Wait…did I mention I love Shauna Niequist? Because it wasn’t 24 hours after finishing Bread and Wine that I stole Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way from my mother-in-law. And now that Bittersweet is done, I’ve read the entirety of Shauna’s blog…starting with her first post in 2009. It’s not weird. Stop.
It was about 4 pages into Bittersweet that I texted my best friend Brittney and told her she should read it. We’re kindred spirits when it comes to our girl crushes on Christian women (that felt odd to type), and I wasn’t shocked when she headed to Barnes and Noble that minute and bought the book. We got to read this together with a little two-person-texting-book-club, and lots of our conversations were straight up screenshots of paragraphs from the book. Though we’re in really different stages of life right now, both of us were struck by the premise of Bittersweet: “When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. When life is bitter, say thank you and grow.”
Life is going to be sweet. And life is going to be bitter. But if we approach the sweet things and the bitter things the same way, we’re going to solely rejoice in the sweet and solely pout about the bitter. But there’s purpose in both because nothing is purposeless. The word bittersweet means pleasant, yet marked by elements of suffering.
Bittersweet has a similar format to Bread and Wine, as she writes in short, essay-type chapters. She wrote the book in the midst of change in her life–a new job, moving to a new city, a rough spot in their marriage, raising a toddler while struggling with infertility–and her vulnerability and humility is refreshing. She writes in the first chapter, “Looking back now I can see that it was more than anything a failure to believe in the story of who God is and what he is doing in this world. Instead of living that story–one of sacrifice and purpose and character–I began to live a much smaller story, and that story was only about me. I wanted an answer, a timeline, and a map. I didn’t want to have to trust God or anything I couldn’t see.” Isn’t that the pulse of our screwed-up hearts? It sure is for mine.
I can’t do this book justice, so I’m going to just include my favorite quotes and beg you to devote some time to reading this. Sweet is a blessing, but bittersweet is a promise of growth, of refining, of change, and of more opportunities to boast in weaknesses–because our weakness is the best way to showcase His strength.
On the importance of having friends that don’t let you feel bad about yourself too much:
“We sometimes choose the most locked up, dark versions of the story, but what a good friend does is turn on the lights, open the window, and remind us that there are a whole lot of ways to tell the same story.”
On trusting that what you see now is but a glimmer of the big picture:
“Sometimes the happiest ending isn’t the one you keep longing for, but something you absolutely cannot see from where you are.”
On food again. I love when she talks about food:
“I think preparing food and feeding people brings nourishment not only to our bodies but to our spirits. Feeding people is a way of loving them, in the same way that feeding ourselves is a way of honoring our own createdness and fragility.”
On sacrificing small things to get to the big things:
“It’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, she said, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.”
“Grace isn’t about having a second chance; grace is having so many chances that you could use them through all eternity and never come up empty. It’s when you finally realize that the other shoe isn’t going to drop, ever.”
On pain. I love this one. That’s why I transcribed an entire page:
“I’m coming to think there are at least two kinds of pain. There’s the anxiety and fear I felt when we couldn’t sell our house. And then there’s the sadness I felt when I lost the baby or when my grandma passed away. Very different kinds of pain. The first kind, I think, is the kind that invites us to grow. The second kind is the kind that invites us to mourn.
God’s not trying to teach me a lesson through my grandma’s death. I wasn’t supposed to love her less so the loss hurt less acutely, I’m not supposed to feel less strongly about the horror of death and dying. When we lose someone we love, when a dear friend moves away, when illness invades, it’s right to mourn. It’s right to feel deep, wrenching sadness.
But then there’s the other kind of pain, that first kind. My friend Brian says that the heart of all human conflict is the phrase ‘I’m not getting what I want.’ When you’re totally honest about the pain, what’s at the center? Could it be that you’re not getting what you want? You’re getting an invitation to grow, I think, as unwelcome as it may be.
It’s sloppy theology to think that all suffering is good for us, or that it’s a result of sin. All suffering can be used for good, over time, after mourning and healing, by God’s graciousness. But sometimes it’s just plain loss, not because you needed to grow, not because life or God or anything is teaching you any kind of lesson. The trick is knowing the difference between the two.”
“I don’t always change my clothes just because I’m leaving the house. I wear yoga pants 99 percent of the time, and I pretend that other people don’t notice that I’m wearing my pajamas in public.”