In his letter to the Philippians Paul gives another dimension of gratitude: that we should give thanks not only for things throughout “space” – the blessings of the family, home, work, recreation, relationships and friendships near and far – but that we should also give thanks for all things throughout time.
This does not just mean in an ongoing manner, which is right and good, of course, but also regarding the different parts of time. Things of the present are naturally things for which we should express ongoing appreciation (Philippians 4:6). But because we live in the present we can often limit our thankfulness to gratitude for that which we see around us in the here and now. Paul shows that deep and full gratitude extends further than that.
One of the first things Paul mentions as he begins his letter to the Philippian church is that “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3). It had clearly been some time since Paul had seen the brethren in that congregation and his statement is one not only of affection for them, but also one of giving thanks for his time with them in the past. Paul is certainly clear that we do not need to dwell on the misfortunes and mistakes of the past (Philippians 3:13), but shows here that we can certainly remember the good things with a spirit of thanksgiving.
This is true of many things and is especially true of relationships. So often we remember the good times with spouses, friends and family members after they are no longer alive. Paul’s words remind us that we can remember the good past things of our relationships and be thankful for them now. But the principle of gratitude for past things certainly extends beyond relationships. In fact, the second part of many of Paul's letters expresses his thankfulness for the spiritual growth that occurred in the lives of those to whom he writes.
In Philippians, Paul continues the theme of thankfulness by saying that one of the reasons for his gratitude and joy was “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 and see vss. 9-11). We see the same thought in some of Paul’s other letters, such as Colossians: “…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light" (Colossians 1:12). This is not just “positive thinking” about the future – it’s an attitude of thankfulness for the future. It is a mark of Paul’s faith – and ours – that when our faith is sure of things to come, we are thankful for them just as much as for things we see and receive right now.
So in his letter to the Philippians, Paul shows us that giving thanks for the things of the past, as well as those things to which we look forward, is just as much a part of true thanksgiving as gratitude for every good thing we experience in the present.