Paul was the ultimate grateful person. No one within the pages of the New Testament was more grateful than Paul. Indeed, Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving more frequently per page than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian. Of all his contemporaries, Paul was the most grateful.
What does it mean to be grateful? It means that we turn away from ourselves and from our concerns, however pressing they may be, and instead focus on God and what he has done. Thanksgiving, within a Christian context, is ‘God-centeredness’.
Furthermore, such God-centeredness leads on to a recognition of our dependency upon God. That is why we say grace before meals – we recognize not only God’s goodness, but our dependence upon his goodness.
Modern psychologists have taught us that ingratitude stems from an inability to acknowledge our dependence upon others and is actually a sign of mental ill-health, and is a form of what is called ‘narcissism’. It has been said:
Gratitude seems to be an integral expression of our dependency on one another. To thank someone acknowledges our need to have been helped or enriched in the first place.. Although those of us with predominantly narcissistic concerns may go through the motions of thanking, we frequently resist expressing whole-hearted appreciation, since that would acknowledge a previous insufficiency of some sort, an insult to the grandiose self. (nancy Williams & Stanley Lependorf).
Paul by contrast viewed a failure to thank God as a sign not of mental ill-health, but of spiritual rebellion. So toward the beginning of his letter to the Romans, where he outlines the universal guilt of the human race, he speaks disparagingly of those who “do not give [God] the honour that belongs to him, nor do they thank him” (Rom 1.21).
Paul was in no doubt that Christians should be grateful people. He would have agreed with the ancient call to worship, the ‘Sursum Corda’, where in response to the minister’s call ‘Lift up your hearts’ and ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’, the congregation replies:
It is right to give him thanks and praise. It is indeed right, it is our joy and duty, at all times and in all places, to give you thanks and praise, holy Father, heavenly King, almighty and eternal God.
John Baillie, a Scottish theologian of a former generation once wrote:
A true Christian is a man who never for a moment forgets what God has done for him in Christ and whose whole comportment and whose activity have their root in the sentiment of gratitude.
Anyone, therefore, who professes to be a Christian should be regular and constant in thanksgiving.
Thanking God does us a power of good. For it is as we thank God – as we recall his goodness to us in the past – that our own immediate problems in the present gain their true perspective. God, and not our problems, begins to overshadow us. Furthermore, as we thank God and remind ourselves of what he has done in the past, we remind ourselves that what he has done in the past he can do in the present and the future. Thanking God for his goodness very often enables us to face up to our worries and anxieties.
Thanksgiving should not be understood as a naïve dismissal of the power of evil. Rather, in thanking God, we are making ourselves conscious that the power of evil cannot not have the last word – for God is with us: he is in control, and, however much we may fail him, he will never fail us.