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

By Barbara Rainey

First posted on

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 point. It’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.


My Heart, Ever His: Prayers for Women (NEW from Barbara Rainey)

As we search for meaning in our world of shallow online relationships and glamorized selfies, many are returning to traditional and liturgical churches. The repeated words, benedictions, and historic hymns connect us to saints who have gone before, giving us a sense of belonging, richness, and transcendence. Written prayers, once cast off as archaic, are now welcomed as guides to tune our hearts to the heart of God.

In My Heart, Ever His Barbara Rainey shares 40 prayers for women. Readers can read and meditate on one prayer throughout the week or read a prayer a day for 40 days as a way to express the longing of our hearts to our Father who loves us even as he sees who we truly are. Like the psalms of David, these prayers are honest, sometimes raw. Barbara uses these transparent expressions of common female experiences to encourage us to surrender to Christ and help us see God as he is, not as we assume him to be. My Heart, Ever His provides a stepping-stone to help you become more transparent with God and discover his welcoming embrace.


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