When you offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the LORD, offer it of your own free will. (Leviticus 22.29; NKJV)
Leviticus, the third book of Mosaic Law, basically serves as a how-to manual addressed to the Levites, Israel’s priestly caste. Overall, it’s a snooze—a tedious compendium of intricate regulations and rituals that try the modern reader’s interest and patience. This is how you offer an animal sacrifice. Here’s the recipe for a grain offering. These people are acceptable to enter the tabernacle for worship; these groups should be excluded. These sacrifices should be salted; these should be roasted in oil. These rituals should take place at this type of ceremony. And on and on it goes. By the time the reader gets to chapter 22, he/she is cross-eyed trying to keep track of all the particulars. The first half goes into excruciating detail about what to do if unsanctified (i.e., unacceptable) worshipers attempt to offer sacrifices. But then the chapter takes a fascinating turn to set protocols for freewill offerings.
Freewill offerings aren’t tied to prescribed seasonal rites or forgiveness and purification sacraments. And while they’re equally specific in their demands, their voluntary nature sets them apart. People opt to offer these sacrifices in response to God’s goodness in their lives. What’s more, everyone—even foreigners—is entitled to bring freewill offerings to the priest to sacrifice on his/her behalf. The text identifies three categories of freewill offerings: rites symbolizing personal vows to God, peace offerings, and sacrifices of thanksgiving. They spring from our need to honor God’s love and regard for us, rather than other sacrifices that attest to our love and regard for God. Thus, freewill offerings are always welcome. They're uncalled for, but never inappropriate.
On Our Own
From front to back, the Bible urges us to give thanks. Yet the writers, not God, consistently voice these entreaties. “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,” Psalm 107.1 reads. Paul writes in Colossians 4.2: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Hebrews 13.15 admonishes, “Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (NKJV) The reason God never requests our gratitude is too obvious to wonder about. Genuine thankfulness is something we do on our own. It’s an automatic reaction born of utter amazement and delight. If we have to be asked to say thank you, we strip its sincerity and joy. It becomes a polite gesture, not an expression of love and humility.
That’s why, as God lays out the specifics for sacrifices of thanksgiving in Leviticus 22.29, He says, “Offer it of your own free will.” Spontaneous gratitude displays our amazement and delight at His goodness to us. Waiting until we’re asked to say thank you evidences our lack of awareness of all He does for us. It shows how little we understand how reliant we are on His mercy and protection. Not a day passes without literally hundreds of blessings we can thank Him for sending our way. The mere fact we wake up is a good start. That we can stand on our feet, see where we’re going, speak and hear, and every other physical capability we enjoy merits thanksgiving. And while we may feel comfortable taking these gifts for granted, they’re important enough to God for Him to ensure they’re ours day after day, minute by minute. Thus, it’s our privilege to make our lives sacrifices of thanksgiving of our own free will.
Moments We Spare
Non-believers associate “thanksgiving” with a holiday feast sometimes preceded with a perfunctory prayer of gratitude. Casual believers may think of it as a season when Christians are supposed to be more mindful of their blessings. But as truly engaged people of faith, we understand thanksgiving has nothing to do with dates and seasons. It’s a do-it-yourself opportunity that occupies moments we spare every day. We sacrifice time to remember God-given wonders in and around us—love we share, lives we touch, lives that touch us, provisions of health, shelter, sustenance, and hope, and innumerable other examples of our Creator’s kindness toward us.
Thanksgiving is an art we refine through disciplined practice. The more we do it, the better we become at it. It flows more easily through our days. It surfaces unexpectedly in our thoughts and pours from our hearts. Over time, it turns into a tool that lifts us from dejection and despair. It changes us from oblivious, greedy children into observant, gracious adults. Freewill offerings of thanks come from our desire to recognize God’s love in our lives. In 2 Timothy 3, Paul goes to great lengths in describing people who love themselves more than God. “Ungrateful” makes the list, alongside other unflattering adjectives like boastful, proud, unholy, unforgiving, brutal, and conceited. “As for you,” he says in verse 14, “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of.” We have learned God is good all the time. We’re convinced He deserves all the thanks we can possibly offer Him. We don’t need anyone to give us a reason or season to thank Him. Just thinking of His goodness is all we need to do it ourselves.
God doesn't ask us to be grateful. We do it on our own.
(Next: Before and After)