Forming Hearts of Thanks with the Psalms

Scott Aniol


When adversity comes, when it seems as if God is far away, a truly blessed man who has repented of his sin, submitted to God’s Anointed, and received mercy and forgiveness will form a heart of trust in God by reaffirming who God is, and this is what leads to a heart that responds with heartfelt thankfulness.

The importance of expressing thanksgiving to God, even before praise, is a key component of the progression from lament to praise that is embodied in the five books of the Psalms. Thanksgiving is a response of our affections toward God—“Give thanks . . . for he is good! For his mercy endures forever.” It is very similar in many ways to responding with other affections like love or praise. These are spiritual affections with which we respond in worship toward God in response to who he is.

Yet thanks is unique. Let me explain. All true spiritual affections have an object, and their object is always God. This is why true spiritual affections are different from what we often mean when we talk about our feelings. Feelings often have no object—feeling often wallow in themselves. When we experience mere feelings apart from spiritual affections, our focus is not on any object; our focus is purely on ourselves and our how we feel. We love the feeling of joy, for example. But this is different from spiritual affections, which always have their object in God.

The problem is that sometimes we use the same word to both describe an affection and a feeling. For example, “joy” could describe the affection we have when watching a football game or riding a roller coaster—merely a feeling. But it could also describe a legitimate spiritual affection in response to God and his works. When we use a word like “joy,” we could mean an affection we have toward an object, or we could mean a mere feeling we enjoy for itself. Often we mean both.

The thing about the affection of thanks is that there really is no feeling we associate with it. What is the “feeling” of gratitude? Further, by definition, thanks always has an object. So you might say, “I just feel happy, but I really don’t have a particular reason.” But you would never say that about thanks. If you “feel” thanks, there is always a reason—you always feel grateful toward someone because of something they did for your or simply because of who they are. Thanksgiving is not something you can “work up” through artificial means.

This is why thankfulness is so critical on the journal from lament to praise, and why it occupies such an important role in David’s hymn of thanks (1 Chronicles 16), which appears so frequently in the Psalms. Thanks is a humble acknowledgement of our unworthiness to receive God’s gifts and a profound exaltation of the giver. We typically assume that praise is the ultimate expression of worship toward God—we expect that true worship will be characterized by intense emotion and heightened praise. But as the progression of psalms illustrates, the affection we must express first before we get to praise is actually something perhaps less flashy, less viscerally intense, and less directed to a particular feeling; the affection we must express first is thanksgiving.

In fact, many times in the Psalms when translators use the word “praise,” the term they are translating is actually a word that has less to do with excited feelings and more to do with humble gratitude. So sometimes the translators render the term “praise,” and other times they render it “thanks.” For example, Psalm 26:6–7 say,

6 I will wash my hands in innocence;

      so I will go about your altar, O Lord,

7 that I may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving,

      and tell of all your wondrous works.

Yet the same Hebrew term translated “thanksgiving” in Psalm 26:7 is translated “praise” in Psalm 42:4:

When I remember these things,

      I pour out my soul within me.

For I used to go with the multitude;

      I went with them to the house of God,

      with the voice of joy and praise,

      with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.

The term translated “praise” there is not the term hallel—“praise,” it is a term that means “thanksgiving.” Certainly thanks and praise are related, but as the psalms illustrate, it is important to recognize the necessity of expressing thanks to God—a humble recognition of God’s goodness and mercy—before we are prepared to express praise.

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Author psalms

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.