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How is it possible to express gratitude to God for life’s difficulties? I often struggled with this biblical injunction of being thankful in all circumstances. Four major struggles in my life caused me to question how I could be grateful for events that produced so many tears and anguish.

Recently, I was recommended a book by Henri Nouwen called Here and Now. Nouwen’s words on gratitude helped me understand this from a new perspective:

“We easily divide our lives into good things to be grateful for and bad things to forget...True spiritual gratitude embraces all of our past, the good as well as the bad events, the joyful as well as the sorrowful moments...everything that took place brought us to this place...That does not mean all that happened in the past was good, but it does mean that even the bad didn’t happen outside the loving presence of God...they have brought us to a deeper recognition of God’s mercy, a stronger conviction of God’s guidance, and a more radical commitment to a life in God’s service.

Once all of our past is remembered in gratitude, we are free to be sent into the world to proclaim good news to others...all our failures and betrayals can be transformed into gratitude and enable us to become messengers of hope.”

My mother died before my husband, Larry, and I married. She never knew her grandsons or had an opportunity to love and cherish them. If I had had any influence with God, I would have strongly suggested that He take my father instead of my mother. At the time of my mother’s death, my father and I had a poor relationship. My father constantly criticized me and never seemed interested in my life. I had a strong antipathy toward him that grew like a cancer within me. I realize now that without my mother’s death I could not learn the necessity of forgiveness. Instead, I faced and resolved my strong feelings against him and was able to forgive my father.

God saw that I needed to put forgiveness into practice. He knew I needed to accept my father as he was. As a result, I spent the last 10 years of his life loving and enjoying our relationship.

Larry and I were married for seven years before our first child was born. Shortly after his birth, we learned that Jonathan had Down’s Syndrome. Later we also learned he was autistic. When Jonathan was young, I was both his mother and his teacher. He needed so much help that I was always exhausted from caring for him. Later, I was able to see Jonathan through God’s eyes the beauty of His plan. Instead of seeing a handicapped child, I saw a child who loved to laugh and take pleasure in the small details of life. I learned to slow down and enjoy the waving grass in the wind or walks through the crunchy leaves in the fall. I learned that God truly had Jonathan’s needs in mind and that He could care for him in ways I could not. Through Jonathan’s handicaps, I learned more about trusting God.

I have been healthy for most of my life. But then, without warning, I developed an unrelenting pain in my hands. I learned that I had Rheumatoid Arthritis. It soon traveled to my knees and to my ankles. It was difficult to go down steps, walk more than half a block or write my name. I questioned how I could be thankful for the arthritis. Yet during my struggle, I learned to slow down and enjoy days. I came up with a number of things I could do while sitting in my recliner. I used that time to pray or work on my photo albums. I also learned to ask for help and to receive it graciously.

About 10 years ago, I experienced an emotional distance from God and my husband. Life seemed very difficult and full of anguish. My relationship with God and Larry was an unending struggle. I was always trying to come up with ways to get Larry and me out of the mess we were in. How could I be thankful for this? Because of our struggles, we went to marriage counseling and I learned a lot about myself. Things I think I never would have learned on my own. I also learned again to trust God more instead of relying on my own abilities. Once again, Life’s difficulties brought me closer to God.

In Bread for the Journey, another book by Henri Nouwen, I am continued to be encouraged to be grateful to God in all circumstances. I hope you will also find these words encouraging to you.

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. 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. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

(Carole Cool is a retired nurse who lives with her husband and two adult sons in Berkeley, CA. Her older son has autism and Down’s syndrome. She is active in her local church.)

Article Link: http://ccmusa.org/read/read.aspx?id=chg20040405
To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Oct-Dec 2004. CCMUSA.