Recently a friend asked me a two-part question. In Part 1 she asked whether, given my new book deal, I am now grateful for the painful road that brought me here (see my post, Pile it on, part 1).
But then my friend asked Part 2: “Does it take something really big or really good to make us finally thankful for a difficult road?”
To be honest, compared to the first question, this one was even tougher. It forced me to think harder to get past the spiritual clichés.
Because, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty. It seems superficial to look back after a big God-event and say, “Yeah, now I see God’s hand in the hardship.” I mean, if someone gets canned from a job and then finds one that pays oodles better, it doesn’t take a whole lot of spirituality to “give God the glory” for losing the first job. Giving glory to God in the windfalls is just too easy.
But what about those who never get a big God-event in which all the pieces seem to fall neatly into place? What about those who lose good jobs and never regain anything similar for the rest of their careers? What about those who get blindsided by life, and the magic rescue from heaven never comes?
A common Christian answer is, “Well, God’s timing is perfect. Maybe the time hasn’t come yet.”
Perhaps. But in some cases, the time never comes at all.
In the book of Job, Job experiences terrible disasters in which he loses all of his earthly wealth, then his health, and finally his ten children. After all of this, he wants to know why he’s had to suffer so terribly. But he never gets an answer. All he gets is a voice in a whirlwind giving the most beautiful non-answer – essentially this: Who died and put you in charge that I must answer to you?! (Job 38:2ff)
Yes, eventually Job regains his wealth and health and has more children; but as any parent knows, any child who dies can never be replaced by a new one. Like most of us, Job never knows the reason for all of his sufferings. In fact, had he known that the reason was a little bet between God and Satan (Job 1:8-12), he might have drowned himself in a whole new flood of theological issues.
So I don’t believe the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” It doesn’t. Catastrophic events can affect how we view the world, and ourselves, throughout our lives. Time alone doesn’t provide the same healing as a redemptive event.
But time can bring perspective and growth. Because God’s redemption seldom drops into our lives as a single event. If it did, there would be no need for us to wrestle with God, no need to seek out his mystery and his grace. And without wrestling and seeking, our spiritual challenges become stale, bland, lukewarm. After all, if I experience a great event that alleviates all the pain of my difficult road, then I’m set; I have everything I need. So why bother wrestling with God or trying to understand him at all?
Yet with time, though we may never receive the answers we desire, we are driven to seek out and draw closer to the Creator.
And occasionally, we might get a big answer which calls for a big celebration.
But even if not, I think God wants us to develop a deep thankfulness through the search itself—a thankfulness built as we continue to “pile it on,” one painful memory at a time, turning each stone of pain into a step of thanksgiving.
For example, over the past six years of struggling with employment issues and broken dreams, I have become truly thankful that—with careful planning and despite a brutal economy—God has met my physical needs: a car that runs, food in the fridge, an affordable little home when many were losing theirs, and even the ability to attack and finally, after many long years, get my indebtedness ratio moving in the right direction. I am thankful he created my two little wiener dogs, whose antics drive everyone crazy but also bring great joy and laughter. I am thankful he brought me into a church which makes him very real to me and encourages me to cling to him. I am thankful he shoved me, an introvert, into a home community of other broken people who have poured out grace and healing prayer on me; I absolutely fell in love with these folks. Finally, I am thankful for the love and commitment of my wife, who has stayed by my side through undoubtedly the worst years of my life so far. I know she has struggled, but she’s still here. And I am deeply in love.
Such lessons of thanksgiving can be learned only in the desert. Now that I have a book deal, thanksgiving seems almost too easy. But when I didn’t have a book deal – or anything else to hope for – that’s when thanksgiving became a true sacrifice of praise for me. That’s when it really meant something, really cost me something, to learn to give thanks anyway.
These emerging areas of thankfulness don’t come superficially through a single big event, like a book deal. Instead, they come gradually, over time. They are hard-won by persevering through the wilderness, one step after another, like Joshua and the Israelites.
Although most of us would prefer a big “something” to drop immediate clarity into our laps, the deepest moments of growth and thankfulness seem to come only as we travel those winding desert paths.
Like Joshua, we can build our painful memories into a monument of praise. We can pile up the painful moments, one by one, as reminders that God is always good, even when things look very dark. And yes, we can be thankful for the blessing of each painful memory – even if the big fix never comes.