We often think of thanksgiving in terms of the holiday named for the virtue. “Happy Thanksgiving,” we say, with the best of intentions and the merriest of hearts. In the process, we might inadvertently equate the two — happy and thanksgiving — as if they must go together.
But the Bible paints a different picture of thanksgiving, one that isn’t always so lovely. Several times throughout Scripture, God’s people are urged to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving. “Sacrifice” sounds more brutal than beautiful, doesn’t it?
If you listen to podcasts, you may have heard the popular phrase “this is saving my life” tossed around. Well for me, studying the idea of a sacrifice of thanksgiving has been quite literally “saving my life.” To show you why, I’d like to focus on one sacrifice-of-thanksgiving passage in particular: Psalm 50.
The premise: Why sacrifice?
In Psalm 50:14 God’s people are told to “offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” This comes immediately after several verses referencing the Hebrew system of sacrifice — the structure of offerings that was set up by God in Leviticus.
So, let’s take a step back and start there. If you grew up in church like me, you may have an understanding of the Hebrews’ sacrificial system that goes something like this: A just and merciful God created a system of sacrifices that would account for the people’s sin without requiring their destruction — the animal’s life instead of their own.
And while that quick explanation may contain truth, the Bible Project reminds us that the Old Testament concept of sacrifice goes much deeper than that. They say that the sacrificial system was given for two reasons: to prevent further sin and to restore God’s presence.
Sin never feels serious in the moment. A little lie here, a stolen glance there. A minor outburst. A just-this-once indulgence in gossip. That’s what we think. But God knows better. He knows those little things lead to this:
“When you see a thief, you become friends with him, And you associate with adulterers. You let your mouth loose in evil, And your tongue harnesses deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; You slander your own mother’s son” (Psalm 50:18-20).
Those “non-serious” sins can expand into deceit, adultery, evil, slander, and more … unless.
Unless they’re stopped. Unless they’re deterred or prevented. What could possibly stop this downward spiral into depravity? Sacrifice.
The Hebrew system of sacrifice was set up in part so that the people would stop to look symbolically at what their sin was doing — costing them their very lives — and in turn stop the sin itself. The sacrificial system is a wake-up call that sin is never non-serious. Their lives were at stake. And so are ours. But before we get there, let’s look at the other reason for sacrifice.
Not only does sin spiral, but it also separates — specifically, it separates us from God. We know this from Genesis when the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was to leave Eden, the place where they met with God. Since we’re focusing on Psalm 50, look at how God puts it in verse 16: “But to the wicked God says, ‘What right have you to tell of My statutes and to take My covenant in your mouth?’” The consequence of wickedness is a broken covenant or a loss of fellowship with God.
The Israelites knew the power of God’s presence. With Him, they won impossible battles and witnessed incredible miracles. Moses declared that it was God’s presence that distinguished Israel from other nations, and he didn’t want to make a move without God’s presence (Ex. 33:15-16). God’s presence was Israel’s source of power, peace, and direction.
So, if sin separated them from that source, what hope did Israel have? How could they restore His presence when every sin “kicked them out of the garden,” so to speak? Sacrifice.
The Hebrew system of sacrifice was set up in part so that the people would be able to restore God’s presence once again. Psalm 50:5 says, “Gather My godly ones to Me, those who have made covenant with Me by sacrifice.” Sacrifice was the only way to reestablish the connection with God, the only way to once again enjoy His presence along with the power, peace, and direction that comes with it. And it’s ours too.
The practice: How do we sacrifice?
Friend, if we’re commanded to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, wouldn’t it follow that unthankfulness is a sin? I think the answer is, gently, yes. And that sin could deteriorate easily into bitterness, envy, or other sins. It could destroy our lives, the lives of power, peace, and direction God wants to give us with His presence.
So, if the sacrifice of thanksgiving is that crucial, the question becomes: How? How do believers come to God with a sacrifice of thanksgiving? I think there are two keys to examine here.
Sacrifice costs something
Cost is inherent in any sacrifice. The Hebrews experienced a material cost when offering sacrifices. We understand the cost when we say someone sacrificed for their country, or when we say parents make sacrifices for their kids. Sacrifice naturally means something’s given up or surrendered. Without a cost, it’s not really a sacrifice.
So a sacrifice of thanksgiving must inherently cost something, right? Absolutely. Something must be given up. Something must be surrendered. In my mind, that begs the question: When would offering thanksgiving being costly? I think the answer is two-fold.
First, I think it’s a sacrifice to be thankful in times of suffering or hardship. It’s really easy to be thankful when everything is going right and your blessings overflow. Not so easy when things are going wrong, and blessings seem scarce. It’s not easy to thank God for His provision when you’re experiencing financial difficulties. It’s not easy to thank God for His love when you’re going through a season of heartbreak. It’s not easy to thank God for the hope of eternal life when life seems hopeless. But when we surrender our focus on those hardships and instead intentionally find reasons to thank God, I think that could be considered a sacrifice.
Second, I think it’s a sacrifice to be thankful for times of suffering or hardship. This truly takes sacrifice a tough step further. Because if you’re thanking God for the hardship, that involves surrendering its solution to His will. We all want to look forward to a time when we thank God for bringing us out of hardship — but what if that time never comes on earth?
Oooh, man. That’s hard. It’s a big sacrifice to say, “I thank you for this, even if it never works out like I want it to because I believe that somehow it’s part of your good plan for me.” Which brings me to the next point.
Sacrifice exercises trust
In the time of the Hebrews, there were other nations that made sacrifices to their gods. The Hebrews were not unique in that practice. The unique part was Who set up the Hebrews’ sacrificial system. God did. God told them exactly what was required (sacrifices) and exactly how He would respond (restored relationship).
Pagan cultures made costly sacrifices merely hoping that their fickle, false gods would be appeased. The Hebrews didn’t have to hope — they knew what God wanted — but they did have to trust that He would be true to His word.
Think about it. A dead bird or lamb is going to be enough to satisfy an offense against Almighty God? Seems doubtful. But that’s what God promised, so that’s what they had to trust. Every sacrifice was an opportunity to exercise trust that God would be true to His promise.
Friend, a sacrifice of thanksgiving exercises trust today, too. Think about it. God promises that He’s powerful — but it seems doubtful when He doesn’t intervene in crisis and hardship. He promises He’s loving — but it seems doubtful when He allows suffering and heartache.
This is where the exercise of trust is so necessary in sacrifice, though. We can know the promises of God backward and forward. But only in times of crisis, hardship, suffering, or heartache are we given an opportunity to exercise trust that God will be true to those promises.
For example, we might know the verses that say God is good and works for our good. But only during a trial do we have the opportunity to exercise trust in those verses. So, we cry out, “God, you say that you are good and work for my good. This situation doesn’t look good, but I’ll trust what you say, not what I see. Even if you don’t fix this, I trust that you are still good. So, thank you for this because there must be good here that I don’t see.” And in doing so, we offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
I’m sobbing as I write this, dear friend, because I get it. I understand how brutal those words are when life is hard. But remember, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be called a sacrifice.
The promise: Who benefits from sacrifice?
Psalm 50:13-15 tells us that God did not benefit from Hebrew sacrifices. The people did. And we’ve already established why: Because sacrifices helped stop a spiral of sin and restore God’s presence.
So, let’s pull it all together. Without pausing to practice a sacrifice of thanksgiving, we could conclude our lives are at stake, the lives that God wants for us — lives full of power, peace, and direction only found in His presence.
A sacrifice of thanksgiving is so, so hard. But when we do it — when we surrender doubt and solutions, when we trust and thank Him for being true to His word — we benefit.
Look at Psalm 50:23 for the final word of God in this chapter: “He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me; and to him who orders his way aright, I shall show the salvation of God.” So as the podcasters say, a sacrifice of thanksgiving quite literally “saves our lives.”
That’s brutal. But also, so beautiful.
Melissa Richeson is a freelance writer and editor based in Central Florida. Her work has been featured in places like The Washington Post, Florida Today, Sunlight Press, BiggerPockets Wealth Magazine, WDW Magazine, and many other outlets. As a Medi-Share member, she shares regularly about her positive Christian Care Ministry experience over the past decade. Melissa can often be found in real life at the beach, or virtually on her freelance website.