Two words we sometimes use interchangeably are thanks and praise. And yet there are shades of difference between them.
We express thanks when we receive something from someone—a gift, a gesture, an expression of help or support. We are beneficiaries and recipients, and thanks is an outward expression of an inward sense of gratitude, indebtedness, or appreciation. Our words bring to conscious awareness our dependence and receptivity. Gratitude, the feeling of thankfulness, comes from the Latin word gratus, which means “freely given.” (Gratus also serves as the basis for our word grace and for the Spanish word gracias.) Thanks acknowledges our having received something freely; something unearned, undeserved, and perhaps even wildly unexpected. Thanks provides a partial return and acknowledgement that completes a necessary circle of mutuality. We give thanks for what we have freely received.
Praise involves expressions of affirmation, approval, appreciation, admiration, and awe for the achievements or qualities of another, whether or not we have been the direct recipients of a gift. We praise a child’s artwork, an architect’s design, a nurse’s dedication, or a teacher’s effectiveness whether or not we have personally and directly received anything from them. Praise derives from the Latin word which means “to prize” or “to realize the price of.”
Thanks and praise oil the machinery of human interchange. Everyone appreciates receiving them, and most interactions become more pleasant and satisfying when thanks and praise are deliberately and meaningfully expressed. Children need our thanks and praise, as do our parents and brothers and sisters. Store clerks and civil servants and colleagues and peers and friends blossom under the shower of genuine and heartfelt thanks and praise, and so do all of us. Many adults live in a quiet, lifelong, sometimes desperate, search for the approval and affirmation they never received in proper proportion from their parents many years before.
And all of us have people in our lives and from our pasts whom we can never thank enough—teachers, coaches, aunts, pastors, youth sponsors—who influenced us beyond measure. The apostle Paul writes that he was in debt over his head and owes more than he could ever possibly repay. He was not talking money; he was expressing his gratitude for all things freely given him by others. “I am a debtor both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish…” (Romans 1: 14) He learned from everyone, and each experience made him richer. Sometimes our best way of expressing thanks for what we have received from those people no longer present comes from providing for someone else what we have received.
Why do we give thanks before a meal? With those few words, silent or spoken aloud, we acknowledge our dependence upon God and others for all that sustains us. Ultimately, all the best and finest things in life come from beyond ourselves. We do not choose life; we receive it. We do not produce a sunrise; we perceive it. Our day’s breath is given us, not earned by us. We do not create other people; they are a gift to us. The food we eat comes from soil we do not make or till, and arrives through the hands of countless people we cannot name. When we pause to offer thanks and praise, we acknowledge that we are creature, not creator; all that we have and all that we are comes gift-like from beyond ourselves in ways mysterious beyond our knowing.
Sometimes there are things God needs us to say, and thanks and praise are among them. I don’t mean that God is needy and will be glum or incomplete without our words. I mean that God desires the very best for us and yearns for our abundance, happiness, peace, love, and joy. God wants us to flourish. And God knows that our giving thanks and praise provides an essential sign for our becoming what God created us to be. People who express thanks discover a contentedness the world can never offer. Grateful people are generous people. Our giving thanks and praise helps God accomplish God’s purpose in our own spiritual maturation. Gratefulness and large-heartedness and deep-spiritedness all intermingle. People who offer genuine praise see things others don’t see. They experience grace, the gift-like quality in every day.
We were created to praise God. Giving thanks is the Christian’s native breath. A life patterned by praise and thanks completes the circle of grace. Returning thanks and praising God changes us and changes our relationship to God.
I give God thanks for each one of you reading this. Thank you for all you do for the purposes of Christ and for the ministry of your congregation.
Yours in Christ,