It is a common expectation in our culture, and probably all cultures, that people should be thankful. Parents teach their children to say “thank you” when someone is kind to them. Hallmark has made a lot of money selling cards specifically designed to articulate gratitude to people. And we set aside an annual holiday called Thanksgiving, which we will celebrate this Thursday.
In Rom. 1:21, Paul indicates that one defining characteristic of the person who has denied God is that he/she “did not honor him as God or give thanks to Him.” One mark of the atheist is that he/she will not give thanks to God.
An atheist might respond to this by saying, “Of course I don’t give thanks to God! Why would I give thanks to someone who doesn’t exist?” That’s a reasonable question to ask, except that I am willing to bet that most atheists are prone to being thankful nevertheless.
This line of thought begs a very important distinction. The thankfulness I have in mind is not that which would be expressed to someone who gives you a birthday gift, or to the person who fixes your flat tire on the side of the road, or to the boss who gives you a bonus at the end of the year. It’s very clear in these cases who should receive the thanks, and I’m quite sure that an atheist would feel inclined to give thanks in each of these cases.
But what about blessings that are not directly attributable to an obvious source? What about the blessing of having good health, or the blessing of being born in a free county, or the blessing of being spared serious injury in a car accident, or the blessing of possessing a special talent, or the blessing of living in peaceful times — to whom does the atheist give thanks for these very special blessings?
Perhaps a person’s parents would deserve some credit, but parents don’t really choose to pass on genetic traits to their children, and some children don’t get the talents that other children get, all of which is totally outside the parents’ control. Who really should get the credit for your genetic makeup? Who deserves the thanks for that?
Perhaps a world leader would deserve some credit for maintaining peace with other world leaders, but in all eras, there are always places in the world where hostilities are taking place. Who decided that you would be born, for instance, in the United States in the 1980s and not in Rwanda in the early 1990s? To whom do you express gratitude for that?
It seems to me that an atheist is in a difficult position. Either he is thankful for all of his blessings, and therefore is put in a position where he must acknowledge that Someone out there has chosen to look upon him with favor and accordingly should be thanked, or he is put in a position where, to remain consistent with his worldview, he will take and enjoy a variety of extraordinary gifts and yet snuff out the spark of gratitude that naturally arises in his heart. Either he can turn his eyes toward heaven with a grateful heart, or he can turn his eyes away from his Creator and watch his heart grow cold.
The good news is that there is Someone to thank — One who has given us more than just food, family and friends, but who has also given a great Savior to save us from our sins and reconcile us to our Creator. Let your instinct to be thankful move you this season to more than just a generic “attitude of gratitude,” but to enter His gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. (Ps. 100:4)