Our honorary assistant priest Revd Jonathan Clatworthy developed our Lent series on 'Holy Habits' by reflecting on thanksgiving prayer:
When I was a child my parents insisted that we had to keep saying please and thank you. And after Christmas, we had to write all those thank you letters. I was just as bad with my own children, and they are now just as bad with their children. Was it the same for you?
You and I, when we began our lives, came out of the womb and everything we thought about was what we wanted for ourselves. Later, as we grew and learned about the world around us, we became able to think about what other people wanted, and how to relate to them.
Why is it important to thank people?
It’s about relating to other people. Every child has to learn that everything they can do, everything they enjoy, every part of their body, is a gift. When we say thank you we remind ourselves that we depend on what we are given. We appreciate what other people do for us. This helps us build up good relationships, so that we gladly give to other people in turn.
My parents always said grace at meal times, a reminder not to take food for granted. Do people still do that?
It’s like that with us and God. Saying ‘thank you’ is about showing appreciation and building up good relationships. It’s something we have to practice all our lives, so that it comes easily.
So why say ‘thank you’ to God?
The people who wrote the Bible had a view about this which was different from most of the people around them. Most of the people around them lived in very top-down societies. The people at the top had a lot of power. You had to keep on the right side of them.
I came across an extreme example. I had a friend who was from a wealthy family. He was sent to school at Eton in the 1940s. Before he died he wrote his memoirs. He wrote that Eton was the best school in the world. Wonderful. Then he went on to describe how in Eton they administered beatings. The boy to be punished had to pull his pants down and bend over. I won’t give you all the gory details, but one thing sticks in my mind. Immediately the beating was over, the boy had to stand up, turn to face the person who had just beaten him, and say ‘thank you’. I guess most of them weren’t really feeling all that thankful.
You know what it’s like if somebody has power over you. If you’re applying for a job you need to impress the interviewers. You praise them, you thank them. You may not feel thankful, but you want to give that impression.
It was like that with the ancient gods. They thought of the gods as a bit like powerful humans, except that they ran the world. They would treat the gods like powerful people who needed to be flattered.
When they needed rain, they would pray to the god of rain:
‘We think you are really wonderful. Thank you for all the wonderful things you do for us. We’re sacrificing a sheep specially for you. And by the way we’re desperately short of water. Is there anything you can do about it?’
That kind of praying was very common at the time the Bible was written. You say you’re very grateful but actually you’re terrified of what they are going to do next.
The authors of the Bible saw it differently. They believed the world is not run by moody gods who needed to be thanked. Instead they believed the world is run by one god, who gives us what we need whether or not we ask for it.
The point is stressed on the first page of the Bible, Chapter 1 of Genesis (1:29-2:3). God created the world, sea and sky, animals, birds, fish and humans, and did it to bless us. We have been created for our own sakes, so that we may flourish.
Jesus reaffirms it in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 6:25-34) when he tells us not to worry:
'Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?'
This sounds hopelessly unrealistic, but the point is that we don’t have to worry about God. God gives us what we need whether or not we ask for it. Some people take more than their share, and deprive others, but that’s because of what people do. God provides enough for everyone.
If we fail to thank God, we don’t get punished for it. On the other hand, because God is like that, generous and forgiving, we have all the more reason to actually be thankful. Believing that God is like that is something to celebrate. It’s good news. Gospel.
I don’t want to exaggerate. The people who wrote the Bible didn’t always agree with each other, they weren’t necessarily consistent, and it isn’t always easy for us to understand what they meant. It’s always possible to interpret the Bible in a different way, and there are always people who don’t want to believe in a god like that.
When we suffer because of other people’s selfishness or cruelty, our hearts often get full of anger or bitterness. We find ourselves wanting other people to be harmed or punished. We want God to hate the people we hate.
There are still church leaders who preach an angry and punitive god. A god to be afraid of. A god to whom we have to say ‘thank you’ when we don’t really mean it.
So we can look at it two ways. Some people are frightened of God: 'You had better say thank you, or else'. Alternatively, you can believe that God loves you and cares for you, and will carry on loving you and caring for you whether or not you say thank you. If God is like that, we can be genuinely thankful.
There is also a third option. What if there is no god at all? What if we exist as a result of accident? What if our lives, and our beliefs about God, and all our pleases and thank yous, are all just accidental products of the way we happen to have evolved, by pure chance?
When we believe that, it seems there is nobody to thank. Being thankful for our lives, and the world around us, comes to seem a mistake. And when we ask ourselves how we should live, it seems there are no right answers. When we stop believing we owe a big thank you to God, we may become more likely to become selfish.
So here are some questions for you to consider:
- When you find yourself obliged to express thanks when you don’t really feel thankful at all, what effect does it have on you?
- We often have reason to thank other people, and be thanked, for one thing or another. But when it comes to the big picture - the fact that anybody exists at all, life the world and everything - does it make sense to be thankful, and if we are, what difference does it make to our lives?
So here’s my suggestion. Every day, think of something to be thankful for. Thank God for it. Thank anyone else who has contributed.
And remember that your life is a gift, from someone who loves you. When you believe that, and feel thankful, it becomes easier to feel positive about our lives.
You can listen to Jonathan's reflection here: