Reading Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1 the other day, I was struck yet again by how the apostle is so eager to tell his readers of his thankfulness to God for them. This got me thinking about the nature and significance of the act of giving thanks for each other. These are some of the thoughts that popped into my mind…
What it is
- A recognition of someone else’s intrinsic worth. The person for whom we are giving thanks is made in the image of God and this alone, without any considerations of what that person might have done, is enough to cause us to pause and reflect on them and be grateful for them. They are the bearers of a vast and infinite potential, a potential to interact with and contribute to the shaping of creation. They are filled with the potential to be agents in the process of implementing God’s plan to renew everything.
- A recognition of how others are a benefit to us and those we care about. To say that we are social creatures is to say more than we prefer to be in company than not, it is to say that our very existence is dependent on others and who we are has been and is being shaped by our interactions with others. Some others will not have been helpful to us, of course, some may have been profoundly damaging and it would be impossible to give thanks for the impact they had on our lives. For those who have not abused us, however, giving thanks for them will be an opportunity to reflect on how they have touched our lives for good.
- A valuing of the otherness of the other. The church is a diverse body made up of people with differing personalities and abilities and, as the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, this is a good thing. That everyone is not a carbon copy of me or of my ideal of what I should or could be is a blessing, not a fault (I have to keep reminding myself of this). To give thanks for others then helps to recognise the value of this diversity and welcome it.
- An allowing of them to impact us. By bringing them to mind, considering who they are we are opening ourselves to be affected by them all over again. The thought, ‘How must I be in response to them?’ is intrinsic in the act of calling them to mind. We can, of course, ignore this challenge, but the act of giving thanks if done authentically demands that we answer it.
- A positioning of God at the centre of our relationships. Giving thanks for another recognises that we respond to them within the context of our relationship to God. The Triune God exists within eternal relationship and the relationships we have with each other are reflections of the love that exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is the pattern of our relationships and the source of relationship itself. This is being recognised when we welcome him into those relationships through thanksgiving.
- A giving thanks for all of what the other is. That Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians’ faith and love does not limit his gratitude to some so-called ‘spiritual’ side of their life. If, as I believe we must, we consider faith and love to be dispositions, then they are virtues that give shape to our character. They can’t then be segregated from any aspect of a person’s life or experience as though they had some existence that was separated from their everyday life. And so to give thanks for a person’s faith and love is to give thanks for who they are.
What It Does
Sometimes giving thanks for others is a spontaneous act. The other’s value to us is so obvious and so relevant to us at a specific moment that we are overwhelmed with gratitude for them. But there is I believe, much to gain from disciplining ourselves to give thanks for others too.
- It gets us thinking about the lives and experiences of others. It forces us to ask the question, how do they experience life? As such it encourages us to be empathetic towards them and so to understand their experiences better.
- It protects us from slipping into a universe that revolves around us and our needs and helps us to see our need of others.
- It promotes an agenda for the church that is about people. In doing this it protects us from falling into the trap of seeing others in the church as means to our ends and it protects the church from valuing people only for what they contribute to some other mission the church may have adopted for itself.
- It creates a church that is truly relational. There was a move some years ago towards more relational churches in which relationships were seen as an evangelistic tool. Needless to say, I am not referring to that view of relationships, which is in fact a denial of true relating and a form of objectification which has nothing to do with Christ-like love. A relational church is one where people are known, valued, respected, served, and celebrated for who they are.
- It defeats competitiveness. By recognising that God is at the centre of our relationships we are recognising that we relate to another on the basis of our common acceptance by God. This acceptance is not in response to any achievement we can boast of, it is freely given, it is a gift of grace. If then our relationships with others are formed through our common experience of God’s grace then we are liberated from the need to compete with each other. The competitiveness I have in mind is a competition for power over one another that takes innumerable forms and which leads to division and conflict. By giving thanks for one another we are acknowledging the irrelevance of this kind of competition in the light of God’s free acceptance of us. To give thanks for each other then is to bring to mind God’s grace and to welcome the fact that not only has it brought us into relationship with God, but it has created a whole new community for us.
The conclusion I am driving at here is that to give thanks for others is to nurture our love for them. We see this in Paul’s epistles where he communicates the fact that he gives thanks for his readers. In doing so he is telling them what they mean to him, he is communicating the vastness of his indebtedness to them and his continued need of them: he is telling them that he loves them.