Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!
Few days represent American culture like Thanksgiving. The holiday originated here, of course, and was first celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts, nearly three hundred years ago. More than that, the day expresses many beloved features of our culture: freedom, food, family, and football. That last one is a great local tradition in particular, with the Dallas Cowboys hosting a Thanksgiving Day football game for nearly forty years.
But a genuine celebration of Thanksgiving is also in tension with American culture. To celebrate the holiday with a healthy spirit of gratitude is actually very challenging in our culture. The quintessential attitudes of the American spirit include independence, self-reliance, and at times even superiority. Those attitudes are at odds with a spirit of gratitude, which requires attitudes of dependence, need, and humility. Gratitude also requires a measure of contentment, which is difficult when the siren song of the big sale is so loud. And let’s not forget the confusion over the object of our thanks, for few know the Triune God to be the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).
How do we cultivate hearts of deep thankfulness to God when the activities and attitudes of our culture have hardened the soil? How do we plow these hard places, and to refresh a spirit of glad, humble, worshipful thanksgiving to God?
The answer the Bible gives is to remember the past. It calls us to remember both the long, shared history of God’s people, and the short, personal history of your life. Of course, remembering the past is a tricky thing, since our memories are limited. And if we take the next step and try to interpret what we remember, all kinds of biases are introduced. Remembering the past can be a tricky business. So the Bible doesn’t simply tell us to remember the past; it helps us remember the past by telling and retelling key stories. So we read and reread the historical stories of creation, the patriarchs, the kings and prophets, the life of Jesus, and the early church. And in those stories, we are moved to gratitude as we see God’s glory, our sin, and the gospel of Jesus Christ repeatedly displayed.
But the Bible also gives us imaginative, poetic stories to help us remember the past and cultivate gratitude. In Psalm 107, we are given four of these imaginative, poetic stories. While the setting of each story is different – a desert, a prison, a deathbed, and a ship – all are united by a common plot: an experience of trouble, a desperate cry to God, deliverance from trouble, and a call to give God thanks. Together, these four stories form one powerful work of art that helps us remember our past and move us to respond to the psalm’s repeated exhortation and “thank the Lord for His steadfast love.”
While there are plenty of biblical events involving deserts, prisons, deathbeds, and ships, the four stories of Psalm 107 are not intended to be read as references to specific historical events. Instead, they are meant to prompt our imagination to consider how we too have found ourselves in trouble, have cried to God, have been delivered, and should give God thanks. We may not have been in a desert or prison, or on a deathbed or ship, but the descriptions of those kinds of trouble have universal application to each of our lives, to lives of those around us, and to the long history of God’s people before us. In one way or another, we’ve all been in trouble because of the sin of others (the desert story of verses 4-9), or because of our own sin (the prison story of verses 10-16), or because of your own foolishness (the deathbed story of verses 10-22), or because of natural disasters (the ship story of verses 22-32). Reading Psalm 107 helps us remember those events, and builds within us hearts of thankfulness to God.
At first, it may seem like a bad idea to reflect on your past troubles. Wouldn’t it be easier and better to simply thank God for the good things? Charles Dickens expressed this idea famously, saying, “Reflect upon your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” But if we trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness, reflecting on past troubles helps us to see and remember that God was always at work in our troubles, and was always with us in our troubles. More than that, remembering how God delivered us from our troubles deepens and widens the scope of our thankfulness. Stories of divine rescue have a dramatic power that far exceeds stories of everyday blessing.
So let me invite you to use Psalm 107 as a guide for your heart in these days leading up to Thanksgiving. Let the stories draw you in to reflect on your past and present trouble. Consider how God answered your cry and delivered you. And lean into the opportunity to “thank the Lord for His steadfast love” this Thanksgiving, even as you enjoy the freedom of restful days, as you spend time with family and friends, as you prepare and eat good food, and yes, as you watch a little football.