Writers need readers so you’re a gift to me! In fact this post is about you in the sense that I want us to think about the bond that exists between those on either side of a “thank you” exchange like this one.
I’m reminded to do this by the annual American feast of Thanksgiving in November—or in October for Canadians. This pleasant event recalls a fabled harvest celebration by New England pilgrims in 1621 after their survival in the face of some serious challenges. I don’t mean to discuss the holiday itself here but the substance of the holiday—our personal thanksgiving—that we can express every day and in every place.
Here’s a question to start with: what goes on whenever we say thank you? Without trying to be exhaustive let me mention three features. First, it’s a transitive event: it involves at least two participants. Second, it’s a bonding event: the glue that every relationship needs. And third: it stirs warm responses.
Let me take each point in order. Thanksgiving obviously involves at least two people: one who does something that invites thanks and one who gives thanks. So when we offer thanks we’re overturning an a-relational stasis—an unconscious focus on our own concerns—as we move towards another with our appreciation for them. As such it also represents a happy erosion of Adam’s fall—reversing the human pursuit of personal autonomy (our devotion to “personal freedom”) launched in Eden—as we now embrace Christ’s axiom that it’s better to give than to receive.
I should add that I labeled it a transitive activity because it’s always a me-and-you; or an us-and-them exercise. And transitive events are the glue of life. Faith, for instance, is properly transitive: I have faith “in” Christ. So it isn’t an independent decision-to-believe but a response of trust birthed by his faithfulness to me. Love, too, is transitive, requiring both lover and beloved: I love God because he first loved me. Autonomy, by contrast, is a dismissal of faith, hope, and love in line with personal ambitions. So in that sense my thanksgiving displaces autonomy by properly engaging—receiving—what others bring to me.
That sets up the second feature of thanksgiving: the glue it carries with it. Whenever we say “thank you” we express an awareness of some aspect of our physical, emotional, and/or spiritual neediness. We were all created by God to be inadequate—to need what others offer us—so when we say “thank you” we acknowledge that a bit more of our being “built up” or our “becoming mature” is taking place. Paul developed this in Ephesians 4 where we find that bonding is a work of the Spirit, energized by his love working on us and through us. So the “glue” is actually our enjoyment of mutual love and respect. We become other-centered people and other-centered people are very attractive.
Finally we find that thanksgiving stirs warm responses. Sin brought shame and fear—what Adam experienced in the Garden—and our devotion to autonomy or “freedom” really amounts to a devotion to what Adam got started. The joy of repentance—of giving up independence and living with overt and happy dependence—is the big surprise of a ‘transitive lifestyle’. We no longer need to cover up our inadequacies. Instead we thank others for helping to fill in some of our vast number of empty spaces: the limits of our personality, our capacities, our knowledge, our resources, and more. And when we find the joy of receiving, those who are the ‘givers’ experience the even greater joy of giving.
This, I should add, is very upside-down thinking. The standard view of the world is that saying “thank you” is a lightweight pleasantry that isn’t appropriate in the fierce battles of life. Thanksgiving constitutes weakness for a self-made man or woman.
But listen to what Paul tells us about the original sin of Adam and Eve that we find all around us today: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks” (Romans 1:21, my emphasis).
So here’s my suggestion. Just as it dawned on me to say “thanks” to you at the start of this entry, why don’t you ask God, “Lord, who should I thank today?” As you follow through on his nudges by actually starting to thank folks, I’m sure you’ll be both surprised and blessed. And our providential Lord will be pleased.