By Tom Lin, president, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA

A Time to Give Thanks

Growing up, the Lin family Thanksgiving tradition was simple: my brother and I playing football with church youth group friends, buying last-minute groceries, assisting mom and dad with cooking and cleaning, and then heading to the potluck dinner at our Taiwanese Church. The dinner always included one small symbolic turkey along with 99 other delicious Chinese dishes.

It was around Thanksgiving that I observed one interesting thing about my parents. They never said “Thank you” very much, that weekend or any weekend for that matter. They never expressed it to the other cooks in the church kitchen or to the checkout cashiers at the store. They never said “Thank You” to me.

One day I finally confronted them on this. “Why don’t you ever say ‘Thank you?’” I asked. And they responded, “What good is saying ‘thank you’? It is just words. It’s unnecessary. Show me action. If you are thankful, show it instead of saying it.”

So, growing up, I didn’t have the habit of thanking people. I didn’t know how to thank people. It wasn’t until being an InterVarsity student leader, that I saw so many of my peers embody gratitude with their words and their hearts. I realized that I needed to learn the discipline of giving thanks.

For some of us, giving thanks is natural, it’s an outflow of who we are. For many of us, it’s a discipline – something we needed to be reminded of, something we often forget, or perhaps something that seems a little unnecessary. But the Scriptures seem to say something different.

The Psalms give us many examples, such as Psalm 107:

1“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever...” 8 “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, 9 for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.” [NIV]

The command or imperative in Verse 1 is repeated 44 times in the Bible: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever.” Verse 8 is also repeated verbatim four times in this Psalm. Verses 15, 21, and 31 have the same imperative: “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind”.

Note that thankfulness is totally tied to who God is -- Thankfulness is tied to God’s goodness and God’s love. The more we learn about God, the more we should praise and glorify Him.

Another example from the New Testament is found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter five:

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you.13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work...16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. [NIV]

So when should we have this discipline of thanksgiving? When is a time to give thanks? All the time, in all circumstances, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Often when we look at this passage in Thessalonians we see pray continually or pray without ceasing. What we sometimes miss is that Paul is saying give thanks without ceasing, in all circumstances.

We give thanks not just on Thanksgiving Day, not just when times are good, when there is fruitfulness on campus, not only when project deadlines or Urbana milestones are hit, not only when the bell rings with another major donor gift or when my 60-year old father gets a clean bill of health, but even when circumstances are not so positive.

We are to give thanks even after my chapter plant goes down or a critical magazine article goes viral, even when project deadlines are missed, or when ministry partner appointments go badly, or my 60-year old mother gets diagnosed with a chronic disease. What does it mean to give thanks in all circumstances?

In my last 20 years of leadership in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve seen more and more disappointment, suffering, and horrible circumstances. I’ve learned that if I’m going to maintain a posture of giving thanks, it’s going to have to be a spiritual discipline I learn and commit to.

So as I’ve been reflecting during this Thanksgiving week, I’d like to share five things that I’m personally giving thanks for:

1.    I give thanks for the global church and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) that InterVarsity is a part of.

  •  Increasingly, I am keenly aware of how there are fewer and fewer unique challenges we in the U.S. and the American church go through, and how there are more and more situations in which the global church has something to say to us – from campus access, to our desire to see Revival and Witness empowered by the Holy Spirit, to our desire to see graduates integrate faith and vocation, to how to thrive in a divisive political climate.
  • I give thanks for the global church I am a part of.  I give thanks for the fellowship of over 160 IFES student movements around the world.

Next week, I’ll be flying to Abuja, Nigeria, for the NIFES student missions conference – 7,000 students, gathering to gain vision for global missions. The Nigerian movement is the largest IFES movement in the world, larger than the U.S.

  •   It has continued to grow in the midst of Boko Haram extremism, terror and persecution, and corruption.
  •  The global vision of the Nigerian church has also continued to grow – now 100 mission agencies with thousands of missionaries around the world, including here in the U.S. They have planted 500 churches in the US!
  •  The largest church in UK/London is a Nigerian Church. The largest church in Europe outside of UK is also, a Nigerian Church.

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever.”

2.   I give thanks to the Lord for students coming to faith across the country, in our own movement.

  •  Over 4,000 first-time decisions for Christ in each of the last two years, record numbers for both of those years.
  •  I give thanks that I get to be part of a movement that is all about this. We get to see miracles happen in students’ lives.
  •  I was in Los Angeles last week. Brian, our USC Team Leader, shared that even in the midst of all of the challenges in our culture, our chapter at USC is seeing more people coming to faith, more first time decisions to follow Christ, than ever in their history. They have more small group Bible studies than ever before.
  •  Last month, I heard the story of one of our InterVarsity athletes, Anthony at Amherst College. As a senior on the baseball team he has endured scorn and ridicule for his faith. On Sunday he wrote a prayer request at church—that he could share the Gospel with one of his teammates. God worked with him throughout the week and by Friday his entire team showed up for the Large Group meeting where he was speaking. He gave a call to faith and seven teammates responded.

            “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever.”

3.  I give thanks for InterVarsity.

Not just for these students being transformed, but for my own life being transformed through InterVarsity, from my first freshman Bible study until today. InterVarsity changed my life.

  •   When I stepped on campus, I wasn’t looking for campus ministry. But InterVarsity came looking for me. Because of InterVarsity’s investment in student leadership, one student leader named JP reached out to me and shared his life with me. I saw him deeply abiding in Christ, his character like Christ, and on mission with Christ, every day on campus. Whatever he had, I wanted it.
  •  We studied Scripture together, the Gospel of Mark. I was invited to an InterVarsity Winter Conference and Chapter Camp later that year. I made a decision at the end of camp to rededicate my life to Christ and to submit all areas of my life under His Lordship.
  •  Since that freshman year, InterVarsity student leaders, then campus staff and area teams, then regional teams and Urbana teams that I’ve led, and my Cabinet colleagues, have all been part of what God has used to transform my life, molding me more and more into His image. I give thanks for InterVarsity.
  •   I give thanks for InterVarsity’s 75-year history which we celebrated just a few weeks ago, 75 years of God using our imperfect, undeserving organization to establishing & advancing witnessing communities on campus.
  •   At my August commissioning service, I shared what an honor it was to serve InterVarsity as president. Today, I still feel the same. I am deeply thankful for InterVarsity.

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever.”

4.  I give thanks for co-workers in the gospel. 

1 Thessalonians 5 admonishes us: “Acknowledge those who work hard among you…hold them in high regard in love because of their work”  I thank the Lord for colleagues, those who work hard among us here in our National Service Center. When I look around the room, I am so grateful for each of the co-workers we get to serve alongside each day:

A few weeks ago, I met with campus ministry presidents from Cru, Navigators, Youth For Christ, Young Life, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I was in awe as they voiced their unanimous support of InterVarsity and how they were standing with us. I had phone calls from the leaders of Fuller Seminary, Wheaton College, missions organizations, dozens of texts from InterVarsity Press authors and co-workers in the gospel, affirming their partnership and support. Yesterday, I had a call with Christian Commnuity Development Association’s Executive Director about how we can partner, support each other, and be co-workers in the gospel.  I give thanks for these co-workers.

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever.”

5.  I give thanks for God’s unfailing love.

In this season, I’ve seen the love from friends fail me at times. I’ve experienced disappointment. But Psalm 107 reminds us in verses 8, 15, 21, and 31: “Give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love.” Psalm 107 addresses the temptation to focus on material realities rather than the spiritual realities, the temptation to “give thanks for a temporary material gain” rather than the constant spiritual reality of God’s love. No matter how my world is rocked, no matter what we lament today or worry about tomorrow, GOD LOVES YOU. God’s love is unfailing. “His love is endures forever.”

I have experienced and received tangible expressions of God’s love through my family: surprise notes when I travel, emoji texts from my daughter, and even through a quiet retreat day at Starbucks where I hear reminders of God’s unfailing love for me.

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever.”

What about you? What are you thankful for?

  •  Church? Part of a larger body of Christ?
  •  God’s wonders? Something you see God doing in your context?
  •  God’s work in your life? Some area of personal ministry?
  •  Co-workers?
  •  Family?
  •   God’s love?

How can we better apply the discipline of giving thanks? How can we give thanks in ALL circumstances? Is there a difficult area of life to give thanks? Ask God how He would have you express your thanks in a different way this Thanksgiving.