Thinking about Thanking

Recently I have been meeting weekly with an ESL student to give her practice speaking conversational English and increase her understanding of American culture. Naturally the subject of Thanksgiving has come up more than once.

The first time, she asked me what the word “thankful” meant. That surprised me, since this is not her first year in this country and her English vocabulary seems pretty good. I explained it meant “grateful,” which she did understand. (Which seems odd to me – I would have thought that the word thankful is used more often than grateful.)

(A Google search shows me that some people do distinguish between thankful and grateful, but there does not seem to be any consistency in how the two are distinguished, and other people use them interchangeably. It may be that, to some people, “thank you” is overused to the point of conveying less sense of genuine gratitude. Personally, I consider the two to be synonyms.)

Then we talked about Thanksgiving. “Is it a religious holiday?” she asked. Well, yes and no. I tried to explain that, like Christmas, for some people it is all about what God has done for us, while to others it is mostly an occasion for family get-togethers and enjoying good food and fun.

I thought of trying to explain that, for me, there is not a meaningful distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” aspects of life. For a Christian, all of life is God’s gift to us and all that we do, say, and think is our response to God.

There are Christians who do not consider Christianity a religion at all, reserving that word for manmade systems of belief and practice that try to improve one’s standing with God, while Christianity is a relationship with God based on God’s grace. But the book of James refers to “pure religion” and identifies it with taking care of the neediest members of society (at that time, widows and orphans) – an area of life that many would consider more “practical” than “religious.”

But that would be challenging to explain even without a language barrier. I tried to explain that to me, Thanksgiving is religious because it is all about being thankful to God. But it’s not a “churchy” holiday, although our church does have a Thanksgiving service.

Driving to church for that Thanksgiving service, I found myself wondering what I would say if I were giving the message. What would I want to hear about Thanksgiving?

My impression of a stereotypical Thanksgiving sermon would be something along the lines of “You need to be more thankful.” Probably true, but that sort of exhortation often tends to produce more guilt than gratitude.

So what would produce more feelings of gratitude? Is it an inborn response to feel grateful for good things we are given (using “things” in the widest sense possible, not just material possessions)? Or is it a learned response, which would make it dependent on the sort of people one learns it from?

That got me thinking about what I have read about how people in different cultures express thanks. John Pilch’s A Cultural Handbook to the Bible explains that “To say ‘Thank you’ in the Middle East signifies an intention to end a relationship.” People in ongoing relationships have obligations to one another, and repay one favor with another in an unending cycle. Saying “thank you” rather than planning to return the favor indicates an end to that cycle.

Pilch links the American penchant for saying “thank you” with a desire to minimize incurring social obligations. We may choose to reciprocate (e.g. a gift or an offer of hospitality) but we don’t like to feel under obligation to do so. By saying “thank you” we have used words to express our gratitude so that we don’t have to express it in actions.

I don’t know how accurate Pilch’s analysis of American culture is, but certainly saying thank you is an expected response for a wide range of interactions with other people, whether with family, acquaintances, or strangers. I thank the clerk in the grocery store as she hands me my change and receipt. I thank the person who holds the door open in front of me as we enter the building at work. When I hand a plate of food to a family member at dinner, I don’t necessarily expect thanks but I notice when I do or do not hear it.

I didn’t grow up with those habits. My mother thought that the cultural emphasis on please and thank you was a detrimental focus on outward behavior rather than on really treating other people well. As an adult, I was embarrassed by my unintentional slights to people (as I was informed by a well-meaning friend), and worked at learning to use the words everyone else seemed to have learned as young children.

It is interesting to learn, now, that my previous lack of this social skill was not so much a matter of being a thoughtless person (as I worried that I seemed, once I learned what I was supposed to be doing), as merely not using the cultural expression appropriate to where I lived. Like immigrants from other countries, I had to learn what to do and say by copying other people around me.

Reading online articles about cultural aspects of expressing thanks, it is clear that it is not only the Middle Eastern culture of the Bible that is different from modern American culture in this regard. This article explains that in some cultures, “friends and family are expected to do things for one another,” and saying thank you is not only unnecessary but unwelcome as it adds an air of formality which is at odds with the close relationship. This article goes into greater depth, explaining the contrast between saying “Thank you” in America and in India.

I get the impression, though, that the difference is not in what one feels, but only in how it is expressed. (Perhaps the distinction some make between gratitude for feelings and thankfulness for the expression of those feelings would be helpful – but only if everyone uses the words that way.)

So what does all that tell me, when it comes to celebrating Thanksgiving? Pilch explains that in the Bible, people would never have said “thank you” to God in the way they would to another person, because “only a fool would want to end a relationship with God.” The psalms which talk about giving “thanks” to God, Pilch says, would be better translated using the word “praise.”

In the New Testament, Pilch says, the Greek word used is one that expresses being under obligation. So when Jesus or Paul speaks of giving thanks to God, “they are expressing indebtedness to God, a sense of obligation to acknowledge God publicly as beneficent beyond imagination.” (Elsewhere I have read that this Greek word, like the Hebrew word sometimes translated “thanks,” originally had more to do with “praise” than “thanks.”)

Interestingly, one example Pilch uses in his discussion of thanks is the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, the same story used so often by preachers (including the one at the Thanksgiving service I attended this year) to exhort people to be like the one (who happened to be a Samaritan) who returned to give thanks, rather than the nine who did not.

Pilch explains that it made sense, in that culture, for the Samaritan to return to give thanks. He would not expect to have any future relationship with Jesus, since now that he was healed he could return to his people, and they (being Samaritans) would not generally have any dealings with Jews such as Jesus. So it was proper that he thank Jesus, expressing gratitude and ending the relationship. The other nine, being Jews, would not have wanted to preclude future help from Jesus, who obviously possessed great power.

But if this is the case, why did Jesus ask, “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Is it the praise given to God, rather than the thanks given to Jesus, that he found lacking? The other nine could certainly have returned to give (public) praise to God, whether or not they expressed thanks to Jesus.

So perhaps instead of trying to ramp up feelings of gratitude to God, what is desired is public expressions of praise to God. That’s easy enough to do in church, especially when singing favorite Thanksgiving hymns (though I am annoyed by preachers who seem to think that volume is a measure of sincerity, and tell us to “sing it like you mean it”).

But what about outside of church? I don’t mind talking about my faith if the subject comes up in conversation, but I can’t think of the last time I said something along the lines of “God is great!” For that matter, I’m not sure when I last said anything was “great.” I try to imagine myself saying it, and it sounds somehow false, suggesting an intensity of emotional response I do not feel.

Intellectually, I believe God is great, and I am grateful for the ways He has blessed me – faith, friends, family, abilities and opportunities to use them, the beauty of creation and music and books, not to mention the daily provision for my needs and a good many of my desires. But outside the structure of a worship service, I find it difficult to express that kind of praise.

As for giving thanks to God, I can do that privately easily enough. And there is much to be thankful for, even if my I don’t “feel” especially thankful. (Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what feeling I’m looking for.)

So I will enjoy the good food tomorrow (and being able to prepare it for my family), and having our older son home for the holiday (and being able to give him plenty of leftovers to take back with him). And I won’t worry about whether I feel thankful enough, but be glad that God loves me whether I figure all this out or not.

One Response to Thinking about Thanking

  1. Kizzie says:

    Interesting post.

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