Why we can be thankful for the thankless

Perhaps, like me, you had to be nagged and cajoled as a child to write thank you letters after Christmas to relatives for their gifts. I didn’t see the point of doing it – I’d rather get on with the important thing of actually playing with the toys I’d received. Though one aunt never sent anything again because I didn’t write a thank you – which caused pause for thought. I began to understand that thanks oils the wheels of social interaction. Showing appreciation generally reaps benefits. It can get you good service in a shop or restaurant, and ease friction in the workplace. And it’s nice to be thanked, to know that what you have done has been recognised and valued.

But this view of thankfulness is gravely skewed. It’s to treat it as a commodity – something to be traded for gain, rather than a celebration of the giver. Thankfulness, at its heart, is relational. It’s worth pausing to consider – is the thanks that we express towards the Lord more transactional than personal? Am I celebrating His generous character and glorious grace, or minding my manners so as not to miss out in future distributions?

The devastating description of rebellious humanity in Romans 1 cites failure to thank God: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). This is not talking about a lack of manners, but personal rejection. Our thanklessness deserves God’s wrath, and yet God’s response to it is mercy and redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our failure to celebrate God’s character, expressed in His common grace (in giving us life and breath and everything else), is met by the indescribable gift of saving grace.

God’s astonishing response to our failure to thank him has recently been brought home to me in a surprising way – through thanklessness. Kindness towards a neighbour has been met with entitlement and grumbling rather than with thanks and appreciation. In response I’ve wanted to withdraw and limit my involvement, and I’ve begrudged the time and effort. As I’ve struggled with the situation, I’ve seen my own thanklessness to God’s kindness reflected as in a mirror. I have an attitude of entitlement – God should care for me and fix my problems.  I’ve failed even to notice his generous provision, let alone appreciate and thank Him for it. Where my response to ingratitude is to back off, God’s response has been to come close, to use this very ordinary situation to open my eyes to my own thanklessness, both towards Him and to those around me, and to grow in appreciation – and thankfulness! – for His generous, overflowing, forgiving grace.

Perhaps you are on the receiving end of thanklessness. A neighbour who doesn’t say thank you for shopping or errands. Relatives who take your kindness for granted and never seem to notice how you go out of your way for them. A sibling who doesn’t acknowledge your gifts. Church members who only email you to criticise, and never thank. Remember again the generous love that God lavishes towards the ungrateful, and which He has extended towards you. As you struggle with keeping on loving the thankless people currently in your life, know in a deeper way the steadfast commitment God has for you. And thank Him.