Gratitude is a central part of our experience as children of God. Clearly, there are some ways of expressing gratitude that are more useful than others.
Saying the magic words, "Thank you," and experiencing heartfelt gratitude are not the same thing, but sometimes it's reassuring to imagine that they are. Although we've all been taught from an early age promptly to thank people who give gifts or favors, there are times when we prefer to remain indebted than to thank verbally and profusely. To be truthful, when we thank someone promptly and emphatically, often we are effectively cutting off the bonds of obligation that bind us to them.
Ignoring the significance of a gift is not healthy for our spirits. Mothers instictively know there are many good reasons to teach a child to say, "Thank you." We've all watched a mother coach a child to thank a stranger, and seen the obvious relief of tension the mother feels when the child finally complies. The mother is not instructing the child to experience a deep bond of gratitude toward a stranger. In this instance, the words, "thank you" are a formula that serves to release the child from his bond to a stranger who has given a gift.
Thanking is for strangers. Obligating is for those we wish to deepen our bonds with.
We obligate ourselves to those we are prepared to act gratefully toward. Obligation is more than talk, it's a promise that we'll do something about our thankfulness.
There are some cultures that prefer not to thank--both American Indian cultures and those of some Southern areas of the United States come to mind. This is not an indication of rudeness. It may be based on a belief that thanking is only appropriate for limited life-giving occasions, or a preference to deepen bonds of obligation within a community.
Jesus taught us to pray, but he never taught us a prayer with the phrase "thank you" in it.
So many of our more superficial prayers begin, "Thank you, God for. . . "
I wonder what would happen if we stopped treating God like a stranger and prayed, "I am obliged to
you, God, for . . . "
And then if we began to act on our obligations, what would happen next?