A Theology of ThanksMay 25, 2012 - 5:00 am
“Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.” — Nehemiah 9:35
In Endymion, the last novel that British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, would publish, the character Mr. St. Barbe, at one point, exclaims, “I declare when I was eating that truffle, I felt a glow about my heart that, if it were not indigestion, I think must have been gratitude.”
It is true that, in Disraeli’s depiction, St. Barbe is a conceited pessimist so we shouldn’t be surprised at such an obnoxious observation. At the same time, however, St. Barbe’s attitude highlights for us a paradox of the human condition that we often encounter.
Purely in terms of civility and common decency, we would expect that a person’s gratitude should correspond, at least roughly, to the magnitude of the kindness done for him. When lent a pencil, a polite “thank you” suffices. When a parent nurses a sick child back to health, however, a great deal more thankfulness is in order.
And yet when it comes to gratitude towards, or even acknowledgement of God, our Creator, it is often when we are most successful, most blessed by peace and prosperity, that we are most likely to forget the Source of all kindness. It is then that gratitude is the furthest thing from our minds to the extent that, in the extreme case of St. Barbe, it might even be confused with some trivial, physical sensation, like indigestion!
The Hebrew Bible constantly stresses the danger of this theological pitfall. For instance, over the recounting of Jewish history in Nehemiah, we are told of the many times the Israelites tested God’s love for them, and the countless instances of His eternal kindness towards them even so. The climax of this narrative cycle comes in the description, in verse 35, of the nation’s lack of gratitude to God even when they were secure and prosperous in their rule over Israel. Even then, the Jewish people lamented, we did not serve God as best we could.
Here too, then, we see a nation blessed with God’s kindness failing to give thanks where thanks are due. And yet, God, in His infinite mercy, constantly waits for his people to repent – in Hebrew, to do teshuvah. It is precisely when we experience good fortune that we must take the responsibility and privilege of acknowledging God’s wondrous deeds on our behalf. Once we do, we will find that our relationship with Him has deepened in profound and surprising ways.