One of the down sides of having something you perceive to be “impossible” happen for you at a young age, is that it becomes pretty easy to believe that “impossible” things will become possible for you just because you write them down and want them to happen.
I think for years I believed (still do sometimes, when I forget that I know better) if I just wanted something enough, willed it into my life, it would happen. Then, when those things did happen, not knowing any better, I’d call it “karma” or “dumb luck” or a “blessing.” And as long as life continued on, more or less as I planned for myself, than it was easy for me to continue believing that way.
The problem came, though, when suddenly life was not going according to my plan. People I loved died for no reason, friends turned on me, distance came between me and the ones I loved. What was I to make of my “dumb luck”, then? Was this what I’d willed for myself somehow? And, if so, how could I will it away?
Very often, for most of us, it is in these more desperate hours that we turn to God. What do I have to lose?, we reason. And so we try our hand at prayer. We hope that the Being we are praying to somehow picks up on our invisible “smoke signals” of desperation and makes things right for us. But until then, we have to live with the unknown. Which can feel a lot like suffering.
But then eventually, somehow, in a way we can’t explain, things do get better for us. Easier somehow. Is it time that has healed our hurts? we wonder. Is it maturity? Wisdom? We don’t really know, but life is suddenly good again, so we do not question. We simply pick up the pieces and move on. Hoping for the best, once again. Perhaps a little more cautious now, but moving forward all the same.
And that’s a shame.
Not that we move forward, or that we remain hopeful, but that we Do. Not. Question.
On a spiritual level, if we do not begin to question our own thinking at some point, especially when life is “good,” then it becomes really easy to say that either God does not matter at all because he has no part in anything we do, or contrarily, that when we make “good” choices God “rewards” us for them, and when we make “bad” God “punishes” us for those.
Because I’d been brought up a “believer,” I never really considered not “believing. ” Instead, my belief system for years was more that of “reward and punishment.” I was especially mindful of it in college and my early adult years. I’d go to church to “earn God’s favor,” and I’d find life looking up for me. Then I’d get cocky or bored or self-righteous, stop going to church for a while (which for me was virtually the only time I would pray), and eventually find myself struggling again. The problem with this kind of thinking is that this makes God moody and vindictive. A God who wants for us what is good, only when we ourselves have earned that goodness. A God who then punishes us unless and until we can figure out where we went wrong. This is very often the God we are introduced to as children in nearly any Old Testament story: God creates the world and it is good. Woman (and man) makes a wrong choice, therefore they are punished. They begin to make better choices, life gets better. The world they populate continues to make bad choices, so God sends a flood to wipe the earth clean. It goes on and on.
Hopefully all of us at some point, reach a time in our lives when we are forced to ask, Is this really the God I believe in? One who gets great joy out of watching me walk through a minefield of missteps and explosions only applauding me when I’ve avoided the mine? And if we don’t ask different questions, force ourselves to see a bigger picture–ask God to show us a bigger picture– we can all too easily think this is how we are meant to live. As if God is some sort of Master Programmer who insists on making us guess the rules of the game. The problem here is that, if we don’t question Who it is we believe in, we might easily end up believing in a God whose love we must earn, and we forget entirely about the God who from the very beginning “looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” (Gen 1:31)
For me, it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I finally began to ask the bigger questions. Suddenly, I had to take into account what I would teach my children about God. And I had to take into account how I felt about my children, and weigh that against what I believed God felt about me — one of His children. This helped me grow a bit and see that while, yes, I do punish my children from time to time for making bad choices, I also –most of the time, in fact–am simply content to let them be, discover, learn and grow on their own. They do not have to earn my love. Ever. Because, as the famous movie line goes, “They had me at hello.” And if I, in my fallen human state, can feel this kind of love for my children, I reasoned, then how much greater must God’s love be for me? For us all?
The journey becomes easier then, when we change to that mindset. Suddenly, from this perspective we realize that the question is not “What did I do to deserve this suffering?,” but rather, “Have I ever done anything to deserve any part of my life–good or the bad?”
And the seed of gratitude is planted.
Gratitude is often the “cure” for just about anything that ails us. In a state of gratitude, I am reminded that nothing is promised me. Not wealth. Not fortune. Not fame. Not motherhood. Not marriage. Not success. Not recognition. Not power. Not wisdom. Not even My. Next. Breath.
It’s all a gift. Freely given.
From the vantage point of gratitude, I can see that while I’m disappointed because I’m not getting what I want right now, at the same time, I can see all the things I’ve been given up until now that I also didn’t deserve.
For me this makes God a much more lovable Being. A Being worth believing in. Someone with whom I really wouldn’t mind spending all of eternity.
That is the pilgrim’s journey that I am celebrating this holiday.
It is the best and only way I know to honestly “give thanks.”