Life has a way of turning upside-down for everyone.
It happens in a flash. One minute everything lies before you like a farm valley in July, ripe with possibilities and opportunities. The next, the ground rips apart and it all disappears into a dark ugly chasm… and you’re falling headlong into it.
And it’s precisely those moments when I think about that verse. You know the one?
“Give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:18)
The first several times I read that verse, it slid past without any catch, any bump. I was a kid and was blessed to live a simple, undramatic childhood. It never occurred to me that circumstances could be horrific.
But then, life turned me upside-down and shook me out. That’s when I heard tires screeching when I read that verse (or heard it quoted by some well-meaning acquaintance) .
“Give thanks for this?” I think. “This is not just hard, it’s evil. How can I be thankful for this?”
IN, not FOR
I have never been able to say, “I am thankful for my daughter’s heart defects. I’m thankful for her seizures, her developmental delays, and her brain injury. I’m thankful my youngest son also has birth defects. And I’m thankful that my daughter died at age 8.”
But when I look closer, two things jump off the page.
First, God doesn’t ask us to thank Him for the circumstances. He asks us to be thankful in them.
We can find something to thank Him for even in the midst of tragedy, evil, pain, suffering, grief, death. I’ve often found new perspective in those moments when my life has intersected with someone else’s going much much worse.
- My husband stayed. And, by God’s grace, so have I. The statistics are sobering — divorce is twice as frequent among families with children with special needs. (Dr. Laura Marshak, author of Married with Special-Needs Children (co-authored with Fran Prezant) notes that many studies point out higher divorce rates; for families with children with autism, there have been rates quoted as high as 85-90 percent.) And when a couple loses a child, the rate soars to 95%.
- My daughter never needed a tracheostomy, nor did she require supplemental oxygen after her second surgery.
- Our medical insurance covered everything for the first two years, the period of time when our hospital bills soared over half a million dollars.
God has promised to give us strength to persevere, to suffer long, to show His grace to us and through us to those around us. In fact, He uses those hard things, even those evil things, for good.
The rest of the sentence reads “…for this is God’s will for you.”
This is just as difficult to stomach, but I’ve come to find it reassuring. God allowed Jesus to be murdered to accomplish the greatest good ever conceived. If He could do that, how can I deny that He might allow me to experience difficult circumstances to accomplish good too?
For this reason, we can even be thankful when our pain is caused by our own bad choices and mistakes. We learn so much from our mistakes, including how desperately we need help. And God uses those things, too, in ways we cannot comprehend, to make good.
Asking why is natural, but frustrating. I have wrestled and agonized, screamed and cried, ranted and clammed up, asking why God would allow and use evil.
I have discovered that it is much more reassuring to believe that He is in fact allowing it (and therefore has it on a leash, under his control) than to believe it somehow accidentally happened without His knowing and now He’s scrambling for Plan B, wringing His hands and muttering, “oh dear oh dear oh dear, how do I get this under control and make it work out?”
So instead of asking why, I’m working on asking another question: what can I be thankful for right now?
Thankful as a Way of Life
The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible, sheds some light on another way to apply this verse. It gives 1 Thessalonians 5:18-20 this way:
Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.
God’s people are thankful people.
I can say that I am thankful for each of my children, that they are each precious and beautiful gifts.
I am thankful for the unbelievably talented, giving, inspiring people I have met in caring for my children with medical needs: doctors, nurses, child life specialists, therapists, teachers, aides, other parents.
I am thankful for medicine, for surgery, and for scientists who have learned so many things about fixing broken bodies.
I am thankful for the lessons I’ve learned and for the ways God has shown Himself to me through all the fear, sadness, sleepless nights, and tears.
God has shown me that He loves the broken. He cherishes the weak. He will redeem it all one day.
He will bring beauty out of the ashes, even the ashes of my own failures. And THAT is something to be thankful for.