The Secret of Being Content in Hard Times

I spoke at The Woodlands UMC Heart of Thanksgiving Banquet this week, a time they honor the special-needs families they serve and their volunteers. Here's an abbreviated version of my encouragement to them to find thanksgiving even in hard times.

Contentment comes from resting in God’s plan for your life and having thankfulness for your circumstances. James 1:17 says "Every good gift and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (1:17). 

It's easy to see what we would consider as good and perfect gifts coming from God: good health, happy and obedient kids, pretty weather, and extra quality time with our spouses. These are all good gifts.

You may have listed what you’re thankful for this month on Facebook or around the dinner table. You probably focused on good things—the Astros winning the World Series, continued recovery from Hurricane Harvey, or an especially good meal like we had tonight. I’ve been low carb for the last few weeks and I’m especially thankful for God’s good gift of warm rolls with butter.

But we can we also consider the hard things good and perfect gifts? This is much harder. Most Texans fans didn’t give thanks when Deshaun Watson went out with his injury. We didn’t give thanks for the rising floodwaters. I struggle to give thanks for the low-carb option of steamed broccoli.

A cancer diagnosis is bad, but it can bring a feuding family together to support the person going through chemo. Losing a job is bad, but it can help you assess your priorities and guide you to making a different decision about your future.

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As hard as it is, with God’s help, we can be thankful no matter what our circumstances are. We can be content in every situation.

Here are three ways I’ve learned give thanks, even during hard times:

First, recall what God has done. We see this call to remember throughout the Old Testament: The rainbow was a promise to Noah and to us that God would never flood the entire earth again. Remember when the Israelites were wondering in the desert as they waited to enter the Promised Land? 40 years is a long time to remember what God had done to get them to that point.  Throughout Deut. they are called to remember: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” “Remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.” Deut. 7:8.

And in Joshua chapter 4, the Lord tells Joshua to select 12 stones and set up a memorial to honor God for bringing them through the Jordan River. And again in 1 Samuel 7, Samuel took a stone and named it Ebenezer, or stone of help, to remember how the Lord helped them in a battle against the Philistines. We are told to remember.

I’ve heard “Don’t be afraid” is the most frequent command in Scripture, but I’m pretty sure “Remember” would be at the top of the list of advice from God. Remembering what God has done for us in the past gives us confidence to face our current situation.

At the end of the year, lots of people make “best of” lists. The best books you read or the best movies you saw. I love those lists, but I also love making a list of what God has done in our lives that year.

Your “best of" list could include: “Remember when we weren’t sure how we were going to pay for the car to be fixed, and someone at church slipped us a check?” or “Remember when we met our neighbors after the flood and they helped us clean out?”

When the days are really hard, I remind myself that with God, we have a 100% success rate over hard days. There hasn’t been one we haven’t made it through.

Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” That good work is your salvation and sanctification, and He won’t leave that work undone. He will complete it. On the hard days, we can’t rely on how we feel. We must trust in what we know and remember.

Remembering what God has done for us in the past gives us confidence to face our current situation.

The second secret I’ve learned for contentment is to pray for eyes to see your current circumstances from His perspective. The story Joseph in the Old Testament is one of my favorites. He sets an example of suffering unjustly. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused of seducing his boss’s wife, forgotten in jail ... but then he was called on to interpret the pharaoh’s dream and was put over Pharaoh’s entire house and people so he could help them prepare for the coming drought. Those brothers who had sold him into slavery approached Joseph years later, not knowing it was him. They needed help. He reminded them, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to keep many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph could look back over decades of hardships and give thanks in them because he saw them from God’s perspective.

God Himself tells us in Isaiah,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways ...
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

When you aren’t sure what to give thanks for, ask God to help you see your circumstances from His perspective. He can show you His purpose in them.

When I was young, I remember asking my mom why God gave me a sister with Down syndrome. It’s a question many siblings ask at some point.  We prayed together and asked God to show us what He was up to. We made a list after we prayed: maybe to help me be more compassionate, or maybe to help me stick up for people who needed help, or maybe it was one of the other reasons we came up with thirty years ago or a reason I’ve learned since then.

What do we see when we look at our circumstances with His eyes? We see Him. His love. His grace. His goodness. Even when our circumstances make us doubt, the Holy Spirit living inside us shows us the truth.

Taking time to ask for God’s eyes as we view our lives helps us be thankful for our circumstances, not matter how tough they seem at the time.

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And third, the secret to contentment no matter what our circumstances are is to share with others. You may think this is the easiest advice yet, but it isn’t easy for everyone. Opening up and letting people in to our lives can be hard. But we can be brave and try again.

This summer my family and I attended the Joni and Friends family week at Camp Allen. It’s just for special-needs families. There are activities for each age of kids and times for the adults to be together and talk. I joke that no one cuts through the small talk and gets right to the point like a group of special-needs parents. To others it may even seem like we’re speaking a different language—one of acronyms like, “Our son has ASD and SPD, but he sees an SLP, OT, and BCBA.” We made fast friends there and were especially encouraged to learn from those who have kids older than ours.

When we share what’s going on in our lives it does two things: it encourages you and it encourages others. When I share what I’m going through, those who have been through similar circumstances tell me what helped them. Sometimes that’s actual resources, like the number of a doctor or a website to check out. Sometimes that’s helping me refocus on God and not my circumstances.

2 Cor. chapter 1 says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

We comfort others with the comfort we have received, and we receive comfort from those who have received comfort from God. That’s why ministries like what you have here are so important. You can look around the room and know that someone gets it because they live a similar story. I’m in a unique situation because my mom is also a special-needs parent and I grew up around her group of friends. When we got James’s autism diagnosis, I called one of my mom’s friends whose middle boy has autism (although that wasn’t what he was diagnosed with back in 1980). I had mentors because she had a circle of friends.

If you don’t feel like you have a friend like that right now, tell God that’s a desire of your heart. Ask Him to show you opportunities for friendship and connection.

Psalm 105 is a message of thanksgiving and includes each of these three points we’ve discussed: it calls us to remember His wondrous works, it reminds us to seek Him and His perspective, and it encourages us to tell others:

“Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he uttered …”
-Psalm 105:1-5

My husband often says you’re either coming out of a hard time, in a hard time, or about to enter a hard time. But when can learn to give thanks in each stage, the suffering is eased. It was true in Paul’s life, so he was able to write to the church in Philippi “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:10-12).

What can you give thanks for today? You may have walked in with a list of worries longer than your list of blessings, but I hope you’re able to reframe your thinking by looking back at what God has done, seeing your circumstances from His perspective, and sharing your story with others who will encourage you.