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The Eternal Now by Paul Tillich


Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. Published by Charles Scribnerís Sons, New York, 1963. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 16: In Everything Give Thanks


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks.
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18


I

"In everything give thanks." These are the words that we want to make the center of our meditation. Do we need this admonition? Is not "thank you" one of the most frequently employed phases in our language? We use it constantly for the smallest services performed, for a friendly word, for every word praising ourselves and our acts. We use it whether we are grateful or not. Saying thanks has become a form that is employed with or without feeling. We must therefore say it with great emphasis and in strong words when we really mean it. Anyone who observes the behavior of religious groups -- ministers as well as laymen -- is familiar with their inclination to say "thank you" to God almost as often as to their neighbors. It seems important, therefore, to ask the reason for this behavior towards men and God. Why do we thank? What does it mean to give thanks and to receive thanks? Can this event of our daily life, and of daily religious life, be understood in its depth and elevated above automatic superficiality? If this proves possible, we might discover that the simple "thank you" can tell us much about what we are within ourselves and our world. We might find that one of the most used and abused words of our language can become a revelation of the deeper levels of our being.

Saying thanks is not always merely a form of social intercourse. Often we are driven by real emotion; we are almost compelled to thank someone, whether he expects it or not. And sometimes our emotion overpowers us and we say thanks in words much too strong for the gift we have received. This is not dishonest. It is honestly felt in the moment. But soon afterwards we feel somehow empty, somehow ashamed -- not much perhaps, but a little! Occasionally, it also happens that for one moment we feel abundantly grateful. But since, for external reasons, we have no immediate opportunity to express our thanks, we forget it and it never reaches the one to whom we are grateful. Of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus probably none was without abundant gratefulness to Jesus, but only one returned from the priests to whom they had shown themselves to thank Jesus. And Jesus was astonished and disappointed.

Not only are we driven by a deep emotion to give thanks, but we also have a profound need to receive thanks when we have given ourselves in either a large or small way. When thanks is not forthcoming, we feel a kind of emptiness, a vacuum in that place of our inner being which the words or acts of thanks should fill. But just as we feel ashamed when we use too strong an expression of gratitude, we feel uneasy when we receive exaggerated thanks. There is no place in us to receive it and we refuse to accept it, whether we say so or not. It is always difficult to receive thanks without some resistance. The American reply, "you are welcome," or the German reply, "please," expresses the refusal to accept thanks without hesitation. "Donít mention it" is the simplest expression of this resistance to accept thanks, which, however, we do accept at the same time.

These uncertainties in the simple act of giving or receiving thanks teach us something about our relationship to others, and our predicament. In every act of giving or receiving thanks, we accept or reject someone, and we are accepted or rejected by someone. Such acceptance or rejection is not always noticed, either by ourselves or by the other. If we are sensitive, we often feel it and react with joy or sorrow, with shame or pride, and mostly with mixtures of these emotions. A simple "thank you" can be an attack or a withdrawal. It can be the expression of giving someone a place within us, or a successful way of protecting ourselves from someoneís attempt to find a place within us. A word of thanks can be a complete rejection of him whom we thank, or it can be the unlocking of his and our hearts. But probably in most cases, it is a polite form of stating that he whom we thank does not really concern us very much.

The fiftieth Psalm says -- "Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving," and "He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me." Here the original meaning of thanks shines through. Giving thanks is a sacrifice. Here the literal meaning of "thanksgiving" is felt. Thanks is expressed through sacrificial acts. Valuable objects are removed from their ordinary use and given to the gods. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that man did not create himself, that nothing belongs to him, that naked he was thrown into the world and naked he will be thrust out of it. What he has is given to him. In the act of sacrifice he expresses his awareness of this destiny. He gives a part of what is given to him, but something that is ultimately not his own. In sacrificing thanks he witnesses to his finitude, to his transitoriness. Every serious giving of thanks implies a sacrifice, an acknowledgment of oneís finitude. A man who is able to thank seriously accepts that he is creature, and, in acceptance, he is religious even though he denies religion. And a man who is able to accept honest thanks without embarrassment is mature. He knows his own finitude as well as that of the other, and he knows that the mutual sacrifice of thanks confirms that he and the other are creatures.

II

In all expressions of gratitude towards others, the object of our thanks is usually visible. We know at least whom to thank, and what for, although we often do not know how to thank. Hut there is also gratefulness that is, so to speak, without a definite object towards which to turn. This is so not because we do not know the object, but because there is no object. We are simply grateful. Thankfulness has taken hold of us, not because something special has happened to us, but just because we are, because we participate in the glory and power of being. It is a mood of joy, but more than a mood, more than a transitory emotion. It is a state of being. And it is more than joy. It is a joy that includes the feeling that it is given, that we cannot accept it without bringing some sacrifice -- namely, the sacrifice of thanks. But there is no one to whom we can bring it. And so it remains within us, a state of silent gratefulness.

You may ask -- why isnít God the object of such gratefulness? But that would not describe what happens in many men -- Christians as well as non-Christians, believers and unbelievers. They are grateful. But they donít turn to God with direct words of prayer. It is just gratefulness in Itself which fills them. If they were told to turn to God in a prayer of thanks, they would feel that such a command would destroy their spontaneous experience of gratefulness. How shall we judge this state of mind that many of us may have experienced at some time? Shall we say it is thanks without God, and therefore not real thanks? Shall we say that in this state we are like the pagans of whom Paul says that "although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him"? Certainly not. The abundance of a grateful heart gives honor to God even if it does not turn to Him in words. An unbeliever who is filled with thanks for his very being has ceased to be an unbeliever. His rejoicing is a spontaneous obedience to the exhortation of our text -- "Rejoice always!"

It is then possible to understand our text when it says -- "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in everything!" It certainly does not mean -- "never feel sorrow, day and night use words of prayer and thanks!" Jesus characterizes this way of imposing oneself on God as a perversion of religion. Then what do these exhortations mean? They mean just what we called the state of silent gratefulness, that may or may not express itself in prayers. We are not to tell God without ceasing what we wish Him to do for us or what He has done for us. We are asked to rise to God always and in all things. He shall never be absent from our awareness. Certainly, He is creatively present in everyone in every moment whether we are aware of it or not. But when we are in the state of silent gratefulness, we are aware of His presence. We experience an elevation of life that we cannot attain by profuse words of thanks, but that can happen to us if we are open to it. A man was once asked if he prayed. He answered, "always and never." He meant that he was aware of the divine presence, but only rarely did he use words of prayer and thanks to express this awareness. He did not belong to those who do not thank because they are never aware of the presence of the divine, and he did not belong to those who believe that being aware of God means addressing Him continuously. He thought that words directed towards God must come out of a state of elevation, of silent gratefulness. Another man was asked whether he believed in God, and he answered, "I donít know, but if something very good happens to me, I need someone to whom I can give thanks." He experienced the state of grateful elevation, like the first, but he was driven to express his feelings in direct words of thanks. He had need of another to whom to sacrifice. Both men describe the fact that thanking God is a state of elevation without words and also a desire to sacrifice in words directed to God.

In these two ways of thanking, two kinds of relationship to God are manifest: He is the other to Whom I speak in words of thanks; and He is above myself and every other, the one to Whom I cannot speak, but Who can make Himself manifest to me through a state of silent gratefulness.

One of the great and liberating experiences of the Protestant reformers was their realization that our relation to God is not dependent on the continuous repetition of words of prayer and thanks directed to God, on sacrifices and other rituals, but rather on the serenity and joy that is the answer to the good news that we are accepted by God because of His seeking us, and not because of anything we can do or say in and outside the church.

III

For what do we give thanks? Are there limits to giving thanks? Our text says -- "In everything give thanks!" This does not mean -- give thanks for everything, but give thanks in every situation! There are no limits to situations in which to thank, but there are limits to things for which thanks can be expressed. This is again a question the answer to which might lead us into a new understanding of the human predicament.

In the letter to I Timothy 4:4 we read -- "For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer." In these words, thanksgiving receives a new function. It consecrates everything created by God. Thanksgiving is consecration; it transfers something that belongs to the secular world into the sphere of the holy. It is not transformed, as superstition in and outside of Christian beliefs would transform it, but it is elevated to represent the divine. It has become a bearer of grace. Therefore, we say "grace" when we give thanks for our daily food, and thus consecrate it. Every created thing can be a bearer of holiness, an object of thanks, of consecration. There are no limits to thanksgiving in this respect. We can give thanks for our bodily and our mental powers, for the darkness of our unconscious as well as for the light of our consciousness, for the abundance of nature and the creations of history, for everything that is and manifests its power of being. We can give thanks for all these despite their rejection by those who, through world-hating asceticism and fanatical puritanism, blaspheme the God of creation. Everything for which we can give thanks with a good conscience is consecrated by our thanks. This is not merely a profound theological insight; it is also a practical standard in situations where we are uncertain about accepting or rejecting something. If, after having accepted it, we can give thanks for it, we witness to its goodness as created. In giving thanks seriously, we consecrate it to the holy source of being from which it comes. And we even take the risk that Protestant Christians must take -- that their conscience may fall into error and consecrate something which should be rejected.

There are no limits to giving thanks in the whole of creation. But are there not limits in our life? Can we honestly give thanks for the frustrations, accidents, and diseases that strike us? We cannot in the moment when they take hold of us. Here is one of the many situations where piety can degenerate into dishonesty. For we rightly resist such evils. We want to remove them; we are often angry against our destiny and its divine Ground. And there are depths of suffering, bodily and mental, in which even the question of thanking or not thanking does not appear. Out of the depths the psalmist cries to God; he does not thank Him. This is honest, realistic -- a realism born out of the awareness of the divine presence. And I believe that at some time in our lives all of us have had experiences that were nothing but evil when they happened, but that became good later and the object of honest thanks.

And we also cannot give thanks for our own acts that make us guilty or for those that make us good. We cannot give thanks for that which makes us guilty; and sometimes things for which we have given thanks become evil by our own guilt. Nor should we give thanks for that in us which makes us good. The thanks of the Pharisee for his good works is an outstanding example of thanks which should not be given. In reality, he does not thank God when he is thankful for his own goodness, but thanks himself. How many of us thank ourselves when we give thanks to God! But one cannot thank oneself, because the sacrifice of thanking, if given to oneself, ceases to be a sacrifice. Thanks to oneself is not thanks, even when prayers of thanks to God are hidden ways of thanking oneself, as after work well done or success achieved by great toil.

It is a surprising experience to read the Bible, and especially the last third of the book of Psalms, with the question of thanks in oneís mind. One discovers that the praise of God fills page after page in which the misery of all men, including the writers of these books, is also most drastically described. Reading them, we feel as though we walk in another realm. We cannot reproduce in ourselves what is happening to these men. (We are not in the mood of praising, hardly in the mood of thanking.) We look into the depth of our predicament and do not see much reason for praise and thanks. And if we think that it is our duty to God to thank Him, or if we participate in church services that include praise and thanks, we do not feel that we have truly expressed our state of mind. Although this experience is not invariable, it is a predominant trait of our religious situation. It expresses itself in the messages of our best present preachers and theologians. It is a dominating theme of our great poets and philosophers. We are not called to pass judgment on these men. We have a part in them. They express us as they express themselves. And we should thank those who do it seriously, and often out of deep spiritual suffering.

The difference of our situation from that of former periods becomes visible when we read about the passion and intensity with which the members of the early church gave thanks for the gift of the Christian message in a world of pagan glory, disintegration and despair. Is the same passion and intensity in us when we give thanks for the gift of God which is the Christ and His church? Who can honestly answer "yes"?

And do we not sense the same difference when we read how the fighters of the Reformation thanked God for the rediscovery of the good news of the divine acceptance of those who are sinners? Is the same infinite concern in us as was in them? Who can honestly answer "yes"? We must therefore be grateful to those who express our present situation honestly.

But there is one consolation: we are not separated from the ever active presence of God, and we can become aware of it in every moment. Our hearts can become filled with praise and thanks without the use of words; and sometimes we may also find these words of praise and thanks. But this is not the first step, and, often, not even the last. Let us not follow those who use what is called "the present religious revival" to force us back into forms of prayer and thanks that we cannot honestly accept, or that produce joy and thanks through self-suggestion. But let us keep ourselves open to the power that carries our life in every moment, that is here and now, that comes to us through nature and through the message of Jesus as the Christ. May we keep open to it, so that we may be filled with silent gratefulness for the power of being which is in us. And then perhaps words of thanks, words of sacrifice and consecration, may come to our tongues, so that we again may give thanks in truth and honesty.

Prayer

Almighty God! We raise our hearts to Thee in praise and thanks. For we are not by ourselves and nothing is ours except what Thou hast given us. We are finite; we did not bring anything into our world; we shall not take anything out of our world. Thou hast given us the life which is ours so long as it is Thy will. We thank Thee that we have being, that we share in the inexhaustible riches of life, in the smallest and in the largest part of it. We praise Thee when we feel strength in body and soul. We give thanks to Thee when joy fills our hearts. We are gratefully aware of Thy presence, be it in silence, or in words.

Awaken us to such awareness when our daily life hides Thy presence from us, when we forget how near Thou art to us in every place and in every moment, nearer than any other being is to us, nearer than we are to ourselves. Let us not turn away from Thy giving and creating presence to the things Thou hast given us. Let us not forget the Creator behind the creation. Keep us always ready for the sacrifice of giving thanks to Thee.

Thine is what we are and have. We consecrate it to Thee. Receive our thanks when we say grace, consecrating our food and with it all that we receive in our daily life. Prevent us from using empty words and forms when we give thanks to Thee. Save us from routine and mere convention when we dare to speak to Thee.

We thank Thee when we look back at our life, be it long or short, for all that we have met in it. And we thank Thee not only for what we have loved and for what gave us pleasure, but also for what brought us disappointment, pain and suffering, because we now know that it helped us to fulfill that for which we were born. And if new disappointments and new suffering takes hold of us and words of thanks die on our tongues, remind us that a day may come when we will be ready to give thanks for the dark road on which Thou hast led us.

Our words of thanks are poor and often we cannot find words at all. There are days and months and years in which we were or are still unable to speak to Thee. Give us the power, at such times, to keep our hearts open to the abundance of life, and in silent gratefulness, to experience Thy unchanging, eternal presence. Take the silent sacrifice of a heart when words of thanks become rare in us. Accept our silent gratefulness and keep our hearts and our minds open to Thee always!

We thank Thee for what Thou hast given to this nation far beyond the gifts to any other nation! Let us remain thankful for it, so that we may overcome the dangers of shallowness of life and emptiness of heart that threaten our people. Prevent us from turning Thy gifts into causes of injury and self-destruction. Let a grateful mind protect us against national and personal disintegration. Turn us to Thee, the source of our being, eternal God!

Amen

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