by Andrew Marr, OSB
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:6) (All Bible quotes are from the NRSV)This verse from Paul's Epistle to the Philippians connects freedom from worry with willingness to make requests to God. We easily fall into the trap of thinking that if we do not ask God for anything, our relationship is "purer" than it would be if we did ask God for anything. We are proving that we have no ulterior motives in "browning up" to God. We know from personal experience, however, that giving gifts to people who are important to us is a great joy. Likewise, there is much testimony in Scripture for God's keen interest in giving. One particularly powerful example is in the Epistle of James: "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (James 1:17) The suggestion here is that giving is of the very essence of God, and that every act of giving participates in God's own generosity. James goes on to remind us that God's generosity to each one of us begins with birth: "In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures." (James 1:18) If God is this inclined towards generosity, then it follows that God is pleased if we make requests of Him so that He can have even greater occasion for giving. If we don't want to get anything out of our relationship to God, then our intention is not as pure as it seems. There is something ungenerous about wishing to receive nothing at all, and refusing to ask anything of God can only frustrate God's generosity. When Jesus sites the lilies of the field while counseling us not to worry about our material needs, Jesus is assuring us that the heavenly Father knows we have these needs and the He will fulfill them. Jesus is not telling us to want nothing at all.
For the benefit of those who feel better about asking and receiving if there is a catch to it, there is a catch here. The catch is that prayer and supplication should be made with thanksgiving. It is not just a matter of having gratitude for what one has already received; one should be thankful in the act of asking. Usually, one prefers to wait until a request has been granted before thanking the donor. Here, however, we are expected to thank the donor in advance. This can be taken as an expression of confidence that the request will be granted in precisely the way we asked for it. However, thanksgiving in advance could just as well be gratitude for whatever will be given us in whatever way it is given. In short, gratitude is an ongoing attitude that motivates us to make requests of God but also an attitude that permeates these requests.
Unfortunately, gratitude is not the most spontaneous human reaction to events in life, no matter how good. Much has been made of the nursery scenario where a small child wants a toy when another child also demonstrates a desire for that toy. Another behavioral characteristic of small children is the difficulty they have learning to say: "thank you." These traits go together. If two small children are inflaming each others' desires, then neither the child who gets the desired object nor the child who does not will feel any gratitude to anyone for anything. Once again, Girard's observation that adults don't give up these childish ways applies. The only difference is that we learn some social manners that help us get by, such as knowing when it is to our advantage to say "thank you," even if there is not a shred of gratitude in our hearts. Jesus himself discovered how rare gratitude is as a spontaneous response when he cured ten lepers and only one returned to thank him. Ten per-cent gratitude seems about the right average for human beings. Given the difficulty of developing the virtue of gratitude, it should be instructive to look at the most serious obstacles (i.e. stumbling blocks) to this virtue.
When the Israelites are about to enter "a good land," Moses warns the people: "When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." (Deut. 8:12-14) The way that the people might exult themselves is to think that: "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." (Deut. 8:17) In the first place, this supposition is blatantly false. It is God who has made a gift of this "good land" to the people. More important, when we think that we have earned what we have received, then we feel no gratitude for what we have. If we had it coming to us, there is nobody to thank but ourselves. After all, who writes a thank you note to the boss for paying the salary agreed on for the work done? Likewise, if God owes us what God gives us as our just payment for the prayers we give or for other acts of service we perform for the sake of God's Kingdom, then we don't thank God for it. On the contrary, if "the wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey" fall short of our standards, we complain to God about it. It is important, then, to realize that whatever a covenant between God and humanity is about, it is not a matter of God giving us a pre-established "salary" for what we do for God. Rather, a covenant is about giving. We give free gifts to God and God gives free gifts to us. This point was lost on the workers in the vineyard who bickered with the owner when the owner paid the workers who came at the end of the day the same salary as he paid those who worked all day. The master's generosity with his money is not appreciated if it is other people who are recipients of his generosity.
James hints at another obstacle to thanksgiving when he admonishes us to "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves." (James 1:22) The style of James' Epistle is aphoristic and each verse or small cluster of verses can stand alone. Even so, the various aphorisms provide a context for each other, and the verse quoted above: "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights," creates an ambience for the chapter as a whole. Being a doer of the word, then, mean that we participate in God's generosity while a mere hearer of the word remains aloof from God's bounty. Lest there be any doubt as to what being a doer of God's word entails, James tell us that the practice of pure and undefiled religion is "to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27) The implication here is that insofar as we appreciate the perfect gifts given us "from above," we will desire that others receive these gifts as well, and we will embody God's generosity to those who are in need, especially the most vulnerable people in society. If we do not "care for orphans and widows in their distress" then, much as we may enjoy what we have, we are not thankful for what we have.
Jesus' teaching about the lilies of the field points to the third and most serious obstacle to thanksgiving. While telling us not to worry about what we are to wear or what we will eat, Jesus says that "it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." (Mt. 6:32) The key word here is "strive." It is one thing to need certain things in life and quite another to strive for them. Striving, of course, conjures up the specter of mimetic rivalry. When we strive for things, then mimetic desire becomes entangled with our basic bodily and psychological needs. Real as our true needs are, they become confused with the desires of other people and we no longer know if we need the object we desire, or if we desire the object because other people want it.
Actually, there is more at stake here than minimal needs for sustenance. Many things are desirable and, in a deep sense necessary for the sake of human well-being. Whenever possible, we prepare food in such a way that it becomes a pleasure in itself as well as a substance that keeps our bodies functioning. Likewise, a Mozart piano concerto may not be necessary in the same way that protein is necessary, but it is a priceless good. The heavenly Father knows we need these things as well. However, the problem with striving for gourmet meals and Mozart concertos is that, again, our desires become confused. If we pursue culture and good taste as a means of social advancement, we lose sight of the intrinsic value of a good. Our perception becomes clouded by the desires and expectations of others.
When we strive like the "Gentiles," we do not receive what we truly need from the Heavenly Father as a free gift. We don't receive anything, we only take. It is immaterial whether we succeed in grabbing what we want or if we fail, or only half-succeed. No matter what the result, we will not be thankful. The more we strive like the "Gentiles," the more certain it is that some people will be clothed and fed far less than the Heavenly Father wills for each person. More serious still, when we do not receive good things and give thanks for them, we will not give either, not even to widows and orphans in their need.
Jesus' counsel that we not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own," (Mt. 6: 34) is also vital to an attitude of thanksgiving. When we are thankful, we are focusing on what we already have rather than on what we do not have. More important, when we are thankful, we are content with what we have. On the other hand, when we strive for what we do not have, we are focused on what we lack and so we do not even think about what we have already, let alone give thanks for it. This attitude is also important in our human relationships as well. When we are thankful to the people in our lives for what they do for us and what they mean to us, we are content with them as they are, even if we know that there is room for them to grow in virtue and goodness. Striving to change other people becomes a mimetic contest against that very person. If we succeed in reforming another, it is seen as a victory over that person. Being content with the other person as that person is in the present can become complacency, but it is also a condition with great potential for encouraging a person to change.
Contentment with what we have does not deny the intrinsic value of what we desire but do not have already. It only means that we can be patient about what we do not have because we appreciate the intrinsic value of what we have already. This is the key to "making supplications" with thanksgiving. This does not mean that we pray with thankful hearts because we assume we are going to get what we want when we want it. Rather, this is a matter of praying out of contentment in the present that only worries that "today's trouble is enough for today."
Jesus gives us the true focus for gratitude when he goes on to admonish us to "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Mt. 6:33) Note that the word "strive" is used again here to show us that striving in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What matters is the objective of our striving. If we strive for God's kingdom, then we do not strive for "all these things" like the "Gentiles." Striving for God's kingdom, of course, entails striving to provide the needs and wants of other people, i.e. being "doers of the word" rather than hearers only. When we strive for God's kingdom, it becomes immediately apparent that our efforts cannot earn the good we are striving for. Our efforts fall far short and we can only receive God's kingdom as a gift. When we know that we cannot earn the kingdom, then we don't require other people to earn it either. We become free of worry over whether the widows and orphans we help are worthy of our aid. This attitude encourages us to become more open-handed and open-hearted towards other people in their needs. The more we open our hands and hearts to others, the more we receive to be thankful for.