We’d been home for months when this curious stranger approached me with eyes full of questions. “Where are they from?” and “Are they siblings?” and “Are they all yours?” stumbled out of her mouth. I was trying to shield little ears from hearing when she looked at my daughter and said, “Sweetheart, you must be so thankful to have a mommy like this. You sure are lucky.”
I cringed, hoping my little girl didn’t hear. Sure, she’d been adopted. We flew halfway around the world to get her. To this innocent bystander, my daughter had a bed and a doll and cute boots and a headband and could expect a meal every 3 hours. She was getting an education and could take a shower every day. She was “lucky.” Why shouldn’t she be thankful?
For many years before that bed and doll and those warm showers, my little girl went to sleep every night afraid. No one had told her the boogie-man wasn’t real. She didn’t even have a last name. The intersection of that history and ours came to mean that two strangers with skin that looked and smelled different were telling her to call them “Mommy” and “Daddy.”
Becoming a daughter meant inheriting even more questions, and different from when she was one survivor among many. Did my birth mommy’s nose wrinkle when she smiled, like mine does? Would she sing while she cooked? Did she talk to God? During these early days, thankfulness would have been an extension of luck. Airy. Light. Here today, gone tomorrow. Mere optimism, with no weight.
This woman’s well-intentioned mention of thankfulness spoke to the way we can so often short-circuit the long and painstaking work of God towards the darkest parts of our story. Thankfulness may one day come from my daughter in relation to her adoption, but she likely will need to have a brush with God—a long conversation, maybe even over years—around the pieces of her past over which she can’t give hurried praise.
There is an awkward tension that can arise, as we realize the power of speaking our gratitude towards God (despite whether or not we feel it), while yet not being able to ignore those few deeply painful parts of our story which quick praise seems only to placate.
I remember dark times of my life from which I struggled to praise him, when I couldn’t force thankfulness. Well, I could; I tried, but something within me told me that if I did I might miss what’s buried underneath.
It’s here in the deeper dark where we are invited to an emotional integrity that gives us permission to temporarily forfeit what could be hollow words of praise and be honest with ourselves, before God, about our pain—all unto a greater communion with him.
When we use words we don’t mean, and prematurely tidy-up circumstances meant to stay messy just a little bit longer so that we might scoot nearer to him, it creates a disconnect in our hearts. We start to hide before God, rather than in him.
I’m not too different from the woman at the grocery store when it comes to mess. It’s uncomfortable to look too long at my children’s history or another’s marriage that’s still struggling or a friend’s illness that’s lingered, long. We want to wrap it up. Tidy. It’s human nature to want to glance quickly at life’s brokenness in others and within ourselves. We want to force our “thankfulness” over circumstances our hearts don’t yet feel thankful for.
We miss so much in that subtle pursuit of external tidiness. Some of the mysteries of God can be tucked inside a long conversation with him about our pain and the places that hurt too much to produce gratitude at the moment.
David’s cry in Psalm 63 is bare. And guttural.
O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
Thus I will bless You while I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name
This is just one of a handful of psalms that illustrate a thirst and hunger within David that seemed to make his flesh crawl. What brought him there was mess. A wilderness much more uncomfortable than if he had just uttered a few platitudes. So much so that he became willing to sit more deeply within a state most of us pass right on through.
David sat before God, unkempt. Just like my little girl did when I found her lanky body folded up in her closet, reading her Bible and saying, “Mommy, I just want more of God”—this one who couldn’t force herself to be thankful for what we’d done for her.
And David stared at what he saw. It was that good, this tender love of God. God was that good. Hours rolled into the days and years that David sat before this God that earned his fascination. It was there that David became thankful.
For those of us with those dark places, who just can’t muster up a thankfulness over the death of our father or the loss of a child or another birthday when we go to bed alone or the fact that we can’t cover the mortgage. Again. Maybe we aren’t meant to drum it up.
Maybe he’s inviting us to crawl out of our conventional approach to him and ask to see his face. Maybe it’s time for an emotional integrity before God we haven’t yet allowed ourselves to have by quickly sweeping up the mess.
The nexus of our desire to be thankful and our inability to get there doesn’t mean something is wrong with us, but instead it is our invitation. Maybe this is a chance to be vulnerably fascinated by God into thankfulness, even if our circumstances don’t change.
Sara Hagerty is a wife to Nate and a mother of five whose arms stretched wide across the ocean to Africa. Sara is the author of Every Bitter Thing is Sweet: Tasting the Goodness of God In All Things and she writes regularly about life-delays, finding God in the unlikely, motherhood, marriage and adoption at http://EveryBitterThingisSweet.com