Not your mother’s thank-you note

Etiquette. It’s not something that came naturally to us as kids. We had to be taught the customs of our culture, instructed in what’s considered “proper” behavior. We might, for example, have looked forward to Christmas and the presents we hoped we’d get. The blessed day finally arrived, and we tore into a colorful package to find…socks. Great, we may have thought mournfully. Grandma bought us socks.

From across the room, Grandma beamed at us while Mom, noticing the crestfallen look colonizing our face, said with faux sweetness, “Oh, look, socks! Isn’t that wonderful? Say thank you, Tommy!” She smiled with her mouth, but threatened with her eyes.

“Thank you,” we mumbled, a bit unconvincingly. Hopefully, Grandma played along and pretended not to notice. Eventually, we got better at hiding our disappointment and were quicker with our thanks. Dropping thank-you notes was a little easier, because no one could see our face.

But even better: hopefully, we grew up enough to be truly and appropriately grateful for the gift of socks.

Paul, as we’ve seen, writes as one friend to another, encouraging his brothers and sisters in Philippi to stick together, to maintain their unity in the face of pressures from without and within. That is his main theme and purpose. But there’s another reason for his letter: to some extent, it’s also a thank-you note.

It’s just not the kind of thank-you note your mother taught you to write.

Apparently, while in prison, Paul had just received a gift of support from the Philippians. We have no idea what the gift was, but can presume that it was generous and given in love. It was right for Paul to acknowledge receipt of the gift and to express his gratitude. And if he was going to write them a thank-you note anyway, he might as well use the occasion to address some of his other concerns about the church.

But Paul puts off saying thank you until almost the end of the letter. Didn’t his mother teach him to lead with that? If you want to write about other things, fine. But say thank you first.

Moreover, Paul’s way of expressing his gratitude sounds a little strange. Here it is in the Common English Bible:

I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. (Phil 4:10-11)

Paul seems to say, “Thanks for the gift — finally! But I don’t really need it.” (Stage direction: Mom smacks forehead in exasperation.) Most of us have probable received gifts we didn’t need. And truth be told, we kept them in the closet until we had the opportunity to pass the blessing on to someone else.

We’ll come back to this passage later as we work our way through the letter. For now, suffice it to say that Paul is not gratitude-challenged. Nor is he guilting the Philippians for having taken so long to send a gift. Against the background of their shared understanding of friendship and loyalty, Paul knows that they would have agonized over hearing his troubles without being able to do anything about it.

On that basis, he reassures them: I appreciate the gift and the concern that I know lies behind it. You’ve always been so supportive of me. But don’t worry. I’m fine, really. I’ve learned to live with what I’ve got. And as we’ll see, he wants the Philippians to learn the same lesson.

Paul’s thank you, in other words, plays out against the backdrop of what he’s said in the rest of the letter: whatever they’ve sent, whatever they haven’t sent, their friendship and partnership is the gift he treasures most. And his love for them is such that he values their generosity less for how it helps him than for how it pleases God and helps them grow spiritually (4:17-18).

These are the friendships we need. And these are the friendships we can build, if we take Paul’s letter seriously.