Christian LivingDoctrine

The antidote to idolatry

It’s right and proper for us to worship God. But when we think about worshipping God, we can tend to think of just a limited range of activities, such as singing to him, obeying him or evangelising. Yet if we do this, it’s possible to miss a key component of worshipping God: thanking him. In the Bible, there are multiple occasions where thanking God is linked with praising, blessing and worshipping him. In Hebrews 12:28 (NIV), we are told to be thankful[i] “and so worship God”. Here, being thankful is directly linked with worship (cf. Rev 4:9). In Psalm 100:4, we are told to “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” We see that giving thanks to God is directly caught up with[ii] praising and blessing God (cf. Pss 35:18, 50:22-23, 109:30; Ezra 3:11).

What does this have to do with idolatry? There’s a lot of talk in the Bible about idolatry. Idols are what capture our hearts (Eph 5:5; Col 3:5).[iii] So for our context, idols could be power, control, fame, sex, success, comfort… anything that replaces God in our hearts. It’s ubiquitous yet inconspicuous. We are commanded to not commit idolatry (Exod 20:3–4); in fact we are to flee from it (1 Cor 10:14). Yet we sometimes fail to recognise that not being thankful is at the heart of idolatry. In Romans 1:21, a core component of sin is failing to honour or give thanks to God. “To be ungrateful is not simply a state of harmless absent-mindedness. It is the failure to acknowledge God as the creator and Lord of all.”[iv] That’s why an easily forgotten antidote to idolatry is thanksgiving. In Ephesians 5:3-5, we are told to not be sexually immoral, impure, covetous, idolatrous, “but instead let there be thanksgiving”. We are to replace idolatry with thankfulness. Thankfulness to God is the antidote to idolatry. It turns us from our worship of idols to worshipping God.

The Bible tells us as Christians to be thankful, to have thankfulness in our hearts and to abound in thanksgiving (Col 2:6-7, 3:15-17 ESV). Yet it can be difficult to always be thankful – especially when life is busy and challenging. We can feel that even when we do give thanks, it can be so superficial and brief. So what can help us to be thankful in the day-to-day?

Two things will help us. The first is to remember that by giving thanks we are turning our hearts to God in worship, and the second is to know we always have a reason for giving thanks.

Of course, we thank God for his daily mercies and provisions, including food (1 Tim 4:3; Rom 14:6). It’s right to thank God for things like our holidays, for Christmas presents and even that Messi won the 2022 world cup (assuming you’re thankful for the result!). And of course, we should thank God for the heavenly benefits we have received from him: our salvation and future hope in Jesus (Col 1:12-14). But there is an even more fundamental reason for us to be thankful: God himself. We thank God because of his character: for his power and his acts. We see this supremely in the person and work of Jesus. The Psalmist tells us to give thanks because God is good and his steadfast love endures forever (Psa 118:1, 29). The twenty-four elders in Revelation give thanks because God is the Almighty who judges and saves (Rev 11:17-18). God is always these things; another way of saying that is he is immutable. He doesn’t change. So we can always be thankful, including in dark and desperate times. As one theologian put it, “To remember [God]… is to move away from a focus on oneself and to put God at the center of one’s life… Pauline thanksgivings are therefore theocentric and christocentric acts of remembering.”[v]

So it might be an especially busy season. It might be a hard season; even a dark season. But every season is the season to be thankful because God is always worthy of praise, glory, worship and thanks.

[i] The Greek word is χάρις where the NIV has translated it as ‘thankful’ and ESV as ‘grateful’.

[ii] This has been achieved with the use of parallelism where ideas are repeated in the different clauses.

[iii] Timothy J. Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters (London; Penguin Books, 2011), xvii-xviii.

[iv] David W. Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme(ed. D. A. Carson; vol. 13; New Studies in Biblical Theology; England; Downers Grove, IL: Apollos; InterVarsity Press, 2002), 157.

[v] David W. Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme(ed. D. A. Carson; vol. 13; New Studies in Biblical Theology; England; Downers Grove, IL: Apollos; InterVarsity Press, 2002), 61, 85. Pao focuses his study on thanksgiving in Pauline literature but the conclusion is applicable for other parts of the Bible.