“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…”
Rather astutely someone has asked, “Are we really to conclude the world came crumbling down around us as a result of bad manners?” No one really expects to find something as ordinary as ingratitude lying in the crater of humanity’s demise. Maybe pride, or lust, or idolatry. But, ingratitude? Really? Eternal banishment from the presence of God along with all evil, pain and strife throughout history seems a disproportionately large consequence for a mere lack of thankfulness.
When, as a child, I failed to thank my father for the innumerable things he did for me on daily basis, he did not react by banishing me from his presence. That would be a horrifying level of pettiness. No one would ever trust a Father prone to such severe over-reactions. No one would want this father. Which brings us to the question. How in the world is ingratitude at the root of our problem as human beings? How did it warrant the judgment of God against humanity? How did ingratitude lead to all this?
Obviously, the issue here is not merely that we were rude and inconsiderate. Nor is it that God is petty in any sense like human beings are. What Paul means by the use of this term is far more substantial. There is a remarkable efficiency in Paul’s choice of terms. “Did not… give thanks” captures the very moment mankind turned away from God and chose self-sufficiency and autonomy over “creatureliness.” God gave us life and in return we took credit for it. The clay told the Potter to get lost. We refused to acknowledge our utter dependence on Him. Or as Paul put it, we did not “thank Him.” To this day man foolishly imagines himself to be his Creator’s equal living in the delusion of self-sufficiency. Humanity is in a state of perpetual ingratitude.
In this context thankfulness takes on an infinitely greater meaning than we imagine. It is not simply a matter of remembering to be grateful for something we receive. He’s not talking about courtesy. What Paul means is deeper. “I am grateful to God for giving me life and allowing my life to find its greatest joy in Him.” “Thanks” is used by the apostle as a synonym for worship. We were created to both acknowledge our need for HIM and to find in HIM our greatest need. In this sense, thanksgiving is at the core of what it means to be human. To be alive is to acknowledge our dependence on God. To be fallen is to ignore the same dependency. This is why “ingratitude” is the best way to describe our rebellion against the Creator. This is also the reason being thankful is one of the hardest things for fallen human beings to do. We don’t need God, or anyone else, so who is there to thank?
This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Or, to be more specific, when you think about your own heart. Or, to be even more specific, when you think about your prayer life. We struggle to pray because we struggle to depend. “Creaturliness” is not our default mode. Sovereignty is. When we do pray our “communion” with God consists mainly of petitions and requests. We sound more like consumers than worshippers.
We spend the majority of our time asking God for things rather than asking for Him. We seem inclined to view Him as the “giver” and less inclined to enjoy Him as the gift. Said one preacher, “Our prayer lives consists largely of petition and seem only to heat up in times of need. It appears that for most of us prayer is mainly an attempt to control the environment.” For certain, the majority of our prayer does not consist of “generous stretches of praise and adoration of God.” In this there is a very real connection between that lack of gratitude in our original rebellion and our almost daily snub of the presence of God. In the end, we 21st century human beings with all of our technology and cultural advances are no less primitive as our ancestors in our foolish pursuit of autonomy.
This is exactly where the gospel touches the core of the human condition. What the Gospel gives man is God Himself. His presence. It recovers the glorious intimacy we abandoned for the darkened alleyways of human corruption. In Christ God tracks down sinful men in their foolish journey of self-sufficiency, smashes the illusion of their innumerable idols, brings them back to their Creator and calls them children.
Set before our Creator in the righteousness of Christ, and healed of our blindness, we behold the very purpose for which we were created: to know Him as creatures. Exhausted of our endless emptiness we are filled to overflowing with His love. As we stand before Him an ordinary, but profound word pours forth from our hearts, “Thank You.” Not merely for what we have received, but for having received Him. We are His.
Byron Yawn is the senior pastor of Community Bible Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He and his wife Robin co-authored What Every Woman Wishes Her Father Had Told Her. (Harvest House). Follow Byron on Twitter @byronyawn.
*Discussion questions for this article are available as a free download at www.cbcnashville.org.