Thankfulness, the Heart of Faith

Unbelief begins with refusing to give thanks

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (1 Chronicles 16:34)

William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth Plantation, described arriving at Cape Cod in 1620 in these words:

For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather-beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they passed and was now a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world…What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our father were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and we’re ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,’ [Deuteronomy 26:5, 7] etc. ‘Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.’ ‘Yea, let them which have been redeemed if the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord his loving kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men’ [Psalm 107]. (pp. 62-63 of S.M. Morison’s edition of Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation)

And so, in the words of the Mayflower Compact, the Massachusetts settlers undertook “for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia [= Plymouth].”

In setting out to build a new world, a world they would seek to order for the glory of God and the good of man, they faced challenges that would cause even the hardiest among us today to blanch: a savage environment, difficulties in growing crops, sickness, external enemies, and to crown it all, the evil in their own midst.

What could possibly sustain the Mayflower settlers? There was certainly a lot of prayerful, hard work involved. Yet Bradford knew that ultimately their hope was in the Lord and his constant provision for them. Thus, the words of the Psalmist came quickly to mind: “Let them confess before the Lord his loving kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.”

Above all else, despite the difficulties, a spirit of thankfulness pervades Bradford’s words. Like Israel in the wilderness, grumbling discontentedness would have wrought destruction in their fledgling community just as much as any external difficulties or dangers.

It is not surprising that Bradford would turn to the Psalms. The command to give thanks to the Lord occurs directly or indirectly at least 46 times in that inspired hymnbook of the saints. You become what you sing, as hymn writers have long recognized (and heretics have long exploited). The Psalms show us that thankfulness is to be a–if not the–defining mentality and spirit of God’s people.

The necessity of constant thankfulness is everywhere evident in the rest of the Scriptures too. It is at the very heart of the Christian faith, in fact. In Romans 1 the Apostle Paul writes that a refusal to give thanks to God is at the root of all unbelief and idolatry. God, who has made “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” clear to all “in the things that have been made,” leaves all men “without excuse” for refusing to believe in him and submit themselves to his rule (Romans 1:20). As David wrote so many centuries previously (Psalm 19:1–3):

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. 

Writing about those who, despite these clear revelations from the Lord, refuse to bow the knee to God in faith, Paul says that “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” (Romans 1:21). Unbelief and atheism begin with thanklessness.

Thus, Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, believers should “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” A heart constantly thankful to God for his abundant mercies, both eternal and earthly, is a heart that will be immune to one of Satan’s most potent salvos, grumbling against the Lord. Thanklessness paves the path to hell, while thankfulness is the very fuel of faith. Who can do anything other than rejoice always when thanksgiving to God is constantly on the lips?

But thankfulness is not easy. When we look around at the troubles in our world and the trials each one of us faces it is all too easy to succumb to thanklessness and practical atheism. Like Peter, who takes his eyes off of Christ while walking to him on the sea, we quickly begin to sink into unbelief when we forget to hymn the praises of the God who has saved us and given us eternal hope in Christ.

As in Bradford’s day, so in ours there is much we could be fearful about. Our own nation is in a terrible state: from the destructiveness and multifaceted evils wrought by the sexual revolution, to the widespread ignorance of the Bible among the churches, to the ever-expanding growth of progressive totalitarianism, there are plenty of reasons to become despondent. All of these things, combined with the seeming inability to do anything about it, means that despair and thanklessness are constantly crouching at the door with a desire to master us.

And yet there is truly nothing new under the sun. As we pause to give thanks to the Lord for his abundant mercies to us on this Thanksgiving day we can join our forefathers in saying “Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.”

The challenges we face today are unique in some ways, and yet not really so unique in the grand sweep of world history. As we seek the wisdom and strength to face these challenges, let us remember the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”

So we can (indeed, we must) give thanks in all circumstances, because our God is good, because his steadfast love endures forever. He “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

And we can join our words to those of another Plymouth settler, Edward Winslow, in 1622 (Mourt’s Relation):

And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.

“Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15)

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.