Thanksgiving differs from petition and intercession in that we focus on what we have and how grateful we are that we have it. Actually, thanksgiving should accompany all of our petitionary and intercessory prayer because we should be thankful in the act of asking. Usually, we prefer to wait until a request has been granted before thanking the donor. Here, however, when we pray with thanksgiving, we thank the donor in advance. This does not mean asking God for something with confidence that the request will be granted in precisely the way we asked for it. Thanksgiving is gratitude for whatever is given us in whatever way it is given. In short, gratitude is an ongoing attitude that permeates our requests.
When Jesus tells us not to worry about what we are to wear or what we will eat, Jesus says that “it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” (Mt. 6:32) The key word here is “strive.” It is one thing to need certain things and quite another to strive for them. Striving, of course, implies mimetic rivalry; wanting things because other people want them or you think want them. Striving after goods is the quickest way to lose any sense of thanksgiving. If mimetic rivalry destroys gratitude, then gratitude quells mimetic rivalry.
Gratitude entails receiving what we receive as a free gift rather than something we have earned. In his speech before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses warned them: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deut. 8:12-14) We exalt ourselves by thinking that: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17). When we think that we have earned what we have received, then we feel no gratitude for it. If we had what he have coming to us, there is nobody to thank for it but ourselves. We don’t write a thank you note to our employer for paying us our salary. Likewise, if we feel that God owes us what God gives us as the just payment for the prayers or for acts of service, then we don’t thank God for it. On the contrary, if “the wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey” fall short of our standards, we complain to God about them. It is important, then, to realize that a covenant between God and humanity it is not a contract where God gives us a pre-established “salary” for what we do for God. Rather, a covenant sets in motion a circle of giving. We give free gifts to God and God gives free gifts to us.
Jesus’ counsel that we not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own,” (Mt. 6: 34) is vital to an attitude of thanksgiving. When we are thankful, we focus on what we already have rather than on what we do not have. More important, when we are thankful, we are content with what we have. When we strive for what we do not have, we are focused on what we lack and so we do not even think about what we have already, let alone give thanks for it. This attitude is also important in our human relationships as well. When we are thankful for what the people in our lives do for us and for what they mean to us, we are content with them as they are, even if there is room for them to grow in virtue and holiness. Striving to change another person easily becomes a contest against that person where change for the better becomes a “victory.” Being content with the other person as that person is can lead to complacency, but it is also a condition with great potential for encouraging a person to change.
Contentment with what we have does not deny the intrinsic value of those goods we desire but do not have already. It only means that we can be patient about what we do not have because we appreciate the intrinsic value of what we have already. This is the key to letting our requests known to God” with thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6). This does not mean that we pray with thankful hearts because we assume we are going to get what we want when we want it. Rather, this is a matter of praying out of contentment in the present where “today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Jesus gives us the true focus for gratitude when he goes on to admonish us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt. 6:33) Note that the word “strive” is used again here to show us that striving in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What matters is the object of our striving. If we strive for God’s kingdom, then we do not strive for “all these things” like the “Gentiles.” Striving for God’s kingdom, of course, entails striving to provide the needs and wants of other people, i.e. being “doers of the word” rather than hearers only (James 1:22). When we strive for God’s kingdom, it becomes immediately apparent that our efforts cannot earn the good we are striving for. Our efforts fall far short and we can only receive God’s kingdom as a gift. When we know that we cannot earn the kingdom, then we don’t require other people to earn it either. We become free of worry over whether or not the widows and orphans are worthy of the aid we give them Likewise, we become free from the need to grumble like the workers in the vineyard who didn’t like it when the master was generous with his money to other people (Mt. 20:15). This freedom from worry encourages us to become more open-handed and open-hearted towards other people in their needs. The more we open our hands and hearts to others, the more we receive to be thankful for.
This series begins with The Five Kinds of Prayer (1): Petitionary Prayer
Continue on to The Five Kinds of Prayer (5) Adoration