In Praise of Thanktimonies

November 23, 2011 | 18 comments
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Not all targets of our reflexive contempt are well chosen. Expressions of mere gratitude in our monthly testimony meetings are dismissed as ‘thanktimonies’ because they don’t quite cover any of the things a public expression of religious conviction is supposed to be about. But I think this disdain is misplaced, like scoffing at children for riding bicycles when they could instead careen around the neighborhood in outsized cars in which they cannot work the pedals and see over the dashboard at the same time.

Publicly expressing gratitude is a useful step in the development of personal beliefs because it is accessible to everyone. In comparison, figuring out one’s relationship with deity, or with a scriptural text, or with the process of sin and repentance and atonement, is hard. Just what do we mean when we say that a church is true, or that a book is true? For many people, figuring out how to ground statements like that in their own experience and cognitive constructs is not simple. Expressing gratitude, on the other hand, is a way that most people can begin connecting their lived experience to a religious framework using the formulas and institutions of the Mormon community. Statements of belief that aren’t yet fully anchored in personal religious conviction can often feel hollow, cute at best, and cynical at worst. By contrast, even a young child’s expression of thanks can be authentic.

The ‘thanktimony’ is in any case preferable to its alternative, which is, in many cases, nothing at all. A moment of gratitude can help avert some of the worst excesses of self-centered unawareness. You know the type: ‘“What has the church ever done for me?” asked BYU graduate Jedediah Blogs. “After all those summers doing dull work in my Stake President’s law office, I lost all interest in becoming a lawyer.”’ Whatever path one’s belief may take as an adult, a couple decades’ worth of friendly unrelated adults looking out for one’s welfare shouldn’t be taken for granted.

It is true that some people will stand up in testimony meeting and say how grateful they are that their kids are all active returned missionaries who have married in the temple – and that is how it should be. The only other options are for people to give thanks for something besides that which they are most thankful for, or to force them into silence. That surely can’t be the way for a community to function.

Expressing gratitude lets us contemplate our own lives and recognize what others have done for us, or the advantages we enjoy by accident of birth. Gratitude helps us understand that we are not the heroes in this film: bad things happen to good people in ways that we can rarely help and almost never understand. The commandment to acknowledge God’s hand in all things doesn’t permit us to wait until we’ve got the moral calculus of the universe figured out. We have to be grateful, right here and right now, for whatever it is we have. And that, I think, is worth a moment of our time during Sunday meeting.

18 Responses to In Praise of Thanktimonies

  1. ji on November 23, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Thanks!

  2. Julie M. Smith on November 23, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  3. Ardis E. Parshall on November 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Nice, Jonathan. Thanks.

  4. Paul on November 23, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Jonathan, I agree with you. Even when I have served in bishoprics in the past we almost never (only once in over a decade — and that for a doctrinal issue, not a matter of form) have criticized anyone’s testimony offering.

  5. Kevin Barney on November 23, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Nice thought, Jonathan.

  6. Adam Greenwood on November 23, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    *t is true that some people will stand up in testimony meeting and say how grateful they are that their kids are all active returned missionaries who have married in the temple – and that is how it should be. The only other options are for people to give thanks for something besides that which they are most thankful for, or to force them into silence. That surely can’t be the way for a community to function.*

    How true.

  7. James Olsen on November 23, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Well said.

    It seems clear that Elder Oaks, et al are not your direct target here (I’ve never heard them scoff or act dismissive); but explicit counsel on how to bear testimony, with the counsel not to merely list our gratitude, seems common enough. How ought we to regard this counsel?

    http://lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/testimony?lang=eng

  8. Edje Jeter on November 23, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    This post gives me useful insight. Thank you.

  9. Alan LeBaron on November 24, 2011 at 12:18 am

    In Handbook 2 at 18.2.3 the member of the Bishopric conducting fast and testimony meeting is to invite members to bear heartfelt testimonies and to relate faith-promoting experiences. Giving thanks probably fits under faith-promoting experiences or close to it.

  10. Matt Evans on November 24, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Agree. Genuine thanktimonies are much, much better than rote testimonies.

  11. Stephen Hardy on November 24, 2011 at 2:26 am

    I always worry that any attempt to squash certain kinds of testimonies does more damage than that suffered by hearing said testimonies.

  12. Aaron R. on November 24, 2011 at 4:21 am

    Jonathan, wonderful stuff. Thanks for this gentle call to listen with more generosity.

  13. Paul on November 24, 2011 at 9:32 am

    #7: James, I think we treat it like other counsel: we strive to get there, but we recognize not every member is in the same place; we love those members who are on the path and moving forward (and hopefully we are among them) but not yet perfect. The thankful testimony may be a step for someone on the way to bearing a more traditional testimony, and it may also (depending on the circumstance) be as spiritual an experience for the bearer and the hearer as any traditional testimony.

  14. Paul on November 24, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I’d also add that Elder Oaks’ remarks are MOSTLY about how we gain a testimony, not how we bear one.

  15. mmiles on November 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    “The only other options are for people to give thanks for something besides that which they are most thankful for, or to force them into silence. That surely can’t be the way for a community to function.”

    Beautifully said.

  16. Kirsten on November 24, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Beautiful, Jonathan. I’ve always been perplexed by resistance to thanktimonies and frustrated when a bishopric member starts out a testimony meeting by outlining what a testimony should and shouldn’t be. You articulate so clearly the connection of thanktimonies to lived experience as the source of their power. Wonderfully enlightening. Thank you!

  17. Cameron N. on November 25, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Well said. I think the issue with thanktimonies is more that people aren’t combining their thanks with direct testifying. For me, some of the best testimonies are the hybrid thanks/testifying.

  18. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 25, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Expressing gratitude means one has received a gift, a blessing, a grace. Acknowledging a gift is affirming there is a giver. Often those blessings are cited as answers to prayer. Whatever else they mean, “thanktimonies” are statements asserting “I know God is real, and I know he loves me, because He has answered my prayers and blessed me.” That is precisely equivalent to a testimony that God lives, that He loves us, that He hears and answers our prayers, added to a concrete example of the evidence for this in one’s own experience.

    Even when we express gratitude for the help of other members of our ward, we are usually saying that God has answered our prayers through them. It reassures the rest of us that we can be instruments in God’s hand to do His work of blessing and salvation here on earth. That is tantamount to saying that this is the true and living church of God.

    Thus, statements of gratitude most often imply the things we explicitly affirm in testimonies borne in Church.

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