Giving thanks even though it's hard
November is a time we gather and give thanks. And science shows practicing gratitude is something all of us could benefit from doing more of. However, it’s not always easy to feel thankful, especially with a heavy heart. For a lot of us, the holidays can be hard.
Maybe you’re like me, and the holidays bring a lot of mixed emotions. Since I was little I’ve wanted a house bursting at the seams with family. Commotion, laughing, even fighting, all of it. Having come from a family with divorced parents, it was always a dream to have a big, happy home where we were all together at the holidays. Where mornings consisted of sleepy people tired from the previous night’s festivities having coffee together, afternoons consisted of backyard football and kids watching movies, and all the food we could eat. It would be glorious. But my home at the holidays looks nothing like that picture. It’s never looked like that, and sometimes it breaks my heart.
The truth is, our extended families rarely gather together during the holidays. My divorced parents require plans to be made weeks in advance about who we’re spending the actual day with. Additionally, my husband and I are each estranged from one of our siblings. And there is always the deeply painful absence of my husband’s parents, whom we lost when we were in our 20s. I have tears in my eyes as I’m typing. Their absence is excruciatingly painful, especially during the holidays. More tender moments never to be shared between our son and his paternal grandparents.
So when things are heavy, how do you reconcile feeling grateful with your disappointment? Here’s what I've learned about my pain, giving thanks and who God is.
Call out to God in your grief. Don’t keep your pain and disappointment from God. I frequently hear women say they should feel grateful despite their circumstances (watch for the self-judgment, it isn’t helpful!). They express something they are struggling with only to add a quick, “but I know I should feel grateful.” I bet if you look around, you will see a lot to be grateful for, but a hurting heart can blind you. Take the time to bring all your stuff to God. He’s ready, He’s waiting for you. Pour out your heart and ask for His grace in showing you a new perspective.
Pain serves a purpose. Suffering is hard, but we can take heart knowing that it serves a purpose. God uses every bit of our painful experiences – every hurt, every disappointment, every setback – for our good and His glory. Therefore, even in the midst of sorrow and devastation and uncertainty, we can give thanks knowing that it can and will be used to help others overcome their own struggles and pain. When you share what you’ve been through, you are an active participant in sharing the story of who God is. You will be a light in someone else’s darkness, giving them hope that only someone who’s walked their same path can give them.
When you don’t have words to express gratitude, go to the Scriptures. Guess what? The Bible is FULL of people who struggled in their faith and wrestled in their relationship with God. They are beautiful examples for us on how to persevere in our faith. King David, author of most of the Psalms, is a terrific example. I refer to the Psalms as balms, because boy do they comfort my hurting heart. There is immense power in reciting Scripture because it’s God-breathed, it’s more powerful than any human you can quote. Some of my favorite Psalms to pray out loud and give thanks include Psalms 116 and 139.
Expressing gratitude will make you feel better. Practicing gratitude is a life-giving, life-changing habit. The benefits are widely recognized across belief systems – from reduced stress to increased self-esteem to healthier relationships, and much more. You have to be proactive in your gratitude practice, making a conscious decision to focus on what you have and not what you don’t. Author Ann Voskamp sums it up beautifully:
"Joy is always a function of gratitude — and gratitude is always a function of perspective.
If we are going to change our lives, we’re going to have to change the way we see.
This recording our gratitudes, this looking for blessings everywhere, this counting of gifts — this is what changes what we are looking for. This is what changes our perspective."
I know it isn’t always easy, friend, but the Bible tells us to give thanks in everything. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:18)
That's what I'm choosing today. If you choose to do the same, over time God will bless you with a right perspective and a changed heart. You’ll find that your habit of giving thanks turns into genuine thankfulness by God’s amazing grace. By appreciating all the simple blessings, even the painful ones, joy and grace will begin to fill more of your days.