Thanksgiving: far more than making a list
Our family concludes our Thanksgiving meal every year by sharing what we’re thankful for. I look forward to that moment all year long. We relive great moments, echo our notes of thanks, and nod our heads in agreement. And we smile.
Each year, it seems, the experience grows richer. And thus it should. The Biblical notion of giving thanks digs deeper than merely making a list. It is worth reflecting on the Hebrew word yadah, often translated “give thanks” to see all that God has in mind for us. There’s more to it than we might think.
The Hebrew language reveals an inseparable link between giving thanks and offering praise. Indeed, the two terms are often paired through parallelism in the Psalms. Thus the two phrases in the opening of Psalm 92 are more similar than our English ears might hear: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High.”
The root of the word means, “to acknowledge or confess” and can be equally employed for confession of sin, offering of thanks, and lifting of praise. When you yadah, you acknowledge both the giver and the gift. In fact, the focus is more on the generosity, grace, and abundance of the source than on the joy, pleasure, or gratitude of the recipient. Still, the term encompasses both sides of the exchange.
Hebrew scholar Claus Westermann says, “In the Old Testament…there is as yet no verb that means only ‘to thank.’ Hodah, [a form of yadah] which is usually translated as ‘to thank,’ is not used in the Old Testament a single time for an expression of thanks between men. Thus it is clear from the start that this hodah cannot be equated with our ‘to thank,’ which can be directed equally to God and to man….The expression of thanks to God is included in praise, it is a way of praising.”
And so our listing of what we’re thankful for should find its way to more than mere list making. It should point and lift our hearts to the Giver behind the gifts. We should exalt, bless, glorify, honor, adore, pay tribute to, revere, and magnify the God who chooses to pour out blessing upon blessing.
I have often quoted C.S. Lewis who distinguishes between gratitude and adoration. Enlisting the help of a rare word, coruscations, (which means something like flashes of light), Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm:
“Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”
His distinction is helpful but only if, once the difference is understood, we reunite gratitude and praise in their Biblical union. They feed off one another in ways that make us increasingly grateful and doxological with each breath. Surely, our minds and whole beings should run “back up the sunbeam to the sun.”