In honor of Thanksgiving, I am honored to give you this guest post from someone who came alongside me in my writing and really saw me. My writing (and my life) owe so much to him. More than that, he lived out his story in front of me, at a time when there was beauty and also great brokenness. Please welcome my professor and my friend, Dr. Aaron Housholder.
It’s tempting when talking about theology and related topics to try to sound sophisticated (especially because I have a “Dr.” before my name). And yet there are times – perhaps more often than not – when what I need to hear is a simple message. That is the case here. I need to start with this simple premise:
God is good.
I want to think about God’s goodness, though, in a manner that runs counter to my natural inclination. As we approach Thanksgiving, it is common for us to make lists of things we’re thankful for. This is a worthwhile endeavor, one designed to highlight God’s blessings in our lives and to remind us how humble we should be in light of His bounty. I’m all for this practice. Except, as I’ll explain below, when this practice leads us into the trap that lies just below the surface of those thankfulness lists. It is that trap that makes the simple three-word premise above worthy of deeper consideration.
I live about thirty-five minutes away from the university at which I teach. During my morning commute I have ample opportunity to listen to loud rock music (in order to wake up) and also, more importantly, to pray. My typical morning prayer tends to take the form of a list, or rather two: a list of praises and a list of requests. For quite some time now I have praised God for my lovely wife, who’s healthy and loving and engaged in meaningful work; for my son, who’s almost nine and nearly five feet tall and about as sweet in temperament as anyone could ask for; for my daughter, who’s evidently so remarkably intelligent that the limitations inherent to being two drive her completely nuts (this is how I spin her tantrums); for my university and the amazing job I have there; for the students I get to work with and love, the colleagues I get to work with and love, the home I live in, and in general for the fulfilling life God has given me. And then I make my requests: for health and safety for my wife and kids; for the grace to be a good husband, a good father, a good professor and colleague and friend; and for the wisdom and diligence to do my job well in order that God might be glorified in the work I do.
What strikes me about my typical prayers in this season of my life is that the two lists – the praises and the requests – pretty well match. I’m not currently in “need” of anything I don’t have. Two items that have populated the request list in the last year or so, my dissertation and my tenure process, are both done. My kids are healthy for the most part. My wife and I are healthy. Nothing is ever perfect in this world, of course, but generally my family is in a really good season. We are blessed.
It is easy, therefore, to look at my lists, to note how they match, and to say: Wow. God is good.
And therein lies the trap. It’s a subtle one, certainly, because God really is good, and these blessings really do come from Him. But when I look at the lists and say “God is good,” there is an implicit “therefore” right before the declaration. That is a problem.
I’ve suddenly made God’s goodness contingent on my presently happy circumstances.
What message am I sending with that “therefore” to someone whose circumstances are different than mine? If I have a colleague who is struggling with some issues in the classroom, for example, what message do I convey if I share how happy I am with my students and say, “Therefore, God is good”?
Let’s say I have a student in my office who’s struggling academically or socially or spiritually or financially at my university. What message do I give this student if I say, “Wow, God is good and this place is such a blessing to me”?
If I were to say to my program assistant in the English department, “You know, my family is healthy and happy and (therefore) God is good,” what implicit statement have I made to her since she, in the last fifteen months, has lost both a son and a sister?
In all of these cases, by aligning God’s goodness with my present happiness, have I not suggested, “God is good, at least to me, but maybe not so much to you”? I’m about one step away in that moment from becoming one of Job’s friends. “God has turned His back on you,” I seem to suggest in that scenario. Is this really what I want to imply? And I’m about two steps away from saying, “Live rightly and God will give you good stuff.” Is this where we want to go?
Perhaps most disturbingly, by positioning my present blessings as evidence of God’s goodness, what statement have I made about other seasons of my own life? If I tell myself that things are good right now and therefore God is good, I make the implicit claim that back when things weren’t so good, God wasn’t so good either. That’s a rather capricious god I’ve drawn there, a god drawn (I might add) in my own image. I have no business serving that particular god.
In the Fall of 2011, I was invited by my campus pastor to speak in chapel. It was to be the last chapel before Thanksgiving break. Three of us were invited to share a five-minute testimony about what God had done in our lives that year and what we were thankful for. I declined the invitation for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
My name was brought to the attention of the campus pastor because, about a month before the invitations went out, my wife and I were blessed with the birth of our daughter. It was obviously a time of joy and thanksgiving; it was not surprising that I would be considered a good candidate to offer a testimony. And when I first saw the invitation, I thought it would be an easy commission to fulfill – I could certainly stand in front of everyone and gush about the beauty of my baby girl, the miracle she was, the way she completed our family, the way her older brother doted on her, and so on and so on. Keeping it to five minutes might have been a challenge, actually. (For the record, I can still go on and on about her. If you meet me in person, be careful what you ask – you’ll never get those minutes of your life back.)
But I declined the invitation because my thankfulness for my daughter was more complicated than I was ready to reveal in front of 1800 people in chapel. Yes, I had a tangible example of God’s goodness. Yes, my daughter was a blessing to us. But there was so much more to it.
The year before, in January of 2010, my wife and I were similarly blessed with the birth of a baby, our son Benjie, but Benjie passed away unexpectedly during delivery. He was classified as stillborn. We spent three days in the hospital while my wife recovered from her emergency C-section. During those days, we held our baby boy, cried over him, cradled him and rocked him. We showed him off to family and friends who came to visit. We had his picture taken. We signed papers. We were given a memory box filled with mementos of his birth. We hugged the doctors and nurses and cried with them. We did all the things people normally do with a newborn baby, except the tears weren’t happy tears, and at the end of those three days, we went home and he didn’t come with us. We next saw him at his funeral. In the meantime we had to comfort our older son, then five years old, because he never got to meet the little brother he’d wanted so much, and we had to take down the crib and disassemble our nursery and figure out how to wake up and face each new day.
And you know what? I’m not thankful for that. For any of it. There’s nothing I’ve just said that would ever make a list of blessings I’d call part of God’s bounty.
I declined the invitation to speak in chapel because I didn’t want to wrestle with this in front of 1800 people. I didn’t want to express my thankfulness for my daughter and in doing so accidently imply, “Well, NOW God is good to us. Last year, not so much.” I didn’t want anyone to think that the birth of my daughter took away the pain from the loss of my son, that somehow she was a replacement child who made everything all better. I didn’t want to stand there beaming, looking happy and whole, when I felt the former but not that latter. It was too complicated – in fact, it is still too complicated – to fit my son’s death and my daughter’s birth into the same conceptual framework. I don’t have the eternal perspective needed to make these things make sense.
But: God is good. He’s good even when things don’t make sense, even when things don’t go well. He sustained us through the loss of our son in ways that still blow my mind. He surrounded us with loving family and friends and medical people whose compassion and care cushioned us in those hardest of days. He opened the door for us to create the Benjie Fund, which has helped so many families in our community who have suffered similar loss. He’s given us lifelong friends as a result of those events. He has strengthened us through the grieving process and allowed us to minister to others through our experience. He is good, even if the midst of all that’s bad.
When we equate God’s goodness with a list of things we’re thankful for – when, indeed, we designate His goodness as the “therefore” conclusion of that list – we miss out on half of His character. It is an easy trap to fall into, especially because we fall into it innocently enough by trying to express our thanks for what He has given us. But by making God’s goodness contingent, we suggest that His goodness changes, and therefore we deny that He is good in good times AND in bad. We must know better than this.
I mentioned earlier that my typical prayer on the way to school each morning consists of a list of praises and a list of requests. On certain days, however, I have found myself unable to say that prayer. On those days, I can’t articulate the words. My voice is broken by grief, by the struggles of daily life, by a crushing sense of my own unworthiness. On those days – and there have been quite a few since January, 2010 – my prayer is very short: I whisper, “Father, today, please hold me in your arms.”
And His answer to that prayer each time I pray it is this: He holds me in His arms and says, “I am God. Don’t worry about anything.”
What I need constantly to bear in mind is that when I pray my usual prayer of lists, His answer is the same: He holds me in His arms and says, “I am God. Don’t worry about anything.” His goodness and Godliness do not change.
Sometimes His goodness feels like easy answers to an habitual prayer list, and sometimes it feels like a surge of sustaining grace on a day in which I can barely move. But the perception of that difference lies wholly in me. His goodness remains the same. When God describes Himself in the Old Testament, it’s always in the present tense: “I AM,” he says, or, “I am God.” He tells the psalmist to be still and to know that. He is ever-present, ever-good. It makes sense, then, that He says in the New Testament that He will never leave us and never forsake us. We read that as a promise, but it feels to me more like a statement of God’s identity: He is present-tense God. He’s can’t really go anywhere or turn His back on us because He IS, and because He is God, and because He is good. His goodness is no more contingent on my present circumstances than His nearness to me is contingent on my sensing Him. He is here, and He is good, whether or not I know His bounty or feel His presence.
In this Thanksgiving season, I want us as Christians to be as fully aware of His goodness as we fallen humans can be. Yes, we should make lists of things we’re thankful for, and yes, we should be humbled by those lists and praise God for His blessings. But we should not examine our lists and conclude that “therefore, God is good.” He’s good, yes, but He’s good whether your list this year is two items long or two hundred. Instead of drawing the faulty conclusion that implies a fluctuation in God’s goodness, I want to add God’s goodness as a separate item on my list, an item for which I am thankful in its own right. And if you would do that too, then we could find common ground on our lists, regardless of their relative lengths, a common ground that defeats any notion that God’s goodness might be more abundant for one of us. Let’s be thankful this year, no matter what blessings we claim or struggles we face, that we serve a faithful God whose love is constant and whose goodness is absolute. Let us be still as we give whatever thanks we can, and let us know that He is God, and that He is good.
Dr. Aaron J. Housholder is an Assistant Professor of English at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, where he has taught creative writing and literature since 2007. He resides in Anderson, Indiana with his wife, Suahil, and their two children, Scottie and Alivia. You can read his work on parenting, faith, real life, and whatever else he happens to be thinking about on his blog Being Still. You can also find him on Twitter.