February 5, 2020

Pain and Satisfaction: A Package Deal

Gary Thomas — 

Our friends started speaking even before we sat down at the restaurant. We hadn’t seen them for a number of months, and the wife had obviously been saving this up: “We know exactly what your next book needs to be!”

I hear this statement all the time, but their exuberance made me curious, so I asked, “Okay, what?”

“You need to write a book on how absolutely awful and horrible it is to raise adult children. Nobody warned us it would be this painful.”

We all laughed but they were only half joking. Unfortunately for them, they caught us in a very sentimental time (the birth of our first grandchild) that made it difficult to relate. One of the most meaningful moments of my life was watching my son sing “Amazing Grace” over my eight-week-old granddaughter as he put her to sleep. The layers of love—your son and your granddaughter and your God in one glorious, intimate moment—blew my emotional radar all the way out of my heart.

But later an older woman at my church pulled me aside to bring me out of my sentimental reverie. “Just enjoy those grandchildren when they’re babies,” she said, almost as a warning.

“Why do you put it that way?” I asked.

“They become teenagers.”

I get the pain most parents of adult children feel. I’ve seen young adult children raised by godly parents resent the faith-filled example they were given. I’ve seen parents who sacrificed on many levels watch those children as adults sabotage every privilege, seemingly determined to create misery for themselves, perhaps not even realizing the grief this brought their parents.

I also know a very dear couple who lost their only child in college, and now must endure the graduation, marriages, and child-bearing of all his friends, no doubt forever wondering what would have happened if their son had not died, reminded on a daily basis of the deepest loss they have ever known. They’re facing this challenge so bravely it makes me want to cry. They haven’t withdrawn from young people—they’ve moved forward, and their faith challenges me daily.

There are few couples who haven’t experienced a mix of the above—some of the richest feelings and intimacy they’ve ever known (when you lay your cheek against your grandchild’s head and know there is nowhere else on earth you’d rather be) accompanied by heartbreak they couldn’t even imagine (“Given the way we raised them, how could they do this to us?” “Why would God allow them to die at such a young age?”).

Maybe we’re too polite to talk about how much we are hurting to each other. Some time ago, I blatantly lied to someone’s face, a person I hadn’t seen in years. They were in a rush and asked how things were in a particular area as they were moving out the door and of course I said “great,” but it was one of the worst mornings I had had in that regard in a long time. I could have said, “It’s polite of you to ask and I know you’re in a rush, so let’s just pretend everything is fine and we’ll catch up another time” but other people were there and I reacted on instinct.

Maybe we’re not honest with each other because we want to protect our children’s reputations. I get that, though I hope every parent and every adult child has a few safe, redemptive places where they can process their grief.

Whatever is behind our reluctance to admit that those end-of-year Christmas letters listing all the wonderful things we’ve experienced in the past twelve months have more omissions than a Ponzi scheme account book, Christian parenting reminds us that the best things in life come in packages of joy and grief. It’s a two-part deal. In this good but fallen world, we can’t have one without the other. Accomplishments, by definition, require sacrifice to achieve. Eternal salvation requires earthly death. Adorable puppies become old, arthritic dogs before they break our hearts by dying all too soon. And the kids who exploded our hearts with such joy and tenderness find new and creative ways to usher us into dark valleys of fear and anguish we wish we had never known.

That’s life in a good and fallen world. God created this world and called it “good.” Capitalizing on the weakness of women and men, Satan perverted this good world and is going to make us pay for living in it and enjoying it.

Sometimes it’s pain that leads to our greatest joy rather than the reverse. I spoke at a church recently where two different moms told me astonishingly similar stories: they had both been praying for their young adult sons for years only to have their worst fears realized when both sons were arrested and sent to prison. Yet in both cases, one son radically renewed his faith while he was in prison and the other son found faith in prison. Both moms said the same thing: “What I thought was the worst thing that could happen became the best thing that could happen.”

Where does this leave us as parents? Hold on to every good moment. Worship God for each one. Savor every second. But don’t be greedy. Because the world is broken, we can’t have a little “good” without a little “fallen.”

What makes a delicious meal taste especially good? Being hungry. This is a curious world where the highest satisfaction sometimes requires a little pain. Pain and satisfaction are a package deal. Don’t let the pain pull you from God; let it help you find satisfaction in God. Faithful believers are those who embrace and endure the pain and thank God for the satisfaction rather than resent the pain and take the satisfaction for granted.

In other words, let’s not be toward God like adult children can sometimes be toward us! 

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9 responses to Pain and Satisfaction: A Package Deal

  1. Pure gold of wisdom here Gary. As a parent of 4 adult sons – all married and one adult daughter still single and so deeply longing for marriage and children, and the Gigi to 4 grandsons and one on the way – you have hit in great truth here. Just this week, i was challenged at church with one of the best sermons on waiting I have ever heard and the reality that we must release our “preferred” outcomes and focus on the Lord and place all our trust in Him. No small task with our adult kids. I agree with your friend – would love your next book to be on this!

  2. God has blessed you with such great wisdom, Gary. This was wonderful.

  3. Years ago when my daughters were teens (13-14 years) I had a great friend with a wonderful sense of humor about life with her 7 children. We were able to be honest about our fears and struggles and victories as well. One day she was telling me about a conversation with one of her teen daughters going through some very trying times and making poor decisions. Her daughter said to her one day, “I am so tired of you telling ‘everyone’ about me!” Her mom said back to her, “You are the one that has complete control over what I tell my friends.” :-))

  4. Great article, thank you for writing it. Hope your friend isn’t disappointed it’s a blog, not a book! I can relate with the prison story. I look back at cancer as the best thing that ever happened to me because it brought me back to a relationship with Jesus! I agree that the pain makes me who I am. I sometimes wonder how we’ll “grow” when we’re with Jesus is there’s no pain to teach us! Just something I think about.

  5. Sometimes it’s the other way around, the parent becomes increasingly difficult to deal with and it sometimes comes to a point where you have to walk away as I did ; my parent became very manipulative, just mean, abusive to others physically and mentally and just miserable to be around. I endured her behavior for many years only to get healing when I stepped away and she no longer has a relationship with my family;

    • Bianca,

      True. It was just the opening anecdote with our friends that turned the post toward parenting.

  6. Thanks so much Gary. We are entering a new season which my husband and I need prayer for. Dear Lord help us to grab onto the moments of joy against the backdrop of pain and sadness. Thank you LORD for using this man to minister to so many.

  7. So true. I’ve heard the saying, “We grow in the valleys,” but that’s not necessarily something helpful to say to someone who is IN the valley. Or that we all have them. I just finished a book, Carry On, by Lisa Fenn. It’s a true story including a young man who lost both legs in a train accident and felt it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. Yet, it eventually led to his best friend and then meeting Lisa, who did an ESPN feature story on the two of them, and then an outpouring of help which lifted him out of a ghetto life and gave him a college education and a new and renewed family. So……………….. Thank you, Gary, for all you do. Wonderful article. I will share it.

  8. WOW!!! What a true post. Thank you for the word pictures. They touched my heart very deeply. There was an article in The Miami Herald that quoted Leonard Pitts saying of the news; “I know that we want a world without suffering and loss, but that would also be a world without healing, without joy, and without redemption. Each one gives meaning to the other.” Our Precious Father, the maker of heaven and earth, said that He would work ALL things together for our good if we would love Him and do His will. My life has not been easy, but I have found God’s truth to be the most REAL, in the challenging times. Praise the Lord for His faithfulness. Thank you for sharing so beautifully. I am praying for you.