Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Putting It in Words

“They did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”

Years ago I was blathering to one of my brothers about some girl who shall remain nameless, mostly because I can’t even remember who she was now; just another in a lengthy series of post-teen passing interests that remained unreciprocated, a blessing I appreciate more today than I did then.

Early in this conversation my brother told me to please shut up.

Now, that wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last. But he wasn’t being uncharitable. In his own way, he was being both practical and kind. “When you talk about it,” he said, “you are trying to make it real. And it’s not real, so don’t talk about it.”

Okay then.

Unfortunately, he had a point, and I’ve never forgotten it. Saying a thing out loud actualizes it in a way that merely thinking it does not. Speech makes ideas tangible. Fail to express a thought in words, and it will soon go away. This being the case, obviously many, many things we say would be much better left unsaid.

But it also works in reverse. Many things should be said out loud that are not.

Two Defining Errors

The verse above sums up the two defining errors of our species: the failure to honor God and the failure to give thanks to him. The two are inextricably linked. To withhold the expression of gratitude is to dishonor God and to overlook his direct involvement in every one of our many blessings. It is from these two failings that all other evils proceed, a case which Paul argues in the first chapter of Romans: idolatry, impurity, spiritual blindness, out-of-control desire, lack of shame, disloyalty, ruthlessness and so on. Thanklessness is not just bad, it is bad in a way that produces bad children, bad grandchildren and bad great-grandchildren.

Original sin was a product of thanklessness. Satan fell because he looked at the exalted position God had given him and wanted God’s instead. His thanklessness led to rebellion. Eve looked at a whole garden full of fruit and craved only the fruit she didn’t have. Her thanklessness led to disobedience.

The Origin of Eucharist

The word thankful is an English translation of the Greek eucharisteƍ, from which we get the word Eucharist, which makes an object out of an action. Biblically speaking, thankfulness is an action, neither an object nor a feeling. One can be grateful without having expressed it yet — perhaps opportunity is lacking — but one cannot be thankful. It isn’t thanks if you don’t say it. Where eucharisteƍ is used in scripture, words are always involved. In expressing out loud what we feel, we are actualizing our gratitude and bringing it to life in the world.

Thankfulness also has an object. People say we should be thankful for the good things we have, but that is only part of the story. Most of them use the word “thankful” to describe something like an awareness of special privilege about which we are mildly pleased, a sort of amorphous positivity. Goodfeelz, as they say. But since true thankfulness invariably involves verbal expression, that presents a bit of a problem for the secularist. After all, you can’t say thanks unless you have someone to say thanks to, can you?

Put in math terms, THANKFUL > GRATEFUL > GOODFEELZ. Got it.

Jesus Gave Thanks

Jesus did not give much explicit teaching about giving thanks to God. He just did it a whole lot. The apostle Paul is the one who is always bluntly telling believers we should be thankful. Jesus just assumed it, and more importantly, he seems to have been in the habit of giving thanks so frequently that any reference to thanks in the gospels seems quite unremarkable. The Son of God expressed his thanks to his Father in a very natural way.

He also linked it with the idea of giving praise to God; of honoring him as God, as Romans puts it. He heals ten lepers, only one of whom returns to give thanks. Jesus asks, “Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Thankfulness to God should be the default response, right? It should be the first thing you think about if your head is screwed on right. What’s wrong with these people?

The disciples didn’t have enough food for 4,000 men and their families. So Jesus took seven loaves and a few small fish, gave thanks to God for them, and fed them all. He gave thanks for what he had, and suddenly there was more of it. And he gave thanks before he had it in confidence that he shortly would. In fact, he did the same thing outside the tomb of Lazarus. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.” Nothing had happened yet. But it would.

Jesus Gave Thanks Again

In a second episode often conflated with the first by unbelievers, Jesus fed 5,000 men and their families on five loaves and two fishes for which he is also said to have given thanks to God. John explicitly links the miracle to his thankfulness:

“Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.”

Why does the fact that Jesus had first given thanks matter to John? We know it must be important because he doesn’t say it in the context of the miracle itself, but brings it up again right after the story about Jesus walking on water. Would you remark about the Lord’s thankfulness after the fact? I wouldn’t. That would not be my takeaway after a couple of major miracles, I don’t think. I’m just not that spiritually-minded. I’d be all caught up in the mysterious surface tension of the Sea of Galilee, or how you get twelve baskets of leftover fragments from a mere five barley loaves. That’s something you wouldn’t forget, especially if you’d been there eating it. The people who were present sure didn’t forget; they followed Jesus all over the place after that.

But John remembers that Jesus gave thanks, because maybe that was the key to the miracle. At any rate, he includes that detail deliberately.

At the last supper, Jesus gave thanks to God for both the bread and the cup. Like John, Paul seems to think his giving of thanks to God was significant. He includes it in his description of what the Lord Jesus did that inaugurated the Lord’s Supper. On the night when he was betrayed, Paul says, Jesus took bread, “and when he had given thanks, he broke it”. Expressing thanks to God was fundamental to the act of communion, not to mention highly ironic considering what was symbolized in the bread and in the cup.

So Paul remembers that Jesus gave thanks.

Reversing Romans

When we give thanks, and especially when we are not simply rattling off a prayer out of habit but genuinely communicating with our Father in heaven, we are separating ourselves from a world that enjoys its gifts while failing to recognize the Giver.

In consciously, deliberately, lovingly and frequently giving thanks to God, we are reversing Romans 1 and rehearsing for the world to come. Even if we didn’t have a spate of direct commands to be thankful in the epistles, that just sounds like good Christian practice.

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