To Whom Should We Be Grateful?

Challenging the foundation and assumptions of World Gratitude Day

by Liz Abrams on September 21, 2022
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Americans and Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving (at different times), which was at its inception a specifically Christian holiday. People gave thanks to God for his blessings and particularly for the harvest which would have recently been brought in.

However, World Gratitude Day, celebrated on September 21, has very different beginnings. At a Thanksgiving dinner in the United Nations’ meditation room in 1965, an Indian spiritual guru named Chinmoy Kumar Ghose proposed an international holiday for people to express gratitude. The others at the dinner committed to promote the new holiday in their home countries, and in 1977, in response to a request from the Spiritual League—a group of Chinmoy’s followers—a resolution was passed recognizing World Gratitude Day.1

Chinmoy came from a Hindu background and believed in a type of universalism where all religions are equally valid, and he taught that one could have a relationship with God through meditation and yoga.2 His followers claim his spiritual enlightenment allowed him to do physically implausible feats, such as lifting 7,000 pounds using only one arm after only 17 months of weight training.3

World Gratitude Day cannot be separated from the spiritualistic and universalist ideas of Chinmoy.

Biblical Gratitude to the Creator

The Bible clearly teaches gratitude, sometimes on an earthly level to others, but ultimately to God. Leviticus first lays out the rules for thanksgiving offerings (Leviticus 7:12–15), and King David added that thanksgiving be sung before the ark of the covenant (1 Chronicles 16:7; 2 Chronicles 7:6, 20:21, 30:22). Thanksgiving is a constant theme in the book of Psalms, whether for his deeds (Psalm 9:1, 26:7), his favor (Psalm 30:4–5), his word (Psalm 33:1–4), or his goodness (Psalm 54:6), among many others. Psalm 50:23 says, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to the one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

The Bible clearly teaches gratitude, sometimes on an earthly level to others, but ultimately to God.

Thanksgiving is tied specifically to the fact that God created us and sustains us with what we need to live. Psalm 33 recounts God’s creative work and continuing rule over the earth in a context of thanksgiving. Psalm 95 repeats this theme but with an added emphasis contrasting thanksgiving versus rebellion. Psalm 136 begins with a threefold exhortation to give thanks for God’s steadfast love before listing God’s creative works and miracles on behalf of Israel.

We can see from the emphasis it receives in Israel’s hymn book that thanksgiving was a central tenet of worship to God and often specifically included giving thanks for his creative work and the sustaining and providential provision only the Creator could give.

In the New Testament, the majority of thanksgiving in the Gospels comes from Jesus to the Father. The exceptions are a prophetess giving thanks to God (Luke 2:38) and a healed Samaritan leper giving thanks to Jesus (Luke 17:16).

Paul taught that the lack of gratitude to God was a precursor to God abandoning rebellious people to the sin they chose over him (Romans 1:21). Regardless of what choices we make regarding matters of conscience, the constant emphasis is on giving thanks to God (Romans 14:6).

Gratitude to God is also an antidote for anxiety. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). We know from the examples in the Psalms that biblical thanksgiving includes remembering God’s creation and sustaining work. If we meditate regularly on these things, we will not be anxious about our needs, because we are in relationship with the God who is able to supply all of them.

Even though the vast majority of explicit thanksgiving is directed to God, sometimes gratitude is directed to people who are serving God. Paul says, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well” (Romans 16:3–4). However, it is much more common in Scripture for Paul to thank God for people than to thank people directly.

Entire volumes could be written on the themes of gratitude and thanksgiving in Scripture, so a few paragraphs could never do it justice. However, this quick survey of some of the high points shows that for the Christian, thanksgiving is not morally or religiously neutral. In fact, when we understand it correctly, we can only participate in thanksgiving with unbelievers in a very limited, surface sense, because our thanksgiving should always ultimately be directed toward God.

Gratitude Shows We Are Image-Bearers

Even people who do not believe in God have an inbuilt need to give thanks, because that’s what God created us for. An article entitled “Gratitude Without God” predictably credits evolution with humanity’s tendency toward gratitude: “The evolutionary explanation for this, [McCullough] said, is probably that gratitude helps people initiate friendships and alliances—which then help people survive.”4

Gratitude is a problem for atheists because they have the inbuilt desire to give thanks, but they explicitly deny the God to whom they should be giving thanks! One atheist wrote about how she navigates thankfulness, saying, “I thank my friends, family, strangers who make my coffee. But I am also thankful for a goodness that can’t be assigned to mere mortals—a goodness, I feel, that is bigger than we are. . . . So what deserves that credit? The universe? The energy around me? The earth? It’s not clear. But what is clear to me is it’s not a deity.”5

Richard Dawkins, famously anti-Christian, atheist, and evolutionist, said, “When I lie on my back and look up at the Milky Way on a clear night and see the vast distances of space and reflect that these are also vast differences of time as well, when I look at the Grand Canyon and see the strata going down, down, down, through periods of time which the human mind can’t comprehend . . . it’s a feeling of a sort of an abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders, when I look down a microscope it’s the same feeling, I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.”6 As a First Things article noted,

Dawkins might reply that he is grateful for the Milky Way and the Grand Canyon. Being grateful for a good, an event, or a state, however, presupposes a gift-giver. Those grateful for a promotion or applause, their health or their sufferings, are, albeit implicitly, grateful to the persons who brought about the event or state. “Abstract” gratitude, therefore, is as meaningless as abstract piety, as oxymoronic as abstract repayment. Gratitude without a benefactor is as incongruous as a refund without a payer.7

But it’s worse than that. To a materialist like Dawkins, the feelings he experiences are completely explainable by chemical interactions going on in his brain. The wonders he feels grateful for are nothing more than photons interacting with his eyes, which in turn provoke chemical reactions he experiences as emotions. His experience of gratitude, in his own worldview, is more complex but fundamentally not different than vinegar and baking soda erupting from a science fair volcano.

The materialistic atheist can’t have it both ways. Either God created us as his image bearers to be grateful to him for everything he made and has done for us, or we are the result of billions of years of chance processes. In atheism, not only do we not have anyone to be thankful to, but thankfulness itself is ultimately meaningless. While there might be utilitarian reasons to be thankful (e.g., strengthening relationships), thankfulness has no meaning beyond that.

Can We Be Grateful to a Universalist God?

However, Chinmoy and his followers weren’t atheist, but universalist. They believed that one can get to God from practically anywhere. Can someone be grateful to a god such as Chinmoy taught?

It sounds good at first to say that all religions get to God somehow. But the Aztecs worshiped by cutting the beating heart out of their human sacrifices. The devotees of Molech placed infants in the red-hot hands of their idol to burn them alive. Some religions use cult prostitutes and rape as part of religious rituals. People have done all sorts of things purportedly in service to God. Are all these things valid expressions of worship? It doesn’t seem as nice to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” with people of all religions when we realize what some of those religions, past and present, have taught.

Religions have taught wildly differing things about the nature of their god or gods throughout history. Mormonism’s god was a man on another planet with another god, who was presumably himself a man on another planet with another god, and so on. Islam’s god is fundamentally unknowable and impersonal. Other religions worship a pantheon of gods who have various interrelationships with each other. Clearly, people can talk about “God” but have very different conceptions of who they are speaking about.

Ultimately, universalistic cooperation can only happen if we completely ignore the differences in religious practice and even the nature of the gods the different religions teach.

Ultimately, universalistic cooperation can only happen if we completely ignore the differences in religious practice and even the nature of the gods the different religions teach.

Christian Thankfulness on World Gratitude Day

September 21 is World Gratitude Day, and doubtless there will be many social media posts about coming together and expressing gratitude. Perhaps you could post something expressing thankfulness to God about one of the following things:

  • Your salvation in Christ Jesus
  • Your family
  • Your church
  • God’s provision in specific areas
  • God’s goodness expressed in specific circumstances

It is one thing to post something publicly on social media, but the Bible emphasizes prayer as the way God has given us to communicate with him. Perhaps spend some extra time in prayer, individually or as a family, thanking God for the blessings in your life.

Footnotes

  1. “World Gratitude Day,” National Today, accessed September 19, 2022, https://nationaltoday.com/world-gratitude-day/.
  2. Corey Kilgannon, “Sri Chinmoy, Athletic Spiritual Leader, Dies at 76,” The New York Times, October 13, 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/13/nyregion/13chinmoy.html.
  3. “Sri Chinmoy’s Miracle Lift,” Sri Chinmoy Reflections, accessed September 19, 2022, https://www.srichinmoy-reflections.com/miracle-lift.
  4. Emma Green, “Gratitude Without God,” The Atlantic, November 26, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-phenomenology-of-gratitude/383174/.
  5. Jennifer Furner, “I’m Not ‘Blessed.’ I’m an Atheist and I Don’t Need God to Give Thanks or Show Gratitude,” HuffPost, November 27, 2019, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/atheist-gratitude-giving-thanks_n_5dd8094ae4b0913e6f6b9278.
  6. Richard Dawkins, “Atheism is the New Fundamentalism,” Debate organized by Intelligence Squared, November 2009, cited in Acevedo, 2011.
  7. Alma Acevedo, “Gratitude: An Atheist’s Dissonance,” First Things, April 14, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/04/gratitude-an-atheists-dissonance.

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