Well, Why do we thank anyone? It’s a great question, really. Candace writes in to ask it: “Hello, Pastor John and Tony! Thank you for this podcast. It has been a great help to me. And thanking you two plunges us right into my question: How can we genuinely thank anyone but God? If God is sovereign over all things, what role do people themselves play? I just listened to APJ 1195, “How Does God’s Sovereignty Not Violate Our Decision-Making?” but as these truths are new to me, I think I could really benefit from your answer to this specific question: If you go to a restaurant and are served by a waitress, God gives the waitress all the abilities required to do her job, the opportunity to do her job, maybe the willingness to do her work diligently, and her very life and breath and existence. Since she is working, it seems right to thank her for her efforts, but since the Lord gives us everything, it seems right, in another sense, only to thank him. How do you process this?”
Well, I think this is a very good question, even though some people probably will think it’s totally unnecessary since a spirit of thanksgiving seems like such a healthy trait in a Christian soul. Why would anybody ever question it? One of the reasons why it’s such a worthy question is because — now this is going to surprise a lot of people — I’m not aware of any single place in the Bible at all where one human being explicitly thanks another human being for anything. Isn’t that amazing?
I mean, I could be wrong, so if our listeners find an exception to that, they should write you, and you can forward it to me if you think they’re right. That’s where I am right now. So when I hear this question, I say, “Yeah, I’ve got to come him to terms with that.” I know a very godly Christian scholar who sees that, what I just pointed out, and he infers that that’s his duty. He does not thank people for anything. He thanks God for people, and he may tell them that.
Thanks Be to God
So, it may seem like an unwarranted question, but really it’s not. Now, my own conviction and practice is to say thank you a lot. I say thank you a lot to a lot of people — or something like, “I really appreciate that,” or, “You have encouraged me so much. Thank you.” Candace is asking the question like this: Since God is the ultimate giver in the end — through all things, in all things — why would it ever be appropriate to thank anyone but God?
So, Paul says, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). He says, “Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25) So, if I’m served well at a restaurant, God created the server, God gave the breath, and God inclined the heart to courtesy. God gave everything that makes my meal pleasant, so God be thanked, not the waiter or the waitress or the server.
“In all of our thankfulness, we should have God ultimately in mind as the giver.”
Of course, that’s true. God did give everything, and God should be thanked. In all of our thankfulness, we should have God ultimately in mind as the giver and sustainer and the providential guide in every good that happens to us — indeed, in every bad thing that happens to us, which God turns for good if we’re Christians. Which is why Paul says, by the way, “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and, “[Give] thanks always and for everything” (Ephesians 5:20).
Instruments in God’s Hands
But here’s why I don’t think any of those truths means we should not thank other people for benefits we receive through their hands. I think we all would agree that human beings become instruments in the hands of God for doing many good things that God wants done.
So, for example, Jesus says about Paul when he commissioned him, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Then he says to Paul, I am sending you “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18). And of course, this is the way God has worked ever since the beginning. He gives commandments, he gives promises, he gives warnings, he gives help, but there is no doubt that human beings are God’s primary created instrument for accomplishing in the world what he wants done.
So, the question becomes, How does God think about our instrumentality? What status does the instrument itself — us — have in God’s hands? Can the instrument in God’s hands be called good or praiseworthy or faithful or obedient or pleasing? Does God view the instrument in his hands as proper recipients of his rewards, his commendation, his praise? And if God does view the instruments in his hands as fitting recipients of his own commendation and rewards and praise, then what should our attitude and response toward those human instruments be?
Well, the Bible is very clear that God is the rewarder of those who seek him. Several times in Matthew 6, Jesus says that the Father will reward us for acting certain ways. He says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). Time after time, we are told God rewards us for the good that we do. Ephesians 6:8 is an amazing statement: “. . . knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” Wow.
And even more than reward, Paul says that we’ll all receive our commendation — and literally the word is praise — from God (1 Corinthians 4:5). That’s almost unfathomable. C.S. Lewis calls it “the weight of glory” that we would ever hear “Well done.” How could God speak such a thing to a worm like me, right? So even though everything good that we do is enabled by God, it is sustained by God, it is made useful by God, nevertheless, God has graciously chosen to look upon obedient instruments in his hands as pleasing to him and fitting recipients of his rewards and commendations.
Voice of Humility
So, my heart inclination is to say that if God almighty — in infinite perfection and having no need whatsoever — can look with favor, and reward, and commendation, and praise upon the imperfect work of his people, might it not be fitting that I would look upon human instruments in his hand with a humble sense of expressed, glad indebtedness? That would be my definition of thankfulness: expressed, glad indebtedness to them for their instrumentality in mediating to me good from God.
“Thanking other people for the benefits they give us is a fitting, humble expression of our glad indebtedness.”
God should always be, in my mind, the ultimate giver, and he gets thanks in everything, for everything. But the role of instruments in his hands is an amazing role, and I am put in debt to that instrument as well as to God. If something good happens to me because of another person’s instrumentality in the hand of God, I am glad, and the mixture of gladness and a sense of indebtedness is what I call thankfulness.
It belongs ultimately to God continually, and I think it is fitting that this gladness find expression toward the morally responsible human instruments in God’s hands as well. In a sense, an expression of thankfulness is simply an expression of humility. It says, “I have become your debtor, and I don’t resent it as though you made me a welfare case. I receive it, and I am glad for it, and I want you to know that my gladness is owing in part to you and what you’ve done.”
So, in conclusion, I would say as long as we are not detracting from God, and we’re acknowledging him behind and in everything that comes to us, then thanking other people for the benefits they give us is a fitting, humble expression of our glad indebtedness.