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On saying 'Thank you' and meaning it
Why do we teach our kids to say “Thank you”?
Is it simply that saying “Thank you” is part of the politeness that’s expected in our culture, and we want our kids to function well with other people when they grow up? Is the point just to recite the expected formula at the expected time? I don’t think so.
I believe we teach our kids to say “Thank you” because we want them to learn to be thankful. By requiring them to say that they’re thankful, we’re impressing upon them the ideal of actually feeling gratitude for the things that we receive. Gratitude like this is not natural to us as fallen creatures ; it has to be learned, and it’s something we want to impart to our children.
That is to say, we not only want our children to do the right thing, but we want them to feel the right thing. When I give my daughter a cookie she ought to feel thankful - she just got a cookie! If she doesn’t feel thankful, that’s something we’ll have to work on together, not only so that she can be a better person, but so that she can be a happier person.
It seems to me that for the most part we function on the assumption that we can be required to do the right thing, but not to feel the right thing. We understand that we’re responsible for our actions, and that it’s incumbent on us to make them conform to God’s standard of right and wrong. Emotions, on the other hand, don’t seem like something we choose as much as something that happens to us. How could I even respond to a command to feel a certain way?
And yet the Bible doesn’t share this assumption that feelings can’t be commanded. “Rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16) doesn’t mean “act joyful.” It means “be joyful.” “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15) doesn’t mean “act sorry,” but that we should actually feel sorrow and share the burdens of our sorrowful brothers and sisters.
Paul makes this point quite clearly, although indirectly, in his famous tribute to love in 1 Corinthians 13.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
We often point out, and rightly so, that love is not just a feeling. But these verses remind us vividly, on the other hand, that love isn’t just “seeking the best for others” either. Not only are the right actions not sufficient, if those actions aren’t motivated by love, they’re utterly worthless. There has to be something on the inside - an attitude or a feeling or whatever we want to call it - an internal alignment with God’s values, that makes our good deeds truly good.
“But how?” you say. “How am I supposed to make myself feel the way I’m supposed to feel?” That’s a good question that I’m not sure I should try to answer. If nothing else, the recognition that God’s expectations on us extend to our spontaneous feelings ought to help us understand even more how totally dependent we are on his grace to become the people he calls us to be. And if we understand that our emotions are not morally neutral, we might be less inclined to cut ourselves so much slack in this department.
Finally, we could try taking a cue from the sons of Korah:
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
When dealing with a downcast feeling, out of step with the confidence and hope that they ought to have, their response is to fight wrong feelings with right thinking. “I remember you…by day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me…hope in God for I shall again praise him.” Rather than accepting the feelings of his soul and allowing his outlook to be controlled by circumstances, the psalmist preaches to himself and meditates on God his rock and his “exceeding joy” (43:4).
And isn’t it true for me, when I’m ungrateful and unloving and angry at my wife and impatient with my kids and bitter about some inconvenient providence, that I’ve lost sight of who God is and who I am? If I truly grasped who he is, and what’s he’s done for me, and what he’s promised to do for me, would I be wallowing in self-pity, or would I feel a bit more, say, gratitude?
Maybe the first thing to do is to remind myself to say “Thank you.”
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And this one verb appears as an imperative 17 times in the New Testament.