I don’t know if you’ve heard the phrase, but old timers used to speak of the prayer before the meal as “returning thanks.” The phrase has always sounded a bit odd to me – don’t we give thanks? Returning thanks sounds as if someone had thanked us and we gave it back to them. Something like this: “Thank you.” “Oh no, thank you!” Of course this all makes sense if there is some kind of transaction involved in which both parties benefit in some way – say, person A buys a trombone from merchant B. Person A gets the trombone they’ve always wanted, and is thus able to play one of the coolest looking instruments in the brass section, and may, if things go just right, earn the nickname “T-Bone.” Merchant B has finally sold that trombone that has been collecting tarnish in the corner and makes enough money on the deal to go to Sizzler and buy a T-bone for dinner. Both parities have benefited and each one thanking the other is appropriate.
But when we give thanks to God – at mealtime or any other time – the calculus is clearly different. We are not giving God thanks because he he has thanked us. Something completely different is operating here. So, whence cometh the phrase, “returning thanks?” Is it just some colloquialism that somebody’s granddaddy made up, and because of its catchiness took hold? Maybe. Maybe not.
Let’s consider creation. All of it. Right now. Albatrosses and ferns and newts and light and sedimentary rocks and Pluto (you’ll always be a planet to me) and killer whales and trees and snakes and people. Did I forget anything? When God considered his creation he said something about it. Several times in the creation narrative he said, “It is good.” The apex of God’s creation was a creature who would be made in his very image – the one who would image him forth in the world.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:26-31 ESV)
When God created this in-his-likeness being, he charged him with the task of subduing and having dominion over all of his creation. Humankind was to manage, to steward, to cultivate God’s good creation. In the next chapter of Genesis we read, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” This working and keeping means, among other things, to change, to rearrange the creation in order to make it produce something else. It is to move things around, to fashion working implements out of tree branches and rocks, to scratch the ground and plant seeds that will become apple trees, to prune the tree, to pick the apples, to turn apples into apple pie (mm. pie.). It is being like God. God creates out of nothing (ex nihilo), and we take the something and turn it into something else.
When we do this re-creation, who is the beneficiary? Is it God? Paul told the Athenians in Acts 17, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” The beneficiaries are man and the rest of creation. Man benefits by the beauty and produce of the ground, and the ground itself benefits because it is wild and must be tamed. Left to its own, the ground does not flourish – it needs man to manage it it (to work it and keep it).
Nevertheless, it is inappropriate to think that he is excluded from the cycle after the first act of creation. That is deism. And we are not deists. God, the Creator and Sustainer, remains intimately involved with his creation, not least man. So, how does this work? Well, man, as God’s image bearer, must be like God in his re-creative work. Remember that God, following most of his creative acts, made the statement, “It is good.” He created then he judged his creation. Because he created ex nihilo, his assessment was based on nothing but himself. In saying “It is good” he is making a statement not only of the thing created, but also of himself. In saying, “It is good,” he is rightly saying that he is good and that he does good (Psalm 119:68).
We, too, must make an assessment of our creative acts. We are made in the image and likeness of God, so we will inevitably do this in one way or another – we will either do this with or without reference to God.. What we say about our re-creation is very important. If we are deluded, we may say something as arrogant as, “It is good” in the sense that God does, claiming not only the goodness of the thing, but also the goodness of ourself (Romans 1:18ff comes sharply to mind). If we are aware that all things come from God, then we have to say something that acknowledges that – but what? What do we say that says that what we have re-created is good without taking credit for having created it ex nihilo? What do we say that rightly assesses the goodness of the one who gives us all things? What do we say that makes much of what we have, but does not claim glory for it? The statement must be one of gratitude. The thing is good, but it is not a product of our goodness – it proceeds from the goodness of Another – the One who created all things.
So, God creates good creation because he is good. He judges his creation good. He gives his good creation to man for the benefit of man and creation itself. Man, in response to this, acting as God’s vice-regent and image bearer, re-creates for his own benefit and the benefit of creation, and return it to God in gratitude – giving glory to the One from whom all blessings flow.
Returning thanks is not a part of a transaction, as though God was waiting for us to say “thank you” in payment for what he has given us – as though he were somehow enriched by it. Returning thanks is be like him, to image him back to himself, to glorify him. Returning thanks is closing the relational loop. It is us saying to our Father and Lord, “We see what you have given us and we like it.” It is giving him what he has given us – refashioned, re-created, glorified. And the glory is given to God.
From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.