Even in his epistles that don’t mention thankfulness specifically, we can see Paul’s underlying attitude of gratitude implicit in what he says, for example, regarding the hope of eternal life (Titus 1:2), God’s grace (Titus 2:11), and his goodness, kindness, and mercy (Titus 3:4-6).
But in the majority of Paul’s writings, the expression of gratitude is a primary part of his message. Typically, after greeting his readers, or very soon after, Paul gives thanks. This was frequently done in the world of his day, where individuals writing to others would often give thanks to their gods for benefits and blessings they had received. But in Paul’s writing the thanksgiving is different. Instead of thanking God for blessings he has received, Paul usually gives thanks for those to whom he is writing.
Paul tells the believers in Rome: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8). Similarly, he tells the Colossians: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:3-5). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says: “ …because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15).
Paul does give thanks for blessings he and others received (Galatians 1:5, 1 Corinthians 15:57), and he clearly taught that we should give thanks for all things (Ephesians 5:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). But if we read his epistles carefully, we see that Paul’s thankfulness is primarily expressed in his writings not for things he had received, but far more often for the spiritual gifts God had bestowed in the lives of others.
That’s an interesting thought to consider as those of us in the United States and Canada celebrate Thanksgiving Day or at any time of year. The apostle Paul was not just the “apostle of thanksgiving,” he was also the apostle who primarily gave thanks for others. In fact, when we understand that, we realize it is typical of Paul that he writes: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1, emphasis added).
It’s a lesson we can all keep in mind. How much of our thanksgiving is focused on what we personally have to be thankful for, and how much is focused on thankfulness for God’s gifts to his people – and to all people – everywhere? Paul shows us that true and full thankfulness is gratitude for others and what they have received physically and spiritually, just as much as it is gratitude for what we ourselves have received.