When Hard Stuff Yields Good Things

When the kids were younger, we made a Thankfulness Tree. I unrolled our IKEA easel paper 4 feet and drew a tree in black sharpie. I cut orange, red, yellow, and green leaves from construction paper and put them in a pile. Each night of November, we added a leaf to the tree, culminating with foliage full of Thankfulness. (I was an early adopter when it came to Pinterest.) We wrote down anything the kids said. Our Thankfulness Tree listed everything from Family to Rice Crispy treats.

This year, I wrote the word “Thanks” on our chalkboard in cursive and asked the kids to write what they’re thankful for underneath. We started the other night and we’re doing pretty good. We’ve got stuff like God, planets, air, and iphones.



There is so much to be thankful for. There is so much to appreciate. Even in this scary world, there are pockets of love and light and joy and peace. So let’s give thanks. For all of it. 


Before bed, I brushed my teeth with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and clean water (after I folded two…I mean seven…loads of clean laundry in my finished basement while streaming Netflix in my comfy pants with a glass of wine). As I laid down on my mattress with a warm down blanket next to my loving husband I thought how I could go on and on and on and on.

I’m in clean clothes, on sheets that are sold according their number of threads, reading my Kindle (I am so thankful for books that arrive through the air on opalescent wings of literary fairies to this magical little device) (I am so thankful I know how to read) (I am so thankful … so thankful … so thankful…)

If I wanted, I could fill up 10 chalkboards, and even then never have enough room for all the things of thankfulness. (Dear Ann Voskamp, you started this…)

We don’t have a huge house fully furnished with pieces made by names you’d recognize. We don’t buy all the things we want, whenever we want them. We think about our purchases carefully since it turns out, money really doesn’t grow on trees. (I’m thankful for trees). (For parents who mentioned the whole money/tree conundrum way back when).

But I know, compared to the world as a whole, I have more than most. So — I am thankful. (Throw Pillows, two cars, a coffee maker).


But then my heart starts to squeeze with the pressure of acknowledging the other things.


The things that I hold in my breath and don’t want to let out. The hard things. The things we don’t talk about at Thanksgiving.

The things that are just as much (if not more) a part of my story of, and ability to, be genuinely thankful.

Like those years of living on a graduate student’s stipend, away from family, church, and our closest friends. When one bedroom and one bathroom and no dishwasher and just one closet could hold all of everything we owned. Am I thankful for those years people told us we’d remember as romantic and looked forward to leaving behind? (I’m thankful “living on love” is kind of a thing).

Because those years taught us we don’t need much, but we do need each other. When we learned making friends is harder as you get older, but necessary to feel connected. We learned to live simply, within our means, for there was no other option. They taught us to appreciate any space we owned, regardless how small, for it is a gift to welcome people into your home and call something your own. We learned how awesome dishwashers are and how we could never live with only one bathroom ever again, ever.


Am I thankful for living away from family? When cousins and aunts and great aunts and grandparents can celebrate everything from soccer games to birthday parties under one roof while we miss it all? 

But being away has taught us to cherish family near and far, and to protect the time we are together. It’s taught Chris and I to rely on each other (in a way I might not have had we lived closer) and gave us time and space to grow intertwined roots to solidify our own little family.


Am I thankful for the years I spent disconnected from God? For the years we didn’t know any better and just floated to church, never landing in or accountable to a community of believers? For the months on end (for years on end) that would go by without ever reading my Bible? Those years where I was just starving myself spiritually? 

But because of it, the reality and desire to know God has changed my life. Reading the Bible is no longer filled with guilt over “what I should” do, but there is a desire to know more and drink deep — because I’m learning who God is in it. Obedience and Surrender aren’t words that make me roll my eyes but bring me to tears. Yes, I’m thankful for those times because I get it when people say “I just don’t like church” or “Is there really a God?” or “Does any of this even matter?” 


And what if I go deeper?


Am I thankful for the brain surgery? The one that left our lives irrevocably changed?

Am I thankful for the miscarriage?

Am I thankful for my mom dying?


…   …   …   …   


What kind of insane questions are those?

The answer to each of those questions is No.


So what do I do with passages like “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances…?” (1 Thes 5:18a).


Because we all have our things, right? We all bear the crushing weight of something.

Be it finances or bullying or weight or a hard marriage or distance or heartache or loneliness or longing. It could be grief or pain or emptiness or exhaustion or diagnoses or overwhelming responsibility.


This time of year, we are so thankful for things. (Turkey crafts made from the handprint of a three year old, actual turkeys to eat, decorative turkey plates). And all of that is great.


But what about circumstances? Do I get to choose to be thankful only when times aren’t tough?

Is it fair to only be thankful for the things on which I have perspective and didn’t crush me to my core?


For me, Thanksgiving begs the questions — To whom am I giving Thanks? For what? And despite what?


Giving thanks in all circumstances…  That doesn’t mean giving for all circumstances. But in them, during them. We give thanks to a God who we trust has it all worked out (for our good) in His time. And for Him, for that good, and in that assurance, we can be thankful. Being thankful must transcend our circumstances.

And that’s not always something we can easily write on our chalkboards.


My mom’s death left me with an unfillable hole. But it left me with a tender heart. It shaped how I look at the world and my own finite life.

A year and a half ago, I asked myself, “If you died at 48, just like mom, what would you regret not doing or trying?”

In a moment of complete candor, knowing God put these desires in my heart, my answers were:

  1. writing
  2. adopting


So I started to write. (Because that’s about 4 bazillion times easier than adopting). And I was accepted into this Listen To Your Mother thing. And I started a blog. And people started reading things I wrote. And it is terrifying and beautiful – sharing my heart in this way.

And I thought, “writing is going pretty well, so maybe we should look into the other thing…” But that’s really scary, so no, let’s just chew on it a little bit longer.

But in time, Chris sharing this desire, we couldn’t stop thinking about a child who doesn’t have a mother or a father to care for them. A child we do not know, but is already growing in these tender broken hearts of ours. And it is terrifying. And beautiful – to think of sharing our hearts, our lives, in this way.


It’s almost Thanksgiving, it’s National Adoption Month, and we’re officially in the process — so it just seemed right to share. (Congrats to you, if you made it all the way to the end of this monster post.) So, here it is: we’re in the process of adopting.

It’s all very new, very overwhelming, and very unknown. But it’s right where we know we should be.

And, since we’re being perfectly honest,  I’m thankful for all that we’ve gone through that has brought us here.

Sonya Spillmann


  1. “And, since we’re being perfectly honest, I’m thankful for all that we’ve gone through that has brought us here.” Amen sister. And the journey continues unfolding! xoxo

  2. Exciting! I have so many questions; local, foreign? baby, older child? I guess I’ll wait and see. May the Lord give you strength and wisdom to pursue your dreams to His glory!

  3. Such an awesome article, I especially like the ending! Congratulations to both of you on your exciting decision to proceed with adoption!

  4. So happy for you and Chris — amazing and exciting news!!! We all have lots to be thankful for….your story is a great reminder.

  5. I love that you are on this adoption journey! It is an amazing experience!!! Super excited for you guys and praying for Jesus to be your strength every step of the way!

  6. Your mother would be so very proud of you! I know your dad must be very proud of you as well! I have been enjoying your writing very much. I worked as an RN for 41yrs and retired 5 yrs ago. I remember hearing about Chris’ brain tumor and feeling so sorry to hear it. I didn’t know about your miscarriage. We lost twin girls at 29 weeks. They lived less than 24 hrs. We were devastated but clung to the Litd and each other. God blessed us with a daughter a year later on the twins birthday even though doctors told us we would never have children. She is our miracle. God again blessed us with a son two years later. We now have 5 grandchildren. As I never got to see my twins, I long for the day I will meet them in heaven. I am so thankful to be a child of the King! God bless you and your family.

  7. Wow! Just wow! Tyler introduced me to your writing. Deep, beautiful, gut wrenching honest, well done good and faithful servant. Using your gifts and the things God has taught you through those circumstances that are so so hard. I’ve got you bookmarked. I look forward to continued reading. And as one who has adopted twice, I will be praying for your process and for that child that God long ago chose for your family. “In the fullness of time” God will open that door wide and your family will be forever changed. Susan

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