How to Face Holidays When It’s Hard to be Thankful

One spring, years ago now, Dennis and I watched other families experience all the celebratory festivities of a senior’s year in high school: proms, award nights, graduation … But our daughter, a senior that year, had decided she was done with school. At 18, she knew she was not legally bound to us anymore, so six weeks before graduation she dropped out and moved in with a friend who we barely knew.

I remember keenly the loneliness, isolation, and great sadness we felt as parents when all of our friends, many of whom we’d known since our kids were in grade school together, were all gathered happily at awards night and then at graduation. But we were home … alone. Wondering where our daughter was. Wondering if she was safe. Fear was our companion, not our friends.

I was not happy nor was I thankful. This was not what I had prayed for. This was not good for our daughter or for us.

  • So how do you face fast approaching holidays when your life is upside down?
  • What do you do when you scroll through your social media feed and see stories and photos from others and their apparently perfect days and holiday preparations?
  • When photos pop up on your phone from years ago with memories of happier days, what do you do? The reminders are painful stabs of what could have been or should have been. And it hurts.
  • How do you live in a world that portrays fairytale perfection when yours is clearly not? How do you manage graduations, birthday parties, and holidays that should be happy when your world is filled with conflict and pain?

Heartache and change are normal. “Happily ever after” is not.

First, remember this truth: We aren’t in heaven yet. We still live on a planet broken and infected with sin and death. God tells us we are “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11) on earth looking forward to a new heaven and earth where one day all will be well.” (see Hebrews 11 and Revelation 21:5). That reality will help right size any expectation of perfection or even expected happiness here and now.

Second, avoid social media during this season. Don’t give opportunities to the enemy of your soul, the devil, to cause you to compare with others who appear to have what you don’t. Instead of scrolling through images, scroll through your Bible. Do a word search on gratitude or thanksgiving or heaven to remind yourself of what is lasting. Feed your soul with eternal truth. Don’t put the junk food of social media into your heart.

Third, give thanks.  I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t feel like giving thanks, forgiving, or showing grace. But it is an imperative, a bedrock essential of belonging to our Father in heaven as His child. When I choose to give thanks for my circumstances by faith I am reminding myself of several things:

  • God is in control. My friend Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote in her new book that I highly recommend, Heaven Rules, “ … He is sovereign over everything that touches us … He is ruler over every diagnosis and prognosis, over all incomes and outcomes, over the most daunting challenges as well as the most seemingly trivial details of our lives.” God is in control is not a trite statement. It is the truth.
  • He has a plan and is working it. John Piper said at a conference I attended some years ago, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” We always only see the current minutes and hours, while God sees every tomorrow and is always working good for those who love Him. And it’s good to remember His plan for me will never look like His plan for you or anyone else. Stop comparing!
  • He can be trusted at all times. In spite of what we see and can’t see remember God sees all and is ahead of us in every circumstance. He is never surprised by those things which surprise us.

In God’s realm, giving thanks isn’t optional. It’s not okay to forego gratitude. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In every situation and circumstance, good or bad, God commands us to give Him thanks.

Thanking Him is an acknowledgement of His authority. It also realigns our thinking and our faith with what is true. Romans 8:28 tells us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

It’s likely that the working of good God intends won’t be in our timing, meaning it won’t come nearly as fast as we’d like. The change we desire might not even happen at all.

But the outcome isn’t the pointIt’s all about our hearts. Believing in Him by faith is what He desires. As 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

With Thanksgiving approaching, if the holiday feels all wrong may I encourage you to start today giving thanks for what He has allowed in your world?

Do this every day. Write a list of ways He is blessing you even when times are dark. It is good and biblical to share your hurt and pain and losses with God. He wants to hear you express it. But it’s equally important that you thank Him for all that is good.

I’ve been challenged recently to make sure my list of gratitude outweighs my list of complaints. The best way to do that is write your gratitude out in a journal or on a list on your phone. Numbers have a way of measuring objectively when our hearts are not!

God has a plan and will show you the way, but the first step to finding peace and rest in the turmoil of the now is to give thanks. Giving thanks clears the clutter in our hearts.

May you open the door to His presence by giving Him your thanksgiving.

May you experience the relief that giving thanks can bring.

May you know the peace of His presence with you in this season when it seems that everyone is happy but you.

May you trust God as never before.

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15 thoughts on “How to Face Holidays When It’s Hard to be Thankful”

  1. Please pray for my family that we would have peace in our house. There are a lot of things going on and it seems that these conflicts will never be resolved. I am getting tired of my past being brought up almost every day. Pray for me that I would surrender all to God so that I will learn to trust and depend on him. I need his peace that passes all understanding to guard my heart and mind. It’s hard to keep your heart and mind stayed on Jesus when you have someone constantly bringing up your past and putting you down in front of your kids. Please keep us in your prayers. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. “Heartache and change or normal. Happily ever after is not.” I find such peace in those short sentences. We have an adopted daughter who left home 4 years ago right after she turned 18, in the middle of her senior year, right before Christmas, too. I often ponder what I did or missed doing to prevent that…but I know it is in the Lord’s hands and pray for her and us. We have several other adult children who have rejected the Lord and I ponder and pray the same things. Thanks for reminding me to focus my thoughts on praise and thanksgiving to Him for all the grace, provision and hope He pours out when we sit at His feet with open hearts. I want that to be sufficient for me.

  3. Thank you for the wonderful encouragement to parents of wayward children. I’m a mother of a prodigal son who at the age of 17 told us he didn’t believe God existed. Thus began a tailspin of his life that has brought us so much grief the last 7 years and left me wondering where did I go wrong? I cried out to God for answers, for hope and for our son to come back into the kingdom of Light. I’ve fasted and prayed and pressed into His word like never before. God has comforted me, healed the deep pain and given me hope. But, how much longer I wonder? How much worse will it get? These are things I grapple with daily. God recently whispered to me, “can you trust me with him?”

    1. Kathy,
      I really understand. I did the same; fasting, lots of prayer and I asked the same question, “how much longer God?” Though the worst of ours lasted about 10-12 years, it’s not totally over. Today there is wide acknowledgement of chronic pain but not much on chronic grief. And long term prodigals do leave chronic grief in their path.
      Grateful you heard God speak to you. One of the blessings of this journey is the nearness of God and hearing from Him.
      Thank you for writing.

    2. The Lord is my Shepherd and shall not want. In the midst of thanksgiving I always yearn for more… I cry out to our Lord, is this enough? Have I neared enough pain to be Christian “enough”? Yet I know the ultimate sacrifice He gave—For US! One son married someone who resents us and knowing that all we ever want is family has alienated our grandchildren from us. We were not invited or told about our first grandson’s high school graduation. We live totally opposite regions of the US, and it would of taken lots of planning on our part. Another son chose a woman who on the surface appeared to be “Christian” and yet made him sign a divorce assuring we’d never have a part of their lives; naming us specifically as to never have contact with them. Our daughter lives in “sin” with her boyfriend, living “happily ever after” in a home they purchased together. No grandchildren from her—yet! I don’t believe we will ever here on this earth experience a sweet smell of grandchildren on our laps, reading to them, taking them to places. Yet, I am grateful, however painful that the three, seven years apart have a relationship and they, themselves keep in touch, even if we are alienated. God bless them, us and all those that suffer in the name of God, for we will find all our needs met because of the ultimate sacrifice of our Father made for the faithful.

      1. Dear Miriam,
        Reading your story makes me very sad for you. I know you aren’t alone either is this alienation.
        But you are clearly trusting God with this and for the work only He can do.
        May you see some breakthroughs on this side of Heaven!

  4. Thank you Mrs Rainy. I use to listen to Dennis on Family Life today. I have several of your books. I often go to God complaining that my kids did not turn out the way I expected.With tears reading your article, I realized others are going through similar disappointments. I thought certain families had it all together but it’s not always so.Thanks so much for sharing.May God bless you and family.Happy Thanksgiving to you all who have heavy hearts.God is Faithful.

    1. Ann,
      Thanks for writing and I’m grateful to dispel the myth that some families have it all together. The truth is none do except in perfectly posed photos. ALL of us are broken with sin and ALL families suffer from the fallout of that sin.
      May you rest in the Savior who longs to restore more than we mamas long for and He can do what we can’t to make that happen in His timing!

      1. Thank you so much for that! I am sitting here crying with relief as that is exactly what I needed to hear at this moment. The replies to this article are very incouraginging also. May God bless your ministry as you have just blessed me!

  5. Thank you so much for this. I had been rolling this very concern around in my mind. I just wasn’t sure if the holidays would be hard this year. Your blog was a blessing to read with very practical ways to help me during this season. I really appreciate your heart to share and encourage others in Christ. Thank you so very much!

  6. Such a timely word! Thank you so so much!
    I have become a regular recorder of things each day I am thankful for – even simple things like the beauty of the turning leaves or a sweet unexpected “God wink” that despite the things undone. That practice has been a total game changer. He is very much in control. And He even welcomes me to come to Him with my sadness and heavy heart. He is ever attentive to everything that concerns me and those I love!

  7. Thank you, Barbara. And I’m shouting thank you to God in my heart right this minute as your words and His timing couldn’t be more perfect for what’s going on in my life right now with my oldest adult daughter. There is a divide between us like I never would have imagined. I am so very saddened by the situation. I have and will continue to turn to God for help and I will now add thanks and blessings to the prayer journal I have begun already. Your words alone are a huge blessing to my heart this very day. Thank you. And I thank God because I know He has heard my pleas and sees my pain.

    1. Barbara,
      I’m so glad my post on ‘hard to be thankful’ was helpful to you today. Though we who are facing challenging relationships often feel alone, especially around the holidays, we are probably the majority if the truth were known.
      May God provide for you what you need in this hard season with a loved daughter and may He heal the broken places soon for His glory and praise! Grateful with you that God sees and feels our pain!

    2. Barbara, I sure am thankful for women, like you, who share their stories and the things they’ve learned along the way. I needed to hear this today. To God be the glory for how he uses us to comfort one another in our trying times.

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