We’re nearing the end of the year. And today we briefly step away from the usual grind to celebrate Thanksgiving with our family and friends. As we look forward to good food, holiday traditions, and relaxed times of fellowship, it’s easy to feel thankful for life and God’s blessings. We have religious freedom, close relationships, plenty of food to eat, a warm house as the weather gets colder…
We owe God full hearts of gratitude for these blessings. There’s something a bit predictable about it all, though. Today I wonder if perhaps we should move beyond the easy cliches and look deeper into our souls. It might be a strange time to think about our shattered dreams and the parts of us that are broken, but I wonder if hearts that haven’t been deeply touched with pain can truly give thanks in a meaningful way. If we give thanks for the blessings that fall easily into our laps and try to forget about everything that’s not so nice, well, our thanks becomes a bit forced. The things we achieve or receive with little effort don’t evoke a strong response. It’s our more vulnerable hopes, the ones that can be broken—or, perhaps, have been broken—that stir us deeply.
Maybe as you look over the past year, you think of tears and heartbreak. For you, giving thanks today brings mixed emotions as you’re reminded of what you don’t have, or perhaps once had but lost. And really, I think all of us, if we take a few minutes to reflect over the past year, find ourselves grappling with the bittersweet reality of our existence. At best, this past year was tinged with sadness and unfulfilled hopes that serve as footnotes to an otherwise triumphant story. But for some of us, this past year broke us, shook us at our very core, and left us crying out to God for an assurance that no trite recitation of usual blessings could possibly fulfill. Perhaps today your heart cries out for comfort, as you long to trace meaning through the scrambled pieces of your story.
The worst thing we could do is to neatly pack our hurts away and view today as a time to highlight the stable parts of our otherwise fragmented existence. If we feel sadness and yearn for life to once again feel right, perhaps we’re uniquely prepared to give thanks. Too often, we fight disappointment with denial, which hardens into complacency as we passively come to expect less from life. Perhaps we even congratulate ourselves on our ability to face life without allowing our setbacks to affect us. There is merit in learning to bravely move on in the face of hardship. But while self-pity is no virtue, neither is steeling ourselves to our environment at the expense of the tender parts of us that feel deeply.
I speak from experience. This has been a year to remember, with a dizzying combination of highs and lows. I’m a happily married man now, and though my sweetheart has been a tremendous bright spot and the fulfillment of many dreams, other dreams and relationships have taken a brutal battering. Instead of feeling inspired and ready to charge into life, there have been many days where it seemed like my vision for the future was being permanently undermined. God uses such things, of course, to expose bits of ourselves and remind us how much we need him. But sometimes it felt like the pruning was going too deep, eroding the confidence necessary to face life and its responsibilities.
God’s grace and the help of others, especially my sweet wife, has enabled me to find fresh courage for life, and I’ve lately felt new excitement for the future. In the process of recovery, I’ve recognized how easy it is to hide our deepest hurts, settle for less, and manage to scrape by with the momentary distractions of life. But that’s exactly how I found myself coping, often without realizing it. Why stare down difficult questions when we can entertain ourselves and go on without needing to process? And indeed our lives can often be this way, without any glaring sin, and no looming catastrophe, but somehow shallow at the core because we aren’t being honest with ourselves.
Knowing how to grieve and knowing how to give thanks are two sides of the same coin. I have to think of Paul’s exhortation to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). These aren’t two unrelated acts of civic duty but rather an image of a tight-knit relationship where we identify with the deepest longings of another person. When we weep with a friend, we weep at the dashing of very real dreams and hopes. When we rejoice with a friend, we rejoice at the obstacles and suffering that were overcome. Neither can exist in isolation or it rings hollow. And surely it’s the same way in our own lives. When we become numb in response to pain, we also damage our ability to feel true happiness. As hard as it can be to face the hard things in our lives, feeling nothing is worse than feeling pain. If we are hurting, we are still alive; but when we become indifferent, we essentially waste away.
God is more honored by our desperate cries to him than our futile efforts to pretend we’re okay when we aren’t. When we feel broken and long for restoration, we are strengthening our God-given instincts to reach for a better world. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Even when we’re hurting, we can thank God not only for his promise of our complete restoration in the new earth, but for that imprint of his image in our hearts that causes us to yearn for more. When we open our grieving hearts to God, we find the kind of comfort we can’t know when we’ve convinced ourselves that everything is okay. And we find a lot more to be thankful for.
So as we go about the festivities of the day, let’s truly reflect on our lives—not just the good bits, but the most vulnerable, needy parts of ourselves. And let’s thank God not only for our outward bounty but for his wisdom in making us creatures with deep longings that he will one day completely fulfill.