In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln established an annual national holiday of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday in November. Most of us look forward to this holiday, a day on which we eat good food, enjoy time with family and friends, and perhaps watch some football. Many will also probably set aside at least a little time to thank God.
We all likely recognize the importance of being thankful. But how many of us truly see gratitude as an important part of our worship? We might associate praise, love, and joy with worship, but thanksgiving?
The affections of our hearts are central to true worship. Yet while praise, joy, contrition, and love are all important affections for worship, I believe gratitude is the most important worship affection. Here’s why.
First, gratitude isn’t a feeling. All true spiritual affections of worship have an object, and their object is always God. This is why true spiritual affections are different from what we often mean when we talk about our feelings.
Feelings often have no object. When we experience only feelings apart from spiritual affections, our focus is not on any object; our focus is purely on ourselves and the feelings themselves. We love the feeling of love; we delight in the feeling of joy.
But the thing about the affection of gratitude is that there is no feeling we associate with it. Think about it: what is the “feeling” of gratitude?
Therefore, second, gratitude always has an object. You might say, “I just feel happy, but not for any particular reason.” But you would never say that about gratitude. If you are grateful, there is always a reason. You always are grateful toward someone because of something they did for you, or something they gave you, or simply because of who they are.
Third, unlike most feelings, gratitude isn’t something you can artificially work up through external means. If you feel sad, you can work up happiness through something external like upbeat music or funny entertainment. In that case, you just feel happy because the music or the entertainment made you feel happy.
But how do you work up gratitude? You can’t. It has to have a reason; it has to have an object. That distinguishes gratitude from just about every other kind of affection.
Therefore, gratitude is always affection that we give to God in response to his gracious gifts to us. We often direct feelings like delight toward the gift rather than the giver. But if we are truly grateful, by definition, by essence, gratitude is directed toward the giver.
This is the central reason I believe that gratitude is the most important worship affection: while love or joy or praise could certainly be directed toward God as a result of his grace toward us, many times what we call love or joy or praise are, in reality, mere feelings that are more about us or the gift than the one who showed grace toward us. Gratitude ensures that we are directing the affections of our hearts to God above all.
This is why God says in Psalm 50:23, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.”
We often think of praise or joy or love as the ultimate expressions of worship toward God. We expect that true worship will be characterized by intense emotion, heightened praise, and excited joy. But really, the affection most associated in scripture with worship is something perhaps less flashy, less viscerally intense, and less directly connected to particular feelings; the affection most associated in the Bible with worship is thanksgiving.
Listen to how God characterizes Christian worship at the end of Hebrews 12: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”