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Thanksgiving for the Awful

Thanksgiving for the Awful

It’s funny how, once you’ve had a tragedy, you start measuring your life in terms of holidays.

Thanksgiving 2011 – The holiday we announced the amazing news of our pregnancy with Dominic.

Thanksgiving 2012 – The holiday we tried to figure out what “giving thanks” means when our life had been upended and our worst fear came true and there wasn’t a miracle of healing and the very thing that had been the center of our thanksgiving the year before was ripped from us, along with our hearts.

We’re now at Thanksgiving 2013.

 

  • “Always [give] thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Ephesians 5:20

This Thanksgiving, I have more than a year of hindsight to understand. I have more than a year of emotional and spiritual work that has made this holiday something deeper, something more profound than it has been before.

I always questioned, before, how one could give thanks to God for everything. In everything, maybe, but not for everything. Surely not for…the awful.

Then Dominic happened. And I read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts. And I started counting my gifts. And God began a work – a work to help me see how to give thanks, really, for everything. Even the really, really not good.

Real Thanksgiving

I realize, now, that I didn’t really ever know what thanksgiving truly was, until this past year. I gave thanks to God for the things that He had given me that I wanted.

My children. My husband. My home. My church.

You know, the typical list. I was grateful for it if it served or benefitted me in some way, or made me feel good. Gratitude….with me as its center.

I have learned, this past year: that’s not gratitude. That’s self-gratification.

Ephesians 5:20 shakes up our “thanks God for the good stuff” theology. And although I’d read it many times before, it wasn’t until this past year that the Lord shook up my thanksgiving. The giver is God. And because He is good, we can give thanks for…everything.

Yes, even the awful.

Giving Thanks for the Awful

This has been a hard year. There wasn’t some incredible saving moment in which God reached down a la Job and restored back to us everything we have lost, making life better than it was before. Nope…it’s been a steep climb every step of the way. Money was really tight. We had to struggle through the marital fun of grieving in different ways and at different paces, and somehow keeping our lives together without knowing how (or, sometimes, even whether we wanted to). Depression and disillusionment have captured more than a few of the past year’s moments. The desire of my heart – more children – has not been fulfilled. So, just to be clear, my new Thanksgiving understanding doesn’t come out of a year of abundance.

And that is precisely what makes it so much more powerful.

I understand how to thank God for even the awful. For even the horrendous and heart-wrenching and painful and devastating and disastrous and chronic and catastrophic.

I can, because it brings me to Him.

That is not a trite slogan from a Sunday School quarterly. It is a statement of life or death…of survival or demise. I think it is not possible to understand it until you have lived it – the place where, because you have nothing else, you must have Him. The place where you crave Him desperately like an alcoholic craves his wine, knowing you Simply. Cannot. Make. It. Without. Him.

When we get there, when the trappings of life and all of the “good” we think we have gets crushed under the weight of disaster, when we become stripped and bare of everything other than Him, we realize what He has been showing us and telling us all along –

He is all we need. Because He truly, fundamentally, completely is good. And He wants us to become good, too. Because only when we become good – His good – can we ever ultimately feel good.

Joseph

I am reminded of the story of Joseph.

In Genesis 37, a young, arrogant, favored Joseph goes to his older brothers and tells them of his dream – that their sheaves of grain bowed down to his sheaf of grain. Not learning his lesson when his brothers “hated him all the more for his dream” (v. 38), Joseph later goes again and tells them of yet another dream, this time with the sun and moon and eleven stars (the same number of his brothers) bowing down to him. His resentful brothers throw him into a cistern, after which he is sold into slavery in Egypt. But through God’s providence, Joseph works his way up to become the second most powerful person in Egypt, under Pharaoh, and in charge of food distribution to the people during the time of famine.

Then, an amazing thing happens. Just as Joseph’s dream predicted, his brothers, victims of the widespread famine, eventually come and bow before Joseph, begging for food. They later bow down before him, as well, asking for his forgiveness.

It is Joseph’s vision become reality – except for one significant difference.

Take a look at Joseph’s response to his brothers, when he reveals his identity to them:

 

  • “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt.” (Genesis 45)

And then, later, Joseph reassures his brothers with these beautiful words:

 

  • “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-20).

You intended harm, but God intended it for good.

Joseph’s dream – fulfilled. God’s magnificent plan for Joseph, given to him early on, came to fruition….with a few major omissions:

Joseph’s arrogance. His entitlement. His pride.

In short – the goodness of God’s plan minus the dirt of Joseph’s sin.

Joseph was able to give thanks for the awful because he saw it as the means for God’s good.

The years of hardship Joseph endured – being betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, thrown into prison, falsely accused of seducing Potiphar’s wife – were God’s blessings. They were the whittling tool that scraped away Joseph’s sinful heart and replaced it with one of God. With Joseph being destined for greatness while being favored amongst his parents and hated by his siblings, he could have easily been well on his way toward becoming a self-absorbed, power hungry, vengeful dictator. Instead, Joseph became a resourceful, caring, forgiving leader who fulfilled God’s plan for His life and saved God’s people from starvation. What made the difference? Pain, suffering, betrayal, injustice – instruments of grace in the hand of the Father for making us good, like Him.

Finding Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is not focused on the objects we receive; it is focused on the giver. For the first time in my life, I have been able to thank the Father for the things that I wish I had never been given, because I have experienced that He uses all of it and works in all of it. And, because of His nature – His nature of good – the end result is always, always better than if I had never experienced the awful to begin with.

I can thank Him, this year, for even the bad. I can, because He is good, and He uses it to bring me good. This path – His path – has never been, and isn’t intended to be easy. It is not to make us comfortable or rich or happy. This path is to make us more like Him, because there is no true comfort, no true wealth, no true happiness, apart from Him.

Thanksgiving is not about being grateful when I get what I want. It’s about being thankful because I have the Giver. It’s about the fact that He is using everything He puts before me, the good and the awful, to make me good, whether I get what I want or not. And it’s about the truth that only when I become good – when my heart becomes like His – will I ever ultimately experience good.

It has taken almost a year and a half, and a whole lot of suffering, but I feel like I am just starting to experience what true thanksgiving really is. As I pass the turkey this year and meditate on my blessings, I will do so being able to pray, this year, for the first time – the words of Job:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” – Job 1:21

Thanksgiving 2013: The holiday I was able to say, for the first time, thank you, Lord for the awful, because, even in the awful, You are very, very good.

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