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Grateful to God

A Pauline Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is quickly approaching. It is often glossed over because of the Christmas holiday shopping season. The majority of consumers, therefore, see Thanksgiving as the day before shopping really begins, Black Friday. But I wonder if we could just pause for a moment or two and see how Paul views “thanksgiving” so we too may consider a time of thanksgiving before we get lost in Christmas. Initially, I would ask “to whom and/or to what are you thankful? Does God make the list as one you direct your thanksgiving—not just at Thanksgiving but every day?”

I have chosen to consider Paul’s writings because of the number of his uses of the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Paul uses this word in almost all his letters, especially to “express appreciation for benefits or blessings, give thanks, express thanks, render/return thanks” (BDAG, 415).

The typical structure of Paul’s letters includes an element known as “The Thanksgiving” (Roetzel, The Letters of Paul, 72). Found in all Paul’s letters, apart from Galatians, this element ends the opening salutation and signals the basic intent of the letter. One could say that the thanksgiving section serves as a “mini table of contents” for the letter.

Paul’s letters are occasional and thus intended for specific situations. Although each letter possesses a unique and different purpose, and therefore is structured to fit the context to which he is writing, Paul still maintains consistency in most of his letters through the inclusion of the thanksgiving element. So why does Paul give thanks? And how does this affect me, the reader? Paul typically gives thanks for two reasons.

First, Paul’s prayers are God-oriented. He often renders thanks to God; that is, God is the object (“to my God”) of the thanksgiving and/or praise, gratitude (cf. Phil 1:3; Col 1:3; Phlm 4). Paul demonstrates his relationship with God through the personal pronoun (“my”). Hansen states, “that the personal pronoun communicates the transforming impact of God’s gracious salvation in Christ Jesus on his own life. God’s grace so transformed him that even in prison his gratitude to God guided his prayers, attitudes, and thoughts” (The Letter to the Philippians, PNT, p. 45).

For Paul, God is uppermost in his mind, especially for His work in and through the recipients of his letters. God and His grace is the source of salvation (1 Thess 1:4; 1 Tim 1:12-16); God and His power removes spiritual hindrances and directs, guides the believer’s path (1 Thess 3:11); God and His gospel empowers fellowship with one another for unity and evangelism (Phil 1:3-5); and God and His love provides hope with the promise of growth through His Spirit to glorification in Christ (2 Thess 2:13-14). Due to God’s work in the believer’s life, Paul expresses thanksgiving to God.

Second, Paul’s prayers are others oriented. He renders thanks for or for the benefit of his recipients. Paul not only directs his prayers to God but also for others. Over and over throughout Paul’s letters, he is consistently and persistently bearing in mind those to whom he is writing. His prayers are not self-interested; rather the interest of others takes first place. The reasons for his diligent labor of prayer on behalf of others is the recipients’ faith in God (Rom 1:8-9; 1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:3); love for others (1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:3; Phlm 4); enduring hope of Christ’s coming (1 Cor 1:7-8; 1 Thess 1:3, 9-10) and the continued growth in their walk with Jesus Christ (Eph 1:16-19; Col 1:9-11; 1 Thess 3:11-13).


Questions for us as we consider our gratitude to God:

As the readers of Paul’s letters, you and I have reasons to express our gratitude to God for His gracious work in and through us. God continues to show Himself faithful to us, regardless of the circumstances we endure.

  • Are we thanking God for our salvation? For our eternal hope? For our unity with other believers?
  • Are your prayers consumed with the list of issues you are going through? Or are your prayers also concerned with the growth, mutual care and love for others?
  • What will God hear from you this Thanksgiving season?
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