In my gratitude journal, you will not find the words “back pain” or “dead air conditioner in the mini-van.” And even though I have read (and re-read) the Beatitudes, I am in a season of mourning deeply over the advancing dementia of a dear friend — and I’m not feeling the least bit blessed by it.
Clearly, my perspective needs adjusting, and, according to author Mark Yaconelli, I am not alone. As a society, we are intolerant of anything that reminds us that we are not in control, and, instead of viewing failure, disappointment, loss, or frustration as gifts which open our hearts to the caring ministry of others and the heightened spiritual insights that come from a closer following, we become disoriented, cynical, shame-filled, or resentful toward our difficulties.
Even so, The Gift of Hard Things with its gritty and delightful truth-telling makes no claim to spiritual alchemy — there are no magical words that will convert suffering into joy. Even so, Yaconelli’s stories offer a thin place where the gap between my desire to avoid suffering at all cost and God’s desire to use it to deepen my capacity for love and generosity stops feeling so wildly uncrossable.
I was captivated by Mark’s prayer service disaster story: his careful preparation, his thoughtful attention to every detail, and his thorough marketing of the new campus ministry. How could it be that not one college student — not one! — ever attended that service? The disappointment of a ministry-crash-and-burn flies in the face of all my pat answers about God. Mark’s too:
“Deep down, we believe if we pray, follow the Ten Commandments, and work hard, God will grant us a successful life.”
He admits,”My life has never matched my expectations,” and even though the prayer service continues three years later (sans college students), the experience was primarily a lesson in spiritual poverty and an invitation to examine his expectations for their source: culture? family? personal need? It is only through a long re-learning that we may begin to sit in gratitude for what has been given, but it is the path away from disappointment and resentment.
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century social reformer, wrote:
“God sends ten thousand truths, which come about us like birds seeking inlet; but we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away.”
Without a doubt, a goodly portion of God’s ten thousand truths come in the form of suffering. I miss the point of the song He is trying to sing into my life when I concentrate on simply getting through the trial without looking for the lyrics of healing that are carried on the melody of affliction. The aim of The Gift of Hard Things is for readers to find in the gift of difficult people, in the blessing of disappointment, or in the bracing realization of our own brokenness the reality of being met in the midst of that frailty with a strength that is not our own. It is only in this strength that I am able to rejoice in the truth that God is fluent in the language of lament. His psalm-singers have given us the lyrics, and the human condition provides the material. By faith, we add our stories to the narrative flow, and by grace we are used of God to reveal that the very things that catch us off guard have actually been placed in our path with a purpose.
In choosing to believe the truth of this, my story is altered, because even when my circumstances careen out of control, I still get to choose “whether [my] helplessness draws [me] toward or away from prayer.” Mark goes on to say that we get to “choose whether our grief deepens our empathy or sours us into resentment. We get to choose whether to allow the difficulties we have suffered to break or expand us.” With this wisdom, I am encouraged to point my divining rod toward Hope, and to hang on for the journey of discovering grace where I least expect it.
This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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