Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday for many.
How can you be thankful when your doctor says it’s cancer? How can you feel grateful when the one you love just walked out of your life? Or when you’ve been fired . . . or your dream has collapsed . . . or an economic tsunami has wiped out all you’ve worked for?
This year became the worst year of my life when my youngest son, who’d struggled since childhood with mental illness, took his own life. How am I supposed be thankful this Thanksgiving? When your heart’s been ripped apart, you feel numb, not grateful.
And yet the Bible tells us “Give thanks IN ALL circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The key is the word “in.” God doesn’t expect me to be thankful FOR all circumstances, but IN all circumstances. There’s a huge difference. The first attitude is masochism. The second shows maturity. We’re not supposed to be thankful for evil or sin, or the innocent suffering caused by these things. But even in heartache and grief and disappointment, there are still good things that I can be thankful for.
I used to think that life was a series of mountain highs and valley lows, but actually we get both at the same time. In our world broken by sin, the good and the bad come together. On the cover of my wife’s book, Choose Joy, is a photo of a railroad track heading into the horizon. Like that photo, our lives are always running on two parallel rails simultaneously. No matter how good things are in my life, there are always problems I must deal with, and no matter how bad things are in my life, there are always blessings I can be grateful for.
So what am I thankful for this Thanksgiving?
I’m thankful that, although not everything that happens is good, God is a good God. Having had a close friendship with him for nearly 50 years, I know without a doubt that God sees all I go through, he cares, he grieves with me, he is close, and his strength is available at all times.
I’m thankful that, even though I don’t have all the answers, God does. In tragedy we seek explanations, but explanations never comfort. It is God’s presence that eases our pain.
I’m thankful that this life is not all there is. It’s not the end of the story. One day God will right all wrongs, even the odds, and settle all accounts. Justice will be served. Evil will not win.
I’m thankful for the hope of heaven. I won’t have to live with pain forever. In heaven, there are no broken relationships, broken minds, broken bodies, broken dreams, or broken promises. The Bible tells us “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
I’m thankful for my church family. For 33 years, I’ve had the privilege of loving, serving, and leading the people of Saddleback Church. But in our darkest hour as a family, they gave all that love back in a split-second, the moment Kay and I returned to speak after a 16-week grief sabbatical. We can handle anything with prayers and support like that.
I’m thankful that God can bring good even out of the bad in my life, when I give him the pieces. It’s his specialty. God loves to turn crucifixions into resurrections, and then benefit the whole world. God never wastes a hurt if we give it to him.
Itzhak Pearlman once broke a string at the start of a Lincoln Center recital. Rather than replacing it, he played the entire concert with a broken instrument. At the end he said, “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” That kind of humility honors God. This Thanksgiving, don’t dwell on what’s lost, but on what’s left.