The World Is Made Holy Through Thanks

Today, for Thanksgiving, I thought I'd revisit this post about gratitude from a year ago.

Gratitude is an important theme in my book The Slavery of Death. As I argue it, when life is treated as a possession that can be taken from us, damaged or lost our lives become infused with fear causing us to cling, protect, hoard, defend and aggress.

The antidote to this fear is gratitude, viewing life--the whole of life--not as a possession to be defended but as a gift to be shared.

Treating the whole of life as gift has become an important spiritual insight for me. Consequently, I was struck by Peter Leithart's commentary on 1 Timothy 4.4-5 in his book Gratitude.

The text:
1 Timothy 4.4-5
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
This seems like a pretty bland and straightforward text. Be thankful. Got it.

But there is an idea at the heart of this text that is very profound if you let the implications sink in. And the idea is this:

Gratitude sanctifies the world. Gratitude makes the world holy.

Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thankfulness, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Think about that. Think of everything you possess, everything that is yours in life. How can we live with these things in a way that doesn't entangle us? In a way that isn't sinful?

Receive them as gifts. When we handle the things of the world as gifts they become holy, consecrated and sanctified. Gratitude--thankfulness--marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

Ponder that. Thankfulness marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

In the Slavery of Death I argue that gratitude accomplishes this because the object in question--which includes not just possessions but also things like your time, attention, status and your very life--is relocated in the mind by thankfulness, making us able to "lose" and "let go" of the object as we live for and share with others. Thankfulness sanctifies the world because thankfulness creates the capacity to use things--by letting them go or sharing them--in holy ways.

Here is Peter's commentary from Gratitude about this text, linking thankfulness with the priestly use of the world:
[This is the logic behind] Paul's claim that everything is "sanctified" by thanksgiving. Since all things are good and all are to be received with thanks, all things are gifts from the Creator. By giving thanks for all that comes to hand, the Christian correctly identifies the character of created things as created gifts. For Paul, thanksgiving has a performative effect on the things received. Receiving God's gifts with thanks does not merely identify them as gifts but also sanctifies them, consecrates them as holy things. The world is sanctified, made holy, through thanks. To say that created things are "made holy" by thanks is to say that created things, already God's by virtue of creation, become specifically his possession by the prayers of the people. Given Paul's regular identification of believers as "holy ones" the logic seems to be this: Christians are holy ones, indwelt and anointed by the sanctifying Spirit of Jesus, priests to God and to Christ. As such, they ought only to touch, eat and use holy things. If they receive any thing that is is impure, their priesthood will be defiled by it. Purity and holiness "taboos" continue to operate in the New Testament. Holy people must have holy things. But for Paul no elaborate rite of sanctification is required: only the giving of thanks. Once consecrated by thanks, a thing may only be used for God's purposes. Holy food could be only eaten by priests in the Old Testament, holy implements could only be used in the sanctuary, holy incense could be used only on the altar. If Christians consecrate whatever they receive by thanks, they are not only claiming it as God's own but also obligating themselves to use it in a particular way, to use it with thanks. Thanksgiving is thus the liturgy of Christian living. It is the continuous sacrifice that Christians offer. Gratitude to God is the continuous sanctification of the world.

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6 thoughts on “The World Is Made Holy Through Thanks”

  1. Thank you.

    PS: I have always insisted that the Christian life has both its origin and end in gratitude; that gratitude is the heartbeat of Christian witness and worship, vocation and service; that gratitude is the master motivator and mover of all truly Christian thought and behaviour. Thanksgiving is thus the liturgy of Christian living -- what a beautiful phrase.

  2. It's fortunate that I read this post immediately after reading a different post regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia. I say it's fortunate because of the food for thought the combo generates.

    I would appreciate hearing you weigh in as a psychological and theological scholar on those topics, given your study and your authorship of The Slavery of Death.

  3. How do we maintain gratefulness but avoid the temptation to use what we receive as a way to measure God's love for us?

  4. I don't know if I have anything particularly illuminating to say. I think the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia is an example of what is called a "tragic tradeoff," where one must choose between two good, even two sacred things. In assisted suicide on the one hand we have dignity and the reduction of horrific suffering. On the other hand the sanctity of life.

    How to choose? Regardless, either choice will be sad and tragic. And both understandable and defensible.

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