Do you remember being given things when you were a child? Being given birthday and Christmas presents by family and friends? Being given a share in someone else’s sweets, or someone else’s game, at school? If so, you can probably also remember parents or teachers hissing ‘say thank you!’ to you! Saying plese and thank you - ‘minding your Ps and Qs’ - is a basic element of the politeness that is dinned into us as children.
But strangely enough, having learnt to be polite can be a problem when it comes to praying! Because we don’t say thank you to God for quite the same reasons as we thank other people. So if you have been used to thinking of saying thank you as simply being polite, that can get in the way of prayers of thanksgiving. So it is worth taking a step back, and asking why thanksgiving is included in this ‘ACTS’ idea of a balanced diet of prayer.
First of all, it is worth repeating: we don’t say thank you to God just to be polite, or to make God feel better! We say thank you to God mainly because of what that does to us. Saying thank you means that we doing two important things:
- We are choosing to look at the good things in our lives with gratitude, not just focus on things that aren’t right; and
- We are acknowledging that everything we have comes from God.
Let’s look at what each of those means in a bit more detail.
First, we are choosing to concentrate on the good. There is an old saying, ‘Count your blessings’, and it is generally true that if we focus on the good things in life rather than the bad, we are likely to be much happier. We all know people who can find something to moan about in every situation, and they are not usually very pleasant to be around! Focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the bad things in life - after all, sometimes things are seriously wrong and need to be challenged. But even in some of the worst situations there are likely to be good things that we can give thanks to God for.
Secondly, when we thank God for all the good things we have received, we are acknowledging that everything comes from God. This means at least two things. First, it means we are recognising God as the Creator, the basic source of everything, from the Big Bang onward. So thanking God is a statement of faith. Secondly, it means recognising that all the good things we have are not ours by right, but are gifts. Even the things that we ourselves have achieved or have earned, we are only able to do because of the gifts of character, talent and aptitude that we are born with, and because of the circumstances in which we are born. How much would we be able to achieve if we had been born several hundred years ago, not had an education, had parents who were unable or unwilling to look after us, or if we had been born into extreme poverty, or had caught a serious illness and died early in life? So thanking God means both recognising ourselves as gifted people, and cultivating a sense of humility. In thanking God for our gifts we gradually come to see ourselves both as someone that God loves and showers with gifts, but also as no more special or loved by God than anyone else!
Because it means all this, saying thank you to God is an important part of the Christian tradition of prayer. But it can often become quite repetitive and boring. People often find that when it comes to saying thank you, their mind goes blank! Or we repeat ourselves, saying thank you to God for the same, obvious things every time we pray - maybe family, friends, good weather, good marks at school, and so on.
Sometimes, too, people find that they tangle themselves in knots wondering whether they should thank God for something - from good weather to a cure for an illness - because if God sent that, does that mean God also decided not to do the same for other people? In a world where people die from illnesses and natural disasters every day, it can be hard to be sure whether God is directly intervening as a result of our prayers, or whether that is something we should expect. We’ll look at this problem in more detail in the next experiment (Supplication, or Asking). Foor now, the important thing to remember is that the purpose of giving thanks is mainly about us cultivating a thankful and appropriately humble attitude to life.
To help focus your prayers of thanksgiving, try making a Jar of Thankfulness. There are two ways you could do this, depending on what materials you have available.
1. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to use paper, and some kind of pot: an empty, clean jam jar with the label removed works well. (If you do use a jar, this works particularly well if you use coloured paper, as you will be able to see the colour through the glass sides). Cut the paper into strips or patches (about the size of a book of stamps works well). On each one, write something that you are thankful for, and add them to the jar. Keep a spare supply of pieces of paper next to the jar, and whenever you think of something new to say thanks for, add it to the jar.
2. If you would like to make this more personal and more involved, and can get hold of some air-drying clay, first make a clay jar or pot. Then also make a series of tokens, or coins, each one representing something that you are thankful for. You could either make each token in the shape of something that represents that gift, or you could make them all coin-shaped and scratch words onto them with a sharp pencil or cocktail stick. When they have all dried (this usually takes 1-2 days), put the tokens into the jar. Make a selection of spare, blank tokens too, to keep next to the jar for adding new things later: you will be able to write on these with a felt tip pen or marker when they are dry.
Once you have your Jar of Thankfulness, keep it somewhere safe where you will see it regularly - perhaps on your windowsill, bedside table, or in a prayer corner with any other prayer items that you have made. When you sit down to pray, take a handful of the contents out and say thank you for those, adding any new ones that you have thought of that day to the jar. Doing this will mean you keep some variety in your prayers, and also slowly build up more and more things to be thankful for.