Thanksgiving & Idolatry

Thanksgiving is an interesting exercise. It implies that the thanks given can be received. When growing up my mom would make my favorite dish on my birthday.  I would thank her, and she would receive the thanks with a hug.  It is this very thing that shows the inadequacy of idolatry. The idol is unable to receive the thanks of the worshiper.

Just think about the description in Isaiah 44:12-17. The prophet tells us that a man plants a tree, he prunes it, cares for it and when it is tall enough, he cuts it down and cuts it in half. With one half he builds a fire. He cooks his food and warms himself with it. And he says, “Ah, I am warm; all is well!”

But with the other half of the log, he takes a tool and shapes it. He measures it and uses a chalk line to make sure the lines are straight. He labors long like this even going without food and water using his strength to craft the wood and in the end the piece of wood looks like an image. The man sets up the image and then does the oddest thing, he bows down to the wood in thanks!

There are several oddities about this depiction of an idolater but the oddest is the offering of thanks to a thing that cannot receive it. Now, perhaps someone will say, “But aren’t we thankful for many inanimate things?”  Of course, we are, but I don’t thank the sun for its warmth.  I thank God for the sun. He is the giver of the sun, and he is able to receive my thanks. 

Now, this perspective helps us. This year as we sit around the table for Thanksgiving, we will be asked to enumerate the things for which we are thankful. We will likely hear a wide variety of answers. Some will be thankful for their job and others thankful for a day off and the littlest among us for their new toy. How might we help them to be thankful for these things without becoming a spoiler of the occasion?  Well, we might use Ephesians 5:20, which says, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In this way we can remind people that God is the ultimate Giver of gifts, and we ought to be thankful to Him.  But God often gives his gifts through others. There was an employer who gave the job and parents who gave the toy. Therefore, little Susie ought to be thankful to mommy and daddy who gave her the dolly.   

Idolatry is when we replace the giver with the gift.  Idolatry is when we offer our thanks to the thing rather than the one who gave it. Idolatry turns thanksgiving into a selfish holiday that promotes my joy in a thing rather than deepens my relationship with a person. A Christian Thanksgiving is indeed a counter-cultural event.  It reminds us that we are to be thankful, most of all, to the Triune God who has given to us the most blessed gift of all, His only begotten Son, that in Him we might have life.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Editorial Director of Ref21 and Place for Truth both online magazines of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 


Jeffrey Stivason