Why do we give thanks to God for his gifts? There’s something redundant about it. He neither requires nor benefits from our thanks, any more than he does our praise. We don’t thank God so that, like the dentist friend on Seinfeld who doled out hockey tickets only until Jerry stopped thanking him, he’ll know we’re suitably grateful and keep the tap of blessings running. And God isn’t grandma giving us socks for Christmas — we don’t thank him to keep from hurting his feelings.
The more or less stock Catholic answer is that we thank God, first of all, because it’s just to do so. When God gives freely, all creation cries out for a response. Sometimes the Eternal Law demands we give due, even when the receiver doesn’t require — or indeed, isn’t in any way increased by — what is given.
Yet I don’t think Cosmic Justice by itself explains why it is so important to give thanks.
The impulse to mollify the heavens, whether with thanks or first fruits or virgins, is as old as mankind. We’ve done it not only to get out of trouble — to break droughts and ward off plagues, say — but also to keep good things coming. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” and all that.
I understand this superstitious impulse. Feel it, too. Left on its own, absent divine assistance, we sense that good fortune can’t last. We fear pleasure must be purchased with pain; that from those to whom much has been given, much will be taken. Don’t we all instinctively watch for the worm to turn, for the green light to go yellow –for the reckoning and the laying-low?
So when I take stock of my life this Thanksgiving Day and find only good things, the natural, superstitious part of me gets nervous. I have the Faith; vigorous health; a loving wife and children; gainful employment and satisfying leisure in right measure. I have a minivan, a four-bedroom gambrel, a full head of hair, and cold ones in the fridge. When will the cosmic scales of justice do their thing? When comes my turn to suffer?
Morbid, I realize. And nonsense too. Here’s where superstition hits its limits, for we know that God’s blessings are not zero-sum. In this world he doesn’t automatically visit suffering on the prosperous, any more than he punishes sinners with boils and blindness.
Yet I believe that God can use this basic idea — that it’s dangerous to cruise along in prosperity without acknowledging the source of our bounty — and transform it into faith through the act of thanksgiving. No, thankfulness doesn’t quell God’s wrath or grease his palms; what it does do is remind us of our utter contingency. It inoculates us against the pride of the self-made. Each small gesture of gratitude orients and re-orients us in the economy of the universe — not unlike a poster I saw once in a Christian bookstore:
There is a God
You are not Him
When, by practice, thankfulness becomes a habit, our base, superstitious human instinct that heavenly powers must be continually appeased is transmuted into a loving partnership with Providence. The act of thanking is no longer the warding-off practiced by the pagan, or even merely the justice-response of the catechism definition; it becomes part of a fundamental posture of abandonment to God’s will, an offering of trust whose peaceful effects redound on our souls like a tonic.
A bonus benefit: From this posture we not only reap benefits of faith, we are also made ready for the laying-low, should it ever come. The man who cultivates thankfulness is no less likely than the ingrate to be put to the test, but only he has any hope of enduring it –and not only enduring it, but reaping from it the good for which God permitted it to happen. Thanks be to God.