This Thanksgiving, I’m Thankful for Difficult People

The surprising context for the holiday Lincoln instituted is a good reminder to us today.
This Thanksgiving, I’m Thankful for Difficult People
Image: Scott Webb / Unsplash

In the fall of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued two landmark statements. You probably know about the first—the famous Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln commemorated the battlefield of Gettysburg. At Gettysburg, Lincoln called the nation to remember the sacrifice of the fallen and to redouble its commitment to the cause of freedom.

The other statement, made just weeks before, may be a bit more surprising. On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln instituted the first official Thanksgiving holiday.

Lincoln wrote, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that [the gracious gifts of the Most High God] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” Thus Lincoln set apart the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father.” Apparently, in the midst of the worst war our nation had ever seen, Lincoln thought the time was ripe for gratitude.

We may be tempted to think Lincoln’s statement of gratitude was inappropriate, naïve, or even offensive. Reading the entire text of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, however, disabuses the modern reader from the conclusion that he had (somehow) forgotten about the Civil War. Lincoln candidly addressed the horrors of the Civil War, a war “of unequaled magnitude and severity” that had transformed tens of thousands of Americans into “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.” But he coupled this hardship with hope, recognizing the hand of God guiding him through the valley of the shadow of death.

Conflict and gratitude. Hardship and hope. Lincoln wasn’t confused. He was seeing thanksgiving through a biblical lens.

Bear With One Another … And Be Thankful

The apostle Paul, writing to the believers in Colossae, combines the ideas of conflict and thanksgiving in a familiar passage:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Col. 3:12–15, ESV)

Whenever Paul piles up short imperatives like this, it can be easy to miss the freight behind each command. For those of us overly familiar with “church talk,” we fly over lists like these. Kindness, I’ve heard that one. Humility, that one, too. Meekness, check. Patience, check. On we go down the list, nodding along in passive agreement. Mentally, we begin to reduce Paul’s commands down to “God wants us to be nice.”

And we miss the difficult, counter-cultural, toe-stomping challenge Paul is actually giving.

You see, none of what Paul says here is enjoyable in practice. To grow in patience, we must be in situations that require patience. To grow in meekness, we must be in situations that require submission—and we must choose submission, too. To forgive, we must be wronged, and then we must choose to extend grace anyway. And if “humility” sounds like “humiliation” to you, you’re actually not too far off the track.

What Paul is commending here isn’t a list of warm fuzzies. It’s not a manual for “how to be nice.” It’s a list of virtues that, when actually lived out, does not feel nice at all. It’s a manual for loving the most difficult people in our lives. It’s an invitation to do what every fiber of our being tells us not to do—to lean into conflict, and to do so from a posture of weakness. The world tells us to be strong and self-assured. Paul, instead, tells us to be small and self-forgetful.

But do not miss how Paul closes this passage. The difficult commands come to a close with the seemingly random, “And be thankful.” Just as Lincoln saw gratitude in the context of conflict, so here does Paul. Paul recognizes that our messy relationships are an opportunity for sanctification, and as such, they are a gift from God. Our natural response to conflict is to ask God, “Why?” Or perhaps to contemporize our favorite imprecatory psalm. But Paul tells us our response ought to sound less like “How long, O Lord?” and more like “Thank you.”

Our society finds this perspective absurd. Thus we gravitate toward people like us and avoid people who bother us. We commend people who “do not suffer fools gladly,” meaning (in biblical terms) that we think it folly to bear with others. Forbearance and patience have never been natural, of course, but the pressures of our modern society seem primed to make even the most common opportunities to practice these virtues disappear. Spouses leave each other for “incompatible differences.” Neighbors live for years without meeting—let alone knowing or arguing with—the people living within 100 feet of their houses. Friendships tend to follow lines of affinity: Republicans do not have Democrat friends (and vice versa); those who affirm LGBT relationships do not have church friends who don’t (and vice versa). And whatever friendships we do have, often built upon the common ground of ease, threaten to evaporate with startlingly little pressure.

Sociologists are uniform in their dismal assessment of friendship in our current societal moment. What they often struggle with is an antidote. We know that friendship is difficult. But we don’t know how to get the motivation to pursue friendship anyway.

There’s a clue in Paul’s words to the Colossians. His commands are not aimed at all people but at the renewed people of God. The basis of unity in the church is not affinity but the blood of Jesus. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). Only when we recognize ourselves as members of the family of God can we drum up the courage to bear with one another in love. It takes the Spirit of God and the power of the gospel to make us humble, patient, and meek. We can only approach others in weakness because God, in Christ, became weak for us.

So we know the motivation and power for enduring conflict with others. But the question still remains: How exactly am I supposed to be thankful for this?

The Trouble with “X”

C. S. Lewis points the way forward in a short essay, “The Trouble with ‘X,’” originally printed in God in the Dock. “X” represents your coworker, spouse, mother-in-law, or friend. And X is endlessly difficult. What’s worse, every time you have tried to confront X, you have found your hopes and dreams “shipwrecked on the old, fatal flaw in X’s character … on X’s incurable jealousy, or laziness, or touchiness, or muddle-headedness, or bossiness, or ill temper, or changeableness.”

We hate these conflicts with X. They do not inspire us to feats of great love. And they certainly do not make us grateful for the opportunity to love. But as Lewis points out, these conflicts can open our eyes to see as God sees.

God, after all, has had this experience far more than we have. He has seen hopes and dreams shipwreck on the fatal flaws of his creatures for centuries. He knows just how miserable X is. But he knows something else, too. Or, rather, someone else. As Lewis puts it, God “sees one more person of the same [difficult] kind—the one you never do see. I mean, of course, yourself.”

It is a great leap of insight to realize that we, too, have shipwrecked the hopes and dreams of others; that we have a fatal flaw that we excuse reflexively, even when confronted about it; that we are often the thorn in the sides of others. We might say, “If it’s as bad as all that, why hasn’t anyone said anything?” But they have. Often. And usually, if we are honest, we have responded with pride, impatience, and resistance. In other words, with the exact opposite prescription that Paul gives in Colossians 3.

Our blindness to our own sin, however, does more than merely hamper our sanctification. It also kills thanksgiving. The more we latch on to the difficulties other people bring into our lives, the less likely we are to thank God for those people. We might still try thanking God for them. But it becomes a labor. Deep down, we are not grateful that God has brought these difficult people into our lives. We wish that he would fix them a little quicker. We wish he would bring them around less often. We wish we had more friends who were “givers” and fewer friends who were “takers.”

We wish, we wish, we wish. How far removed is that attitude from that of thanksgiving, which looks not at the good that could be but at the good that is. How blind is that attitude to that of Paul and Lewis and Lincoln, who remind us that our greatest problems are never enemies “out there” but enemies “in here,” in our own hearts. How foreign is that attitude for Christians, men and women who have been forgiven at such great cost to our loving Lord.

The path to gratitude does not begin with a discipline of looking for the good. That is the fruit, but the root is the initially morbid decision to own our own blackened hearts. I have been the inflexible person requiring patience from my coworkers. I have been the insensitive person requiring forgiveness from my spouse. I have been the difficult person requiring countless other people in my life to “bear with me” in love.

The crazy thing is, they have done this. In the community of God, these miraculous moments of grace happen every day. My closest friends have seen me at my worst and, like the God they follow, have chosen to love me anyway. Your friends have done the same for you. They have clothed themselves in love, covering a multitude of your sins. This is one reason conflict and gratitude are able to keep such close company. In godly conflict, I am both a giver and a receiver of grace. Thank God.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for “difficult people”; thankful for the moments that require patience, humility, and meekness; thankful for the inter-personal friction that I usually want to avoid. Because in those moments, I remember the mercy of God—and of others—toward me.

Chris Pappalardo, PhD, is a researcher, editor, and writer at The Summit Church. He is also the coauthor of One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (2015).

May
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