When are you going to write that thank you note? my mother would ask. The question followed every birthday, every Christmas, every time I received a gift. I hated that question. It’s not that I wasn’t thankful, I just didn’t like being forced to say it. Being told to say “thank you” seemed to immediately corrupt whatever gratefulness I felt. So, more often than not, the thank you notes were never written. (Sorry, Mom.)
Interestingly, many Christian traditions begin morning worship by saying or singing Psalm 95, or as it is sometimes called, the Venite, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song” (Psalm 95:1‐2). The Psalm describes some of the most profound reasons we have to be thankful and worship God. He is “the great King above all gods”; he is in complete control of the “depths of the earth” and the “mountain peaks.” Most importantly, he loves, protects, and redeems us.”We are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”
But the Psalm goes on to sound a warning at the end of verse seven, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah…where your fathers tested and tried me.” We are reminded that though the Israelites knew God’s love and care in the wilderness, they did not acknowledge it and instead, grumbled and rebelled and ended up wandering there for forty years. There it is—the admonition to be thankful. Just when I was really starting to feel it, the psalmist ruins it by telling me to be sure I’m thankful, or else. Maybe that’s why many modern liturgies end the Venite before the warning to not “harden your hearts.” Why kill the worshipful mood by warning us?
But maybe there are reasons to be thankful for the warning itself. God knows how often we fail to recognize the ways that he’s caring for us, how often we even mistake his care for neglect, wrath, or rejection. Like the Israelites, we misinterpret his gracious provision of manna and water not as help for those being rescued, but as bread and water slid beneath the cell door to those he’s imprisoned. When we fail to locate God’s love and care in the details of our lives, our hearts begin to get hard. We begin to misinterpret our circumstances, our lives, and God himself. Before long, we’re accusing the Good Shepherd of being a nasty tyrant. Unchecked we risk losing sight of God’s love altogether.
So the warning in Psalm 95 is not suggesting that God is insecure and needs to be thanked. Nor is it teaching us to be polite. It is God himself recognizing our weakness and temptations and urging us to see him as he really is. He truly does love us, cares for us, and is blessing us, even when it is hard to see how. It is God urging us to be thankful, even for our own sakes. Wow. That’s grace, and that’s something to be thankful for.