THANKSGIVING AS GOD-CENTEREDNESS: How Paul’s use of the term differs from ours today

The concept of thanksgiving is mentioned 62 times within the New Testament, and intriguingly, over three-quarters of these mentions occur within Paul’s letters. Paul stands out as the only New Testament writer who explicitly exhorts believers to practice thankfulness. His emphasis on this theme is without equal, not only in the New Testament, but in all surviving literature from his period. New Testament scholar, Dr. David Pao,[1] notes how the assertion made by Paul Schubert over fifty years ago still stands unchallenged: 

“The apostle Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving more frequently per page than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian.”[2]

Paul’s teaching on thanksgiving is distinguished not just by frequency but by its theological depth. For Paul, thanksgiving is so much more than a polite gesture or means for developing a positive outlook; it is an all-encompassing disposition centered around God in dependence and worship. This article will examine five ways Paul engages with the theme of thanksgiving that transcends our common use of the term today.[3]

THANKSGIVING IS EXCLUSIVELY GODWARD

One of the first things that stands out in Paul’s letters is that thanksgiving is directed solely toward God, not people.[4] This consistent focus underscores a core theological truth: every good thing we receive—regardless of the immediate source—is primarily and ultimately a gift from God. This truth is evident in passages like 2 Corinthians 9:11-14, where Paul addresses the Corinthians about their charitable collection for the Jerusalem church. He states, “Your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God” (v. 11), “in many expressions of thanks to God” (v. 12). Paul explains how their giving is only possible because of God’s “enrichment” of them (v. 11) and “the surpassing grace God has given [them]” (v. 14). By repeating these clarifications, Paul emphasizes God as the sole benefactor, even when others distribute His gifts. He reframes all giving and receiving under God’s redemptive work and lavish grace, uniting the hearts of both givers and receivers in gratitude toward God as the source of all that is good. For Paul, thanksgiving is rooted in an all-encompassing vision of the supremacy of God as our Creator and Redeemer who remains actively engaged in our lives. At its core, thanksgiving is God-centeredness. 

THANKSGIVING AS WORSHIP

Rooted in Old Testament tradition, Paul elevates “thanksgiving” as a key expression of worship. To fully appreciate this in Paul’s writings, understanding the Old Testament’s close association of “thanksgiving” with other terms used for worship is essential. Consider the words of Old Testament scholar Patrick Miller: “Thanksgiving and praise have come together so thoroughly in the Old Testament that one cannot really sift out one from the other as a legitimately separate theological subject.”[5] Or as Marvin Tate puts it: “praise and thanksgiving have a symbiotic relationship in that one cannot live without the other.”[6]

Here are a few examples, starting with the association of “thanksgiving” and “praise.” The terms are used in parallel constructions, like in Psalm 35:18, 

“I will give you thanks in the great assembly; 

among throngs of people I will praise you,”[7]

or in a series describing the same thing, as we find in Ezra 3:11, 

“With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD.” 

Along with the term for “praise,” the Old Testament also links “blessing” God with “thanksgiving.” All three of these terms are paralleled together in Psalm 100:4: 

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving 

and his courts with praise

give thanks to him 

and bless his name.” 

These verses give a taste of the deep connection between giving thanks, offering praise, and blessing God in the Old Testament. Their “symbiotic relationship” lays the foundation for understanding Paul’s view of thanksgiving as an act of worship.

1 Corinthians 14:16 provides a clear example of how closely Paul intertwines these terms:

“If you are praising God [‘blessing Godin Greek] with your spirit, 

how can an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving 

if they don’t know what you’re saying?” 

In Paul’s message, “blessing” and “giving thanks” are treated as one and the same—they’re both ways we praise God. Although these terms are linguistically distinct, they are theologically interdependent, and practically indistinguishable. 

Paul further emphasizes this element of worship through his association of thanksgiving with glorifying God.[8] For example, in Romans 1:21-23, he writes, 

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

In this passage, Paul addresses the gravity of ingratitude, drawing a direct line between a lack of thanksgiving and a failure to glorify God for who He is. Paul explains that by not giving thanks to God, we as humanity have idolatrously exchanged His glory for lesser things. This lack of thankfulness is no trivial oversight; according to Paul, it’s a fundamental sin that has led to the darkening of our minds and hearts. Thanksgiving, for him, is far more than a simple gesture of gratitude; it’s a deep-seated acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and His rightful place at the center of our lives.

THANKSGIVING AS TRUST AND DEPENDENCE

The act of giving thanks is deeply rooted in the understanding that we are wholly dependent on God’s care. Recognizing our reliance on God counters the mistaken belief that we can get by on our own—an attitude the Bible points out as the core of sin. Through this lens, Paul’s common, yet often perplexing, connection between thanksgiving and prayer becomes clear. Consider Philippians 4:6, 

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” 

Paul tells us to infuse our prayers and petitions with thanksgiving. This connection redirects our anxious focus on immediate needs to God’s greatness and highlights our reliance on His provision. Conversely, if we only give thanks without seeking God’s ongoing involvement, we might acknowledge Him as our Maker but overlook His role as our constant Provider. Bringing our requests to God with a thankful heart reflects our gratitude not just for what He has done, but also expresses our faith in what He will continue to do, expressing our total reliance on His constant care.

THANKSGIVING TRANSCENDS OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

For Paul, thanksgiving is rooted not in the fluctuating conditions of life but in the unchanging nature of God. This principle is powerfully conveyed in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, where Paul urges believers, 

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 

Paul exhorts believers to make thanksgiving a steadfast practice, unswayed by the ebb and flow of life’s circumstances. This emphasizes that it is God’s character—His goodness and faithfulness—that warrants a perpetual attitude of gratitude. 

Furthermore, in Colossians 3:15, Paul exhorts, 

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” 

This unequivocal call to “be thankful,” independent of any specific blessing or situation, underscores that thanksgiving responds not just to our circumstances, but fundamentally to who God is and to our relationship with Him.

These teachings from Paul clearly define thanksgiving as a key aspect of the Christian life, one that celebrates God’s sovereign goodness and our reliance on His providential care.

THANKSGIVING AS A WAY OF LIFE

Thanksgiving is more than words; it is a way of doing things. It is a core disposition out of which we live. We find this in passages such as Colossians 3:17, 

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” 

In this passage, “giving thanks” is presented as the means in which we “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Essentially, if one asks, “How can I live in a manner that honors the name of the Lord Jesus?” Paul’s answer is straightforward: “by giving thanks.” For Paul, thanksgiving is to be a defining characteristic in a believer’s life, shaping not just our words, but also our actions. 

In Ephesians 5, Paul further elaborates on this concept. He instructs believers to avoid all forms of sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse joking. Instead, he advocates for a life characterized by thanksgiving.

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:3-5). 

In this passage, Paul contrasts thanksgiving with various negative behaviors, suggesting that a thankful lifestyle is the antithesis of these immoral actions. He even labels those who indulge in these negative practices as “idolaters.” For Paul, then, thanksgiving is far more than simply responding with a polite expression of gratitude. It’s a lifestyle properly oriented around God in worship.

CONCLUSION

Paul presents thanksgiving as a dynamic and holistic expression of a life attuned to God’s constant presence and gracious actions—a life that praises, trusts, and depends on the Almighty, transcending individual circumstances and characterizing all we say and do. In short, thanksgiving is God-centeredness. 

Growing in God-centered gratitude isn’t about gritting our teeth; it’s about opening our eyes to the vastness of God’s mercy and might. Thankfulness becomes like a spring that constantly wells up in our hearts as we come to see just how gracious, loving, and all-powerful our God is.

Let me leave you with Psalm 100, which for thousands of years has guided the hearts of God’s people, including Paul’s, into the joy that is ours when we realize we get to live as the people of God’s pasture, the flock under His loving care.

PSALM 100

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise;
    give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
    his faithfulness continues through all generations.

  1. David W. Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, Volume 13 in New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 15.  This article draws significantly from the insightful research of Dr. Pao, as presented in his book cited above. If you’re interested in further exploring Paul’s theology of thanksgiving, I believe his book is the best resource on the topic. 
  2. Paul Schubert, Form and Function of the Pauline Thanksgivings (Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1939), 41.
  3. In today’s Western society, thanksgiving fulfills a variety of purposes: as a social courtesy, it is expressed to maintain a balance in relationships through reciprocal kindness; on a personal and therapeutic level, where I find most focus given to it today, thankfulness is promoted as a tool for developing greater positivity in order to boost one’s self-esteem and sense of personal wellbeing; among close family and friends, it is often communally practiced, especially over the Thanksgiving holiday, as a way to promote group cohesion through reaffirmation of shared values and a collective identity. The purpose of this article is not to reject these entirely; rather, it is to reveal how Paul’s theological framework extends far beyond them in its radically God-centered perspective.
  4. Pao notes, “The only possible exception is Rom. 16:4. Even here, however, while Paul was thanking Prisca and Aquila for risking their lives for him, the qualification that not only is Paul the one who is to give thanks but also ‘all the churches of the Gentiles’ shows that the wider concern for the ministry of God and thus the work of God is in sight.” See Pao, Thanksgiving, 20.
  5.  Patrick Miller, “‘Enthroned on the Praises of Israel’: The Praise of God in Old Testament Theology,” Int 39 (1985): 10–11.
  6. Marvin Tate, Psalms 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), 66.
  7. All quotations of Scripture are from the NIV.
  8. Another great example of this connection between thanksgiving and glorying God is in 2 Corinthians 4:15, where Paul writes, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” Here, thanksgiving and glory are not separate acts but are unified in the act of worship.

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