I’ve been sort-of yelling at my kids a lot lately. I try not to, and I’m not proud of it, but I find it to be happening. They’re five and three, and they just don’t listen. Seriously, I have to tell them the exact same thing over and over again. And over again. Most recently, it’s been about “please” and “thank you.” These words, so drilled into me that they’re second nature, are as foreign to my kids as feathers to an iguana. It is maddening.
It was in the context of my begging my kids, probably for the fifteenth time in ten minutes, to say “thank you,” that I thought of Jesus’ warning that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17). Jesus is telling us to be like children? Really? Doesn’t he know what children are like? Especially my children?
I think it’s just our kids’ inability to remember to say thank you that Jesus is suggesting that we emulate.
Saying thank you is a particularly adult practice. And, interestingly, the quality of our thank you varies, depending on the quality of the thing we’ve been given. If someone passes us the plate of ribs at dinner, we might say “thanks.” If they drive us to the airport, it’s “thank you so much.” If they help us move, it becomes “We’d like to thank you by taking you out to dinner.” It’s as if, somehow, we want our thank you to repay the original kindness. Big kindnesses get big thank-yous. This is why we get uncomfortable when we get really good gifts. We know that thank-yous or dinners won’t cover the debt we owe. If someone gives us a truly wonderful gift, or helps us in a really selfless way, we’ll do anything we can to balance the scales again. Being in someone’s debt rankles, and seriously.
Kids have no such problem. When someone gives them a gift…boom!...they’ve unwrapped it and begun to play. It’s us parents who chase after them pleading, “Say thank you!” We might as well be saying what our subconscious is screaming: “You’re going to anger the gift-giver! Our relational scales will be out of balance! Please, dear God, come back and even the score!”
Christians, who have been in receipt of the greatest gift in the history of the world, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, God’s own son, spend most of their lives trying to adequately say thank you. We live in subconscious terror that our thank-yous won’t be deemed profound enough and the gift will be retracted, or that our lack of a thankful life means we never really received the gift in the first place.
But God’s gift in Christ is too good for “thank you.”
There is no adequate response, no way to retroactively earn this present: It’s too valuable. Try as we might, we will only ever feel on the verge of ungratefulness. This feeling typifies much of Christian life: “Are you living a life worthy of the death he died?”
Jesus tells us to go a different way. He wants us to receive the wonderful gift of the Kingdom of God like a child would: forgetting completely to “be obedient” and to “say thank you,” we should run off immediately and play with this wonderful gift. After all, doesn’t the gift-giver want to see his gift played with? Wasn’t that the whole point of giving it? The most glorious irony is this: our unfettered and without-thought play turns out to be more law-abiding than our starched-shirt and pleated-pant thank-yous ever could be. Our joy in a wonderful present engenders the kind of thanks (that which is from the heart) that the gift-giver was interested in.
No one is fooled by a child who wants to play being forced to say thank you. When, in Liar Liar, Jim Carrey asked his son to wish that Carrey's character had the ability to lie and said, “And this time…mean it,” no one thought that was possible. We can’t mean what we don’t mean and a forced or coerced thank you has no value at all.
What has value, and has surpassing value, is that greatest gift of all: the life and work of Jesus given freely to us. Let’s receive it like children, worry about “thank you” later, and go play.