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When my son was 5 or so, we were watching TV and a commercial came on giving aid to starving children in Africa. I think it was the first time he had ever seen pictures of emaciated toddlers surrounded by flies.

I watched him watching the commercial and decided to make it into a teaching moment: “See, Erich, this is why we thank God before we eat.” Without skipping a beat, he looked at me and said, “Why? Didn’t they thank God?”

And so a child exposes the simplistic theology of Job’s friends of a God who blesses and curses based on behavior.

I’ve pondered that moment over the last 30 years, namely, what was I thinking going into default reward-and-punishment-God mode. Parents do things like that sometimes to make God more “concrete” but, yikes, what a horrible way to talk about God to a child and what a great way to ensure they will need therapy down the road.

I should have taken that moment to say something about greed and global politics, and how God wants us to speak and act prophetically to the powers that be, in the mode of the biblical prophets and Jesus, and so to fight oppression and embody the Kingdom of God.

But, no. I went with the God who feeds people who thank him. The government should have swooped in and put my son in foster care.

All that being said, this little moment does raise a legitimate question: what are we doing, exactly, when we thank God for one thing or another? What are we saying about God? That this time, yes, crisis averted, but who knows what will happen next time? Doesn’t thanking God imply either some sort of merit system or an arbitrary distribution of blessings? Is God actually responsible for making sure we have food in our bellies—or whether someone recovers from an illness or accident, or whether the home sale goes through?

I understand that thanking God is a big deal in the Bible (so, please no prooftexts in the comments), but isn’t that very fact what makes this question so pressing?

As I see it, one reason why thanking God is such a big deal in the Bible is that a fair amount of the Bible does work on a divine system of blessings and curses. Not all of it, to be sure, but enough of it that it’s hard to miss. Might that view of God owe something to the general view of ancient gods as sovereign lords who mete rewards and punishments based on the degree of faithfulness among the subjects? (Deuteronomy is particularly shaped by this association.)

So let me ask: how many of you reading this think that God works on a reward system? If so, why do you think that and do you see any problems with this understanding of God? If not, then why do you thank God for things at all (assuming you do)—what are you actually thankful to God for?

Here is where I come out at this point in my life. I do thank God for things—in fact, I try to remember to do this every day. I just have no idea how the mechanics of it works. But I do know that when I express gratitude to God, I am at least trying to step out of my egocentric thinking and acknowledge the pervasive presence of the Spirit in and through all things. Which is to say I haven’t resolved this issue.

I think that part of the deal when limited humans are engaging a limitless God means accepting some things that don’t make rational sense but are still intuitively real and good to do.

Maybe “be thankful to God” is a serious dumbing down of how God works in the universe and all we are fit to grasp.

I acknowledge that there are many moments when it is very difficult, if not impossible, to have a thankful heart, and where confronting and wrestling with God—even being angry with God—are called for. The Bible models that understanding of God, too. I’m talking here about those other day-to-day moments in our lives when the wheels haven’t come off completely.

Maybe, had I had my theological wits about me, along with explaining global greed, I might have tried to find some way to help my son glimpse the paradox. But failing that, at least I would want to avoid a scenario where he calls me out on my bad thinking.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.