What Does “Thank you” Mean Anyway?

While translating the Bible with the Canela people of Brazil, my wife and I ran into a problem—we could not find a simple word or phrase for the concept carried in English by such words as gratitude, thanksgiving, grateful, thankful, and “Thank you.”

Were the Canelas never grateful? we wondered. And if they were, how did they express it? We knew we had to do some research to find a solution. After all, thanksgiving is a major, basic concept in God’s Word.

We asked ourselves, “What is implied when we say, ‘Thanks’?”
Here is the list we came up with:

  1. I had a need—something I didn’t have, or some action I could not do by myself.
  2. You had what I needed.
  3. You became aware of my need.
  4. You realized you could help me by supplying my need.
  5. You made an effort to give me what I needed.
  6. What you gave to me, or did for me, was good; it perfectly fit my need.
  7. I am now satisfied and happy.
  8. I feel a sense of debt to you.
  9. I acknowledge what you did by saying something to you.

Once we compiled the list we saw immediately how Canelas expressed gratitude. When receiving something they sometimes said, “Ita ahna, impej,” meaning, “It’s right, it’s good,” expressing #6 on the list. When they were very pleased with our gift they would say, “Ate ima hor pyren, ijakry!” meaning “Because you gave it to me, I am happy!” expressing #7.

Other cultures focus on different aspects.
For instance, Brazilians say “Obrigado” meaning “I am obligated to you” expressing #8.
Several cultures say, “I’m terribly sorry” which focuses on #5, the fact that you freely took the time and trouble to meet their need.

Human Babies: The Most Self-Centered Beings on Earth
Expressing gratitude does not come naturally to us. Not surprising since we start life as babies—the most self-centered beings on earth. It is all about our food, our comfort, and our pleasure. As small children, we have to learn that it’s not all about us. We need to learn to be aware of others, to share toys, to await our turn, and to be aware of the rights of other people.

Children need lots of help to learn to feel and express gratitude. Parents know how hard it is to teach their children to say “Thank you.” They constantly model gratitude by saying, “Thank you,” when a child does even the smallest thing voluntarily or in response to a request.

Selfish ingratitude has a history as long as the age of the universe. It started with Satan, the most impressive, beautiful and powerful angel created by God. Satan owed everything he was and all his abilities to God who created him, yet was not thankful. He refused to acknowledge God as superior, the Great Provider, and instead launched an angelic rebellion to usurp the throne of God.

God exiled Satan to earth, where for thousands of years he has polluted the minds and will of people with this same ungrateful attitude. The apostle Paul mentions this to the church in Rome as he describes people under the power of Satan, “. . . they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to Him . . . ” Romans 1:21 (NIV).

Imagine putting yourself out to help a friend, doing things for him, and giving him what he needs, but he takes it all for granted, never expressing gratitude. How long is your friendship going to last? In the same way, how can our relationship with God grow and strengthen if we take Him for granted and fail to thank Him for all that He has done, and is doing for us?

Our Sin: Taking God’s Blessings for Granted
Submerged in an ungrateful culture, it is so easy to take for granted all the things we got as gifts from God—many of them through little work or effort of our own. Think of our physical life and health, our spiritual life and growth, our families and friends, our freedom and affluence, the abilities and opportunities open to us, and especially God’s Word translated in our own language. Millions of people in developing countries would give their right arm to have what we take for granted.

How can we be more thankful?
We could start by taking our eyes off those few people who are richer than we are, and compare ourselves to the 90 percent of the world’s people who, through no fault of their own, are much poorer.

We could continue to compare ourselves with those who are sick and without health care, those who live under oppressive regimes, who have lost their friends and families, who have never had a chance to learn to read, and who have no Bible in their language.

We could share what we have been given with others who are in greater need than we are. Unless we regularly thank and praise God for all that He provides for us, and then go on to share our blessings with others, our ingratitude will lead to increasing selfishness, a hardening of our hearts, and eventually a ruined relationship with the Great Provider.

Canela Christians love to sing a hymn to Jesus with the line, “Acator pyren, me ijakryti!” meaning “Because you came, we are very happy.” Or “Thank You for coming to earth!”

Jesus the Saviour was God’s greatest gift to humanity—well worth thanking Him for and sharing with others.

New Book Being Published this Week
You may remember a small e-book that we published years ago, The Why & How of Bible Translation. We expanded this book by 45% to nearly double its size, now with 52 story based articles. It will be available for purchase on Amazon soon. The article above is included.

The Hope Stream Radio team was so excited to see this book in its earlier format they asked me to record every article in the new, expanded book. I did so and you can listen to this, and several other, articles on this link