Does God Feel Gratitude?
Although we start each of our Sunday-afternoon circles with a particular topic, one can never be certain what we will end up talking about. For instance, we once got sidetracked when one of our members asked, “Does God feel gratitude?”
How do you answer a question like that?
First, what do we mean by “God”? Second, even if we could define that ultimate entity, how can we understand its experiences? After all, we don’t know that the Divine has emotions, at least as we understand them, and gratitude, as I am defining it, is an emotion. Which brings us to our third question: what is gratitude, and how do we measure it?
Finally, what difference does it make what God feels? What can we learn about our very human lives by pondering what is essentially an intellectual inquiry, interesting to some, but not to others? Why bother seeking an answer to the query at all?
I will address the last question first.
Seeking to Understand God
One reason to think about God and God’s experiences is because, when we talk about God, we are talking about ourselves. I don’t mean by this that we are of the same essence as God, though we might be. Rather, I mean that in every religious tradition I know about, the stories we tell and the metaphors we use to help us understand the Divine reflect our own nature, even if that is a nature writ large.
So we consider questions about God to better understand ourselves, what matters to us, how to treat one another, and how to live in the world.
But what if we are of God’s essence, if God and we are one? Some Eastern religions and many mystical traditions teach such a idea. We may feel separate, but as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, like waves in the ocean, our individual existence is an illusion. In reality, we and the ocean are one. 
If this is true, we might define God as that which is everything, that contains the whole and is the whole. We are not maker and created, giver and receiver. We are all this and more. Only the eternal “I” is real.
If we are one, does it make sense to talk about gratitude? Can we – or God – feel grateful to ourselves?
Gratitude and Saying “Thank You”
That’s part of the reasoning a Chinese youth uses to question the American practice of saying “please” and “thank you” all the time.
Politeness is important in China, but these verbal niceties are not part of that. Such terms, the Chinese believe, create distance between individuals. In China, politeness should bring people closer. In her book Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows notes that such words imply “that we need some formality between us here.”  They create a buffer between individuals. She quotes the above young man as saying, “Good friends are so close, they are like part of you. . . . Why would you say please or thank you to yourself?” 
Similarly, according to Deepak Singh, in India it is insulting to say “thank you,” especially to one with whom you are close. By doing so, one damages the intimacy of a relationship. Singh would never, for instance, thank his father. If he did, he would be indicating that his father was like a stranger to him. 
David Graeber, in his book Debt, provides some background to help us understand this. When we do a favor for someone, they are in our debt. A way is then opened for a continued exchange of relationship as the other seeks to repay that debt, at least partially. If we completely pay off our debt, we end the relationship.  Singh has noticed, for instance, that in America, we use “thank you” to mark the end of an exchange, whether we are buying fish or signaling that a party is over by thanking our guests for coming. 
“Thank You” as a Tool of Commerce
Graeber would agree. In his book, he explains that our Western, and essentially middle-class, habit of saying “please” and “thank you” started in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when commerce became more prevalent. Graeber spends a lot of time substantiating his observation that social interactions can be understood as debt transactions that are meant to be traded back and forth. When we say, “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” or “It’s nothing,” we effectively cancel out whatever we owe until we owe one another nothing. Then we can go freely on our way, no longer beholden to one another. The trading stops. 
This may be fine when we’re dealing with strangers. But as Fallows and Singh point out, it’s not so great when we’re dealing with friends and family. Nor does it work well in small communities where the ongoing cycle of debt among neighbors sustains our innate desire to collaborate. That’s why, as Graeber reminds us, people in working-class or poor neighborhoods thank one another less often than do those in middle-class ones. When money is scarce, it makes sense to help our neighbors who are in trouble, because we know we’ll be helped when our time comes. If we start thanking everyone for their help, we end this recurring cycle of debt and payment.
According to Graeber, the economist Adam Smith thought this was a good thing. He believed that if we behaved as if we were engaged in middle-class business transactions, we would avoid “confusing and potentially corrupting ongoing entanglements.”  Most of us understand, though, that, even if sometimes sullied by corruption, these ongoing entanglements sustain friendships, neighborhoods, and communities, and we don’t want to do away with them.
Doing Away with “Thank You”
So maybe we should be more like our Chinese and Indian neighbors and forgo our verbal expressions of gratitude. After all, they don’t really have anything to do with how grateful we feel inside. We can throw out “thank yous” and “you’re welcomes” all day, barely registering that we said anything. On the other hand, people in China or India aren’t any less grateful than we are. They show their gratitude in behavior.
Singh gives an example of his father who, when he felt grateful to a friend, bowed with his hands pressed together in the gesture of namaste. This meant, Singh writes, that his father was “asking for an opportunity to return the favor.”  Unlike an expression of thanks that marks an end to obligation, his action deepened the social entanglements that sustain relationship.
Thus it shouldn’t surprise us to know that even in the United States and Western Europe, individuals say “thank you” less to those close to them than to business or commercial associates. In these latter settings, politeness matters. When relationships are close, however, we forgo those social lubricants, for they do little to maintain personal bonds and reciprocity. 
The Oddity of Thanking Ourselves
If we don’t thank one as close to us as a parent or dear friend, how much less likely is it that we would thank one to whom we feel even closer: ourselves? So if God is one with us, to what would God feel grateful? God wouldn’t.
Nor would it make sense for us to feel grateful to God.
Of course, religions throughout the world encourage gratitude. Not only do we feel happier when we express gratitude for the little things we have, but expressing gratitude toward God reminds us to be humble. Everything we have comes from someone else, such as our ancestors and teachers, those who labor to build our roads and grow our food. You could also say our gifts could come from God.
Yet if we accept the model of gratitude, debt, and mutual aid in human society that we’ve laid out, then saying thank you to God turns out to seem strange. After all, wouldn’t God feel as offended as Singh’s father if a child of His thanks Him?
Maybe not. Though we sometimes imagine a god as petty as the most foolish of human fathers, one who takes offense at our puny human floundering does not seem like a god worth worshiping.
Gratitude as Humility
We Americans might have trouble humbling ourselves with grateful expressions of praise, for there’s another reason middle-class Europeans started saying “please” and “thank you” to one another. Once upon a time, only the wealthy received thanks, and only the poor had to offer it. In a feudal society, politeness was a way to express respect to a higher-up. When society became more democratic, such terms were used to show that we are all little lords.
Wealthy people often think it strange to say “thank you” to a servant or underling, because they still expect deference as their due, as if they themselves were lords. We thus use “our everyday courtesies,” as Graeber calls them, like a protest. They serve as “a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference.”  We now treat everyone the way we once treated kings and lords.
Of course, God is a Lord of a different nature. Even kings owe God gratitude. When we express that gratitude in prayers and paeans of praise, supplication, and outright thanks, we highlight the difference between us and God. It is humbling, which is not a bad thing.
Fear of Closeness
This praise and humility will also bring us closer to God. This closeness, if we can believe the mystics, is what God desires from us. Not gratitude, but relationship.
That’s scary. To be close to another, even to God, leaves us open to pain. It also reminds us that we depend on others for our lives, and not just because of those who came before us or because of random events that interfere with our plans. When we are in relationship with others, the things they do affect us. We don’t always like that.
If it’s hard to be close to another person, it’s even harder being close to God, for God is less predictable than our spouse or children. God is also uncontrollable.
So we create ways to pretend that isn’t true. For instance, we seek control through money, prestige, charisma, strength, cunning. We develop theologies of abundance, in which we can bring good things to us just by visualizing them. We also wrap civility — thank yous and you ‘re welcomes — around ourselves like a shield.
If we can get past our fear, or learn to act from our hearts and minds rather than from our anxiety, we might learn to collaborate, to reach out – as is our essential human nature – and help one another. In many societies, people use a rough accounting of mutual debt to make giving and taking equal enough that no one feels abused or offended. When the system is working, we draw closer to one another. Like Singh’s father, we start looking for a way to return a favor in friendship and caring rather than duty and obligation.
Is God Grateful?
Our original question, though, wasn’t about whether we feel grateful, but whether or not God does. Could God, like Singh’s father, be seeking ways to do us a favor? But why should God do that?
Consider the story of the Hebrew people in the Bible. God made a number of covenants with them. While God took the greater part of the responsibility in each of these covenants, the people did owe God something. God’s covenant with Noah, for instance, required the people not to shed blood, nor to consume it. In the covenant with Abraham, God asked Abraham to show his commitment to God by undergoing circumcision.  According to Amer Olson in his article about covenant, God also expected Abraham to “be blameless.” With the Mosaic covenant, God expanded this requirement of loyalty to all the Hebrew people, expecting each of them to keep His commandments. 
As God discovered, that didn’t work too well. We’re not so good at being “blameless” or following commandments.
Gratitude for Relationship
Yet the covenants in the Bible are not legalistic contracts used to hold people to account, nor can they be dissolved. They are ongoing promises of relationship. Even though we humans keep messing up, God never forsakes us. The relationship God has built with us is grounded in a love that will never end.
The author Alice Walker understands God as loving. However, she posited a god who also loves to be admired. This god wants us to appreciate the beauty it created for us. That beauty is how we know that God is “always trying to please us back.” 
Why would God do that if God didn’t feel gratitude every time we notice God? If God is one with us, wouldn’t God feel thankful when we love one another, when we honor, through our actions, the sacred value of every human being?
According to an unnamed Christian writer, we know God experiences gratitude for a few reasons. One is that throughout the Christian Scriptures, God encourages us to be grateful. For instance:
- “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God . . .” (1 Thessalonians 5:18 NRSV).
- “Praise the Lord!/ O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;/ for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 106:1 NRSV).
- “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4 NRSV).
Since God never asks us to do anything He does not do, it follows God that gratitude must be part of God’s essential nature. Also, Jesus gave thanks for food and for gifts from God, and since Jesus is supposed to be a reflection of God, then surely God also gives thanks. 
God Gives Thanks for Our Existence
Yet for what is God thankful?
According to the religions of the book — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — God is separate from us. Thus, God can be in relationship with us. All relationships, at least those based on compassion and kindness, include some measure of gratitude. Would it not follow, then, that God, who – if religious teachers can be believed – is nothing if not compassionate and kind, would feel grateful for our very existence in God’s life?
If God is one with us, if separation is an illusion, perhaps God’s situation isn’t so very different. To live for eternity by oneself seems, from our human vantage point, to be lonely and tedious. If we were God, would we not be grateful for an “other,” for the waves who think they are important, who love and hate and cry out and criticize, who engage with the divine in the fullness of their emotions? Again, God would be grateful that we are alive.
What God Asks of Us
Perhaps the great spiritual teachers are all right. We are one essence with the divine and with all that is. At the same time, we are unique and individual. Thus, we exist in relationship. Anyone in a relationship will experience gratitude. So will God. As long as there is time, then, God will feel grateful, for, if nothing else, through us God has the chance to experience life.
In return for this, what does God ask of us?
Perhaps all God asks is that we admire God, that we be grateful for the beauty of creation. If we can take Jesus’s behavior in the Bible as a model, verbal thanks are not wrong, so by all means, tell God, “Thank you.” Yet words are less important than actions. A God who loves us, who made a world for us to admire, might prefer that we show our gratitude for beauty and for life by expressing compassion toward the rest of the world. If we were to do this, I suspect God would feel grateful, eternally.
In faith and fondness,
- See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books, 1999, pp. 124-125.
- Fallows, Deborah, “How ‘Thank You’ Sounds to Chinese Ears,” The Atlantic, June 12, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/thank-you-chinese/395660/, accessed 10/23/19.
- Singh, Deepak, “’I’ve Never Thanked My Parents for Anything,’” The Atlantic, June 8, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/thank-you-culture-india-america/395069/, accessed 10/23/19.
- Graeber, David, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014, 341-347 ebook.
- Graeber 341-347 ebook.
- Ibid 1450.
- Floyd, Simeon, Giovanni Rossi, Julija Baranove, Joe Blythe, Mark Dingemanse, Kobin H. Kendrick, Jorg Zinken, and N. J. Enfield, “Universals and cultural diversity in the expression of gratitude,” The Royal Society Publishing, May 23, 2018, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.180391, accessed 10/21/2019.
- Graeber 342 ebook.
- “Covenant (biblical),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covenant_(biblical), accessed 10/26/19.
- Olson, Amer, “Promises, Promises: The Concept of Covenant and Why We Should Care,” Jews for Jesus, https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v16-n02/promises-promises-the-concept-of-covenant-and-why-we-should-care/, accessed 10/26/19.
- “Covenant (biblical),” Wikipedia.
- Alice Walker, “God Is Inside You and Inside Everybody Else,” Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ, eds., HarperSanFrancisco, 1989, 101-104, 104.
- NewCreeations Ministry, “Is God Thankful? Answering the Question,” https://newcreeations.org/is-god-thankful/, accessed 10/26/19.
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