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The urgency of real Thanksgiving

thanksgiving
Photo: Unsplash/Debby Hudson |

In an age of complaint, accusation, protest, grievance-laden lamentation, and non-stop grumbling, we must whistle a “time out!” and come aside for real Thanksgiving.

Certainly, we should be grateful for material blessings brought to us by the hand of God. However, we must not allow the focus on the hand of God divert us from concentration on God’s face, revealing His transcendent glory. Real thanksgiving is the linkage in our minds and hearts of both the hand and face of God, joined by a feast that brings the body into the celebration.

Real Thanksgiving is the whole person celebrating the wholeness of God.

Historic Thanksgiving proclamations recognized God’s transcendence, as these samplings show:

  • On November 29, 1623, Governor William Bradford recognized that “the Great Father” had given the “abundant harvest” the Pilgrims enjoyed.
  • George Washington, on October 3, 1789, proclaimed the coming November 26 as a day of “service” to “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be...”
  • In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and noted how the focus tends to drift more to God’s hand than His face: “To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart that is insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God...”

The worldview of real Thanksgiving and its recognition of God’s transcendence carried over into the philosophy of American government. The Articles of Confederation adopted November 15, 1777, included this statement: “And whereas it pleased the Great Governor of the world to incline the hearts of Legislatures, we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union.”

Russell Kirk, a twentieth century historian and philosopher, reflected on America’s foundations in his book, The Roots of American Order. Kirk believed “a transcendent moral order” rested “necessarily on religious faith,” noted Professor Forest McDonald. 

“A principle difference” between the American and French Revolutions was that, according to Kirk,“the American revolutionaries in general held a biblical view of man and his bent toward sin, while the French revolutionaries ... attempted to substitute for the biblical understanding an optimistic doctrine of human goodness advanced by the philosophies of the rationalistic enlightenment.”

The outcomes: “The American view led to the Constitution of 1787; the French view to the Terror and to a new autocracy.” The American Constitution, said Kirk, “is a practical secular covenant, drawn up by men who (with few exceptions) believed in a sacred Covenant, designed to restrain the human tendencies toward violence and fraud...”

One of those men was Thomas Jefferson, whose erstwhile support of enlightenment rationalism was balanced by regard for God’s transcendence, and the accountability of humans and their governments to it.

Jefferson, a troubled soul because he was a slaveholder, recognized the evil institution existed because people had forgotten God’s transcendence. Jefferson wrote: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep forever... The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest...”

Jefferson brought that understanding of the transcendence of God into the Declaration of Independence. Fundamental human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are from God. Government does not give those foundational freedoms, but exists to protect them. But, because “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 6:23, words Jefferson would have known), politicians are sinners too, and therefore the institutions of governance they oversee must have checks and balances.

Without recognition of God’s transcendence, the United States would not have had such a government. The greatest threat now is that as the sense of transcendence fades, government is becoming increasingly domineering and controlling.

In 1952, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was concerned that the recognition of God’s transcendence would be pushed aside in American society through an extremist interpretation of the separation of church and state.

“We are a religious people, and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” wrote Douglas. “No constitutional requirement makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against the efforts to widen the scope of religious influence.”

This Thanksgiving, thank God for the blessings flowing from His hand on the immanent scale, and pray with all your fervor that we will not lose sight of His glorious Face, revealing His transcendent majesty and holiness.

Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and Chair of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry Leadership degree. He is a former White House and Congressional aide, and co-author of "God and Churchill", with Winston Churchill's great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys.

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