of Christ during this terrible pandemic just by being thankful.

People around you will be curious as to why you lack fear and loathing during this pandemic. They will wonder where that peace and joy comes from. They will begin to examine their philosophy of life and wonder what the Kingdom of God really is. Thereby believers can rightly proclaim that it is in the midst of all of us, even as we combat this terrible virus. “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). Be thankful for your part in this Kingdom and proclaim its good news during this pandemic giving God the praise and glory He rightfully deserves knowing “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). 

  [1] Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus, vol. 3A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 47.

[2] Chris McKnight, “Thanksgiving,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

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