Thanksgiving is not simply a national holiday. It is the expression of a fundamental impulse at the core of our humanity: gratefulness. And I would further submit that gratefulness is the beating heart of all pure religion. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have ordained, what are humans that you are mindful of them…?” (Psalm 19:3).

I have spoken from the pulpit of First Baptist Church of two movements of grace: the grace of creation and the grace of redemption. The first and greatest of all miracles is simply that we are — that our gracious Creator has brought us into being, each of us individually and all of us together, under no compulsion, simply for the joy of sharing the being which originally is God’s own. This is the grace of creation. Each of us is God’s unique creation, called by name, uniquely gifted, and able to experience and enjoy the wonder of the world around us. Even our aches and pains — dare I say it? — testify to our aliveness, our here and nowness, our unique identity before our Creator.

Scripture attributes this joyful gratitude at simply being to nonhuman creatures — “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God…” (Psalm 104:21) — and even to the inanimate components of creation — [The sun] is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoices like a strong man to run its race” (Psalm 19:5).

The second movement of divine grace is the grace of redemption. Our fundamental freedom, an essential part of the imago dei, the image and likeness of God within us (Genesis 1:26–27), is so precious to God that he took the risk making us free, allowing our love, respect, gratitude and obedience to be freely chosen, in spite of the chaos and suffering our choices might unleash upon ourselves and the creation.

Like a wise human parent making provision for their child’s higher education while the child is still small (actually, human parents when we are wise are like God, rather than vice versa), God made provision for our forgiveness, healing and renewal from the very beginning. Scripture speaks of Christ “foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20) and of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). God purposed to take all of the creature’s willfullness and all of creation’s brokenness upon God’s self through Christ; we have not earned this, we could not foresee it, our redemption and our ultimate identity as forever sons and daughters of God are just as amazing and inexplicable as the fact that we are in the first place.

Before the twin gifts of creation and redemption, our only appropriate response can be a joyful, awestruck gratefulness. If we cultivate and dwell in this gratefulness — not only during the national season of Thanksgiving, but perennially, then the pervasive unpleasantness and frustrations, the fears and sufferings of our daily lives, even death itself, become relativized.

“Isness” is the first and greatest of God’s miracles, “forever” is the extent of God’s grace, and gratefulness is our fitting response. When we live in gratefulness, we give space to God’s love and healing within us and we radiate light and love and joy on those around us. Like the Apostle Paul — who continually suffered misunderstanding, persecution and rejection as he represented Christ — in spite of all things negative we will look at God’s world and at those around us and we will exclaim, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you” (Philippians 1:3).

—Dr. David L. Wheeler