Yesterday might have been a painful day for people who have experienced loss. The Christian blog posts extolling all the reasons we should give thanks may have felt like slaps in the face to those who grieve during this holiday season. I understand.
If you’re going through a difficult time, please bear with me, considering the possibility that what I have to say, despite its humor and whimsy, might actually encourage you. You’ve undoubtedly heard 1 Thessalonians 5:18 quoted a lot this past week, but I want to quote it again.
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (ESV)
On this day after Thanksgiving, allow me to tell you a Christmas story from my childhood that demonstrates how thankfulness can transform disappointing circumstances into times of rejoicing.
Since Mom (who had been widowed when I was 10) was dating her first boyfriend since Daddy at the time, it must have been my 12th Christmas. She surprised me and my sister with a pair of box turtles (which, in 1965, were legal pets in California). I can remember going out to the tree and seeing that shallow, bright yellow tub that housed our new pets.
One turtle was very active, at least insofar as turtles can be active. I don’t recall how we determined that it was meant for my sister, and speculation on that point would detract from this story. I do remember gently prodding the sedentary turtle–my turtle–thinking he just needed a wake-up nudge. When he failed to respond, I moved him a bit more forcefully.
My 9-year-old sister, skilled in diagnosis, said matter-of-factly, “I think he’s dead.”
We made a few more futile attempts at getting him to move before I agreed with her conclusion. At that point, my wails of lament began! Of course, my crying awakened Mom, who came flying down the hall to see what on earth was wrong!
I’m not sure what happened next. I just remember being in the bathroom, weeping inconsolably, when Mom’s boyfriend arrived for Christmas breakfast. Seeing my pre-teenage dramatics, he looked inquiringly at Mom and grunted, “What’s wrong with her now?”
Mom sighed, “Her turtle died.”
“Is that all?” he bellowed with laughter. He turned to me and said, “Cheer up. A dead turtle is better than no turtle at all!” We all burst into laughter at his unique perspective, and enjoyed the rest of that Christmas.
Long after that boyfriend disappeared from our lives, Mom, my sister and I often comforted ourselves in minor disappointments with the mantra, “A dead turtle is better than no turtle at all.” Despite its macabre tone, it reminded us to be grateful, no matter what.
I realize, of course, that a dead box turtle hardly compares to real trials such as a miscarriage, a spouse with cancer or a lost job. All too often, life throws things at us that hurt unbearably, and I’d never trivialize such instances with my quip about dead turtles. The same Bible that commands us to give thanks in everything also commands us to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Even in standing for truth, the Lord calls us to act with compassion and sensitivity towards those who genuinely hurt.
That said, those who grieve mustn’t wallow in their grief. I know, all too well, how easily we can shake angry fists at God when His decrees run counter (or even threaten to run counter) to our desires. Almost five years ago, my husband came very close to death. Had I lost him, the Lord still would have called me to thank Him for John’s salvation, as well as for allowing me to be married to such a godly man.
Thankfulness doesn’t come easily for anyone. But, when we look away from our disappointments and to the Lord Jesus Christ, we find reasons to cultivate thankfulness. I don’t know if anyone is reading this essay with a broken heart today, but I do know that even that woman can find compassion as she remembers Christ’s love for her. Even through her tears, she can thank Him, trusting both His sovereignty and His love for her.