It was two days before Thanksgiving when my life fell apart. The day started like any other, with the mad dash of getting kids ready for school and adults ready for work. In the middle of the chaos, just as I was about to head to the grocery store to buy everything we needed for Thanksgiving dinner, the phone rang. Within seconds, the doctor on the other end of the line told me the news I never thought I’d hear:
Michele, you have cancer.
Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, ever since I was a young girl helping my mother roast turkeys and bake homemade pies for our family and friends. I love the preparation, the gathering of loved ones, and the absence of commercialism (did I mention the pies?). While Christmas seems to be the pinnacle of most people’s calendar year, Thanksgiving has always been the highlight of mine.
Until cancer decided to show up and put a serious damper on things. As it turns out, pie can’t cure everything.
It’s been twelve years since that Thanksgiving. By some small miracle, it is still my favorite holiday, even though cancer came back a second and third time in subsequent years, again during the Thanksgiving holiday. Maybe that’s precisely why it is still my favorite holiday. As a result of my suffering, I’ve learned a few things about the practice of Thanksgiving, including both what it is and what it isn’t.
When it comes to an attitude of thankfulness, the Bible verse often quoted around the holiday is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV): “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Thanksgiving is certainly a good way to approach life, regardless of circumstances. However, too often this passage is misunderstood and misapplied. We think we must give thanks for all circumstances. How exactly are we supposed to give thanks for the death of a loved one? Or for a terminal diagnosis? How do we rejoice in an abuse of power or the trafficking of children? To be thankful for these circumstances feels not only impossible but callous and inhumane.
I have good news for you: We’re not commanded to give thanks for all circumstances but in all circumstances. And there’s a huge difference between the two. So what can we be thankful for in the middle of circumstances that are breaking our hearts? Here are a few reasons I discovered for thanksgiving, even while spending the holiday in a hospital ICU bed:
- No circumstance, no matter how horrific, will ever separate me from God’s love for me. (Romans 8:35-39)
- Even though I may feel alone, God will never leave me nor forsake me. (Deut. 31:6, Hebrews 13:5b, Matthew 28:20)
- God sees my suffering and He carries it with me. (Genesis 16:13, Matthew 11:28-30, Mark 6:34)
- Even as He weeps with me, He will ensure my suffering is not wasted. (Romans 8:28)
- And one day He will make sure I never weep again. Only joy! (Revelation 21:4)
Thanksgiving in seasons of abundance comes cheap. It’s still important, still a worthy expression of gratitude for what we’ve been given. But Thanksgiving when we have little to celebrate comes at a cost. But the payout is trust and peace.
“The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden,
her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.”
Isaiah 51:3 (NIV)
The ruins are real and mustn’t be ignored. We are not called to dance on graves as if the life we mourn wasn’t actually lost. Instead, we see the God who meets us at our graves and looks with compassion on all our ruins. When we see the love in His eyes and remember His promise to bring gardens from graves, we find a different kind of Thanksgiving, one not tied to our circumstances but wrapped up in a Savior for whom we can sing even while we weep.