Showing God Some Not-So-Common Courtesy

Requests and gratitude. They form a big part of our prayers and relationship with God. But we can learn a lot by exploring the origin of “please” and “thank you.”

Though we assume these mainstays of modern manners have always been around, they’re relatively new. And even today, “please” and “thank you” are not found in every culture. As anthropologist David Graeber points out, they’re actually rooted in democracy.

Our English word “please” is short for “if you please” or “if it pleases you” to do such and such. We see the same in French (si il vous plait) and Spanish (por favor). The purely literal meaning of “please” is, “you are under no obligation to do this.” Though there’s usually a social expectation that a request will be honored, as in “Please pass the salt,” adding the word “please” turns an order into a request.

Surprisingly, the term was used almost exclusively when asking powerful lords and nobles for a favor. “If it pleases you, my lord,” someone might say, “allow me to pay my tax late this month.” The understanding was the lord had no obligation to say yes and everything depended on his favor.

Similarly, the English “thank you” comes from “think.” It first meant, “I will remember and think about what you did for me.” In other languages, “thank you” conveys a greater sense of gratitude. In Portuguese, “obrigado,” means “I am much obliged” or “I am in your debt.” The French word goes even further: “merci” is from the word “mercy” and refers to putting yourself at the mercy of the one who granted the request.

Though “please” and “thank you” were once used only with the aristocracy, the words began to take hold in ordinary language when commerce created a middle class in the 1600’s. Then, people began to use them with everyone as the idea of equality began to spread.

But equality goes too far when we extend it to God. Contrary to the bumper sticker, He’s not our co-pilot. He’s the sovereign Lord of all, in whom all power and authority reside. The minute we forget that and treat him as an equal, a partner or a buddy, our concepts of prayer and gratitude become badly distorted.

Instead of approaching God with a sense of entitlement based on familiarity, we must make our requests with a recognition of His infinite glory and wisdom, limitless might, and bountiful love. Then, when He gives us what we want, we can be sure it’s because He knows and wants what’s best for us and, when He says no, it’s because there’s a good reason, whether we see it or not.

“If it pleases You, please grant my request,” we must pray, “but I recognize You’re under no obligation to give me what I want.” That humble awareness of God’s affectionate but unassailable authority will stop us from taking him for granted, or assuming we know our needs better than He does, or feeling jaded when He doesn’t do what we want. As Jesus said, “If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.” (Luke 11:13) In other words, our Father knows best, and the most important thing He wants us to have is his Spirit.

And when our Lord does bless us, we must actively think about and remember what He’s done for us. James reminds us that everything good comes from God who blesses us because we are his “prized possession” (James 1:16,17). Thanksgiving is good, but thanks living is better.

We’re obligated to Him, in his debt, and at his mercy — because of his undeserved love and favor which are what secure our salvation, not the paltry acts of service we offer Him. “Please” and “thank you” embody saving grace, not social graces.

In our dealings with one another, it might help to remember that when we ask others for anything, they’re not obligated to give or do anything. That should make us feel grateful when they choose to bless us, and more understanding or forgiving when they don’t. And if we truly feel thankful for what others extend to us, we’ll also feel more inclined to return the favor or, better yet, pay it forward to others who can’t possibly repay us, or even our enemies, just as Jesus teaches (Matt. 5:46-48).

So let’s embrace prayer with no sense of entitlement or strings attached, and genuine gratitude that prompts a response. Anything less and our relationship with God will be little more than polite.