Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
—I Thessalonians 5:16-18
As a counselor, I tell people on a regular basis to tell the truth, even when it hurts. At least twice a day, I commend making the choice to express healthy boundaries to others as a means of fully loving them. I ask others to take the risk of confessing things to their partners that will forever alter their relationship. I routinely discuss the cyclical nature of grief, and how even its most subtle rage and overpowering despair are reflections of the full gamut of emotions given to us by God. I sit with many people whose most searing pain and brokenness have been the only possible means to access vulnerability and freedom. I also sit with those whom freedom and intimacy seem to elude, regardless of the fervor of their pursuit. I am each of these in some way, and my regular presence with them helps to hold my own journey in focus.
Vocationally, I have built a house on the corner of unresolved contradiction and irreconcilable tension; it is an intersection where I spend a vast majority of my time. I am beginning to understand that it stands as a reflection of my own life navigating the same terms. For instance, our son died prematurely last year of a genetic disorder, thrusting me into the most widely flung tension between grace and sorrow that I have ever experienced. My parents’ deaths, my own recovery from sexual addiction, and our journey into marriage also reflect polarities of joy and sorrow—feast and famine. These are my stock in trade, but also my own reality.
Henri Nouwen, in Bread for the Journey, said that “as long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.” In this season, it is not only hard to scrounge up Thanksgiving for the usual suspects: a roof over my head, a family to come home to, a job to go to, food in the pantry, etc. What is truly hard is to say that I am thankful that my son died, so that I could see the generosity and love of others for me. It sounds like folly to say that I choose to be happy in mourning because having a child die has caused me to see our other children for the utter miracles they are. It is truly hard to say that I am glad in my sexual brokenness, depression, or grief, because they help me to connect with others in meaningful ways. It is immensely difficult to express gratitude for the hard things I would rather forget.
I remember reading somewhere a trite poem that stated something like, ‘I am thankful for a messy house, because it means that I have children who are learning and growing; I am thankful for many dishes to clean because it means I had guests at my table; I am thankful for a tired body because it means I am capable of work…’ and so forth. I also remember struggling with it. While there is truth to the ability to thank God for messy or hard things, I also think I sterilize the grittiness of suffering, thereby robbing it of its power to affect myself or others in the way it should. I wonder if my own version of that verse might read something like:
I am satisfied in my tears over the death of my child, for they called forth provision and compassion from those closest to me;
I am thankful for fights with my wife, for they mean that there is something at stake and we haven’t resigned ourselves to apathy;
I am grateful when my children are whiny and disrespectful, because I know what it means to return home from labor and delivery without a child;
I thank God for my vocational shortcomings, because my own self-importance needs to be reined in;
I am content that I continue to hurt over my relationship with my father, because that pain keeps me attending to my own children in new ways;
I am thankful to God for all he hands me, even though the vast majority of the time I think I know my needs better than he does…
I have an old word for ‘the truth’ tattooed on my hand. It references a quote by Martin Luther, “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” The truth, in this season, is that I have been given wonderful and terrible gifts, but each comes from the hand of God. May I be willing to see them in this way. May I truly be thankful in each circumstance.