The Gift of Hard Things – Finding Grace in Unexpected Places
Yaconelli, M. (2016). The Gift of Hard Things – Finding Grace in Unexpected Places. IVP Books.
Amazon link here.
2023 is moving fast – and we are tired. It seems the world has been in a race to re-gather while eager to maintain all the innovations necessitated by Covid-19. It is often a heavy lift and one we are unsure we can, or even should, sustain. The pandemic is officially declared over – in the U.S., and yet hardships abound. How do we make peace with what is difficult to bear?
In The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places (2016), Mark Yaconelli, founder, and executive director of The Hearth, a non-profit dedicated to building community through transformational storytelling, offers an insightful and deeply moving meditation on what he calls the “alchemy of grace.”
Yaconelli opens his work by inviting readers to not only “accept difficulty as a natural part of the spiritual life” but to lean into and be transformed by the opportunities that challenges can offer receptive learners. The book is structured around what the author sees as the ten gifts of hard things: Burnout; Disappointment; Difficult People; Brokenness; Anger; Powerlessness; Loss; Suffering; Darkness; and Death. In each chapter, readers can open themselves to stories of grace, always unearned, finding solace and support within the pages. Yaconelli ends every section with practices to alchemize the spirit, categorized by what invites reflection and action.
Mark Yaconelli is a gifted writer. It does not surprise me that he receives high praise from acclaimed author Anne Lamott. I was full-belly laughing and unexpectedly crying as I immersed myself in his stories. Each chapter is insightful, heartfelt, and honest. Tough questions are posed, and vulnerabilities are shared. The Gift of Hard Things quickly points out its primary focus on the “middle sufferings” that impede spiritual growth. I had never thought about hardships existing at the mid-point of the emotional spectrum. Still, I appreciated the frame as it not only centers and normalizes feelings like shame, frustration, self-doubt, and emptiness squarely within the day-to-day but also reminds readers that there is a season for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), a built-in duality to the human experience.
Yaconelli ends his work by reminding us that we have a choice to “break or expand.” For those in ministry, whether lay or ordained, his book can be a gentle reminder that we are not alone and that it is normal and often necessary for things to be hard. We are in a liminal time, the often disorientating and anxiety-producing between place that emerges, as congregational consultant Susan Beaumont notes in How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You are Going (2019), “through the slow death of systems or structures that have lived out their usefulness.” This liminality can be exhausting, and we are often overwhelmed by the work we are called to do. But as Cistercian Monk Michael Casey points out, “Grace itself is limitless; any restrictions come from the side of the receiver, that is, from us.” What unexpected places will we allow ourselves to find grace as we discern our next faithful steps?
Postscript: If you find this book a balm for the soul, as I have, I invite you to pick up Yaconelli’s more recent offering, Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us (2022), as well as spend time in prayer with The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings For Imperfect Days (2023), by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie.
Kim Arakawa holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University. She is the Project Manager for the Mutual Ministry and Baptized for Life initiatives with the Department of Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary. When not voraciously reading leadership books, she enjoys quality time with her husband, son, and dog, Jack.