I heard a speaker Monday evening talking about faith. He was a very good story teller, but I found that I took serious issue with one of his main points. He was telling a story in which the person said a prayer asking for something specific and then gave thanks for that thing before it came. She declared that that was faith. That God our loving Father would want us to have everything good and so we can have faith and confidence that when we ask for something it will come. I mean don't all loving parents give everything their children want to their children? Always? Without exception? Just because they love them? Right?
To be clear, that isn't my experience of God, and it isn't my experience as a parent either. For example, there have been some studies that have shown that when children are never allowed the opportunity to fail, when they finally come against failure, often as a young adult, they can't handle it. If they haven't had the practice of facing disappointment, they don't know how to move beyond a personal failure, and sometimes the results are catastrophic (see The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine). I think that we usually intuitively know this. As a result, we do let our children reap the natural consequences, sometimes, of their actions. We allow them to experience disappointment and failure, even when we might have the chance to have them avoid it, because there are important, life-serving lessons to be learned. I will not write my child's report for them when they tell me at 9:00 at night that they have a report due the next day which they haven't started. It may be a very painful lesson to learn that they have to take responsibility for things like this, but it is a lesson that will serve them throughout life. We may live in an instant gratification society, but I don't believe that's what God would have us learn, either - that everything we want is just there for us to have at the exact moment that we want it. Instead, I think God values things like patience, perseverance, fortitude. I think God wants us to learn to accept that there are certain things we will just have to accept and won't be able to change. We can't change other people, for example. We can't make them be or do what we want them to be or do. That is a hard lesson to learn, but another lesson that is necessary to learn. If God were just a glorified Santa Claus who simply gave us what we wanted every time we asked for it and believed that we would get it, we would never have the gift, the opportunity, the pleasure and treasure and learning that come from experiencing disappointment, of needing to learn resignation, of experiencing grief, of learning to walk with others through their losses and disappointments, of seeing that resurrection follows death and loss, of learning that one dream ending often means another can begin, and one hope dying gives way to new paths that we could never have imagined.
It's not that I don't think gratitude is important. I've written and preached many times about gratitude and I will say now what I always say that it is always good and appropriate to offer God thanks for whatever is coming as well as whatever has been, and especially for whatever IS. But I think it is arrogant to assume we can know what it is that God will give and when. God answers all prayers. But sometimes the answer is no. And again, while sometimes that "no" is painful, if we approach life with openness, trust, faith (and by this I don't mean faith that God will just give us everything we want, but faith that God will give us the best we need to learn, to grow, to live - even when life or other people throw lemons and tornadoes and curves our way, God can bring good out of our tragedies if we look to God to do so), then we can keep our eyes open to see the good, even in the "no", even in the pain, even in the struggles.
I also find that saying "thank you" for something you haven't received yet feels somehow manipulative to me. It feels like trying to "control" what God wants to give you simply by saying "thanks" for it. I don't think that's how God works.
I say all of this recognizing the many stories out there of people giving thanks only to receive what it is they have given thanks for. But personally, I think that says a lot more about God's grace in the face of our arrogance and attempted manipulation. God gives us grace by none-the-less giving us what we've asked for and not being affected by our flaws, but by the desire to connect with God and the need to have what we are seeking.
Still, "we thank you God, for what we are about to receive" is always appropriate, even when we have no idea what it is we will receive. "We will see" is one of the things I learned this week that I say a lot. And I guess I do. Because I mean that. We will see what God will give, when God will give it. We can await with anticipation expecting it to be wonderful and glorious and grace-filled, and we are free to ask very specifically for the things we want, the things we need - God wants to hear from us in this way, God wants that relationship with us. But I will still maintain that we cannot dictate to God what it will be that we will need, or what is best ultimately for us or anyone else. Thanks be to God that sometimes the answer is "no", even to things we think we want.