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Grief and thankfulness at the same time or back and forth?

Lynne Baab • Friday November 19 2021

Grief and thankfulness at the same time or back and forth?

Two years ago I began a journey of trying to hold grief in one hand and thankfulness in the other. The journey resulted in a series of blog posts (see below) and a new book. As a part of the journey, I found myself asking a question. Do we hold grief and gratitude in two hands equally at the same time? Or is one hand or the other sometimes more prominent?

I looked at lament psalms that describe grief. They almost always follow a pattern of sadness/anger/grief followed by thankfulness/praise. These psalms imply that we grieve and then we move out of grief. “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

The lament psalms present a vivid picture of allowing ourselves to grieve, then moving out of grief back to joy, thankfulness and praise. Using the two hands metaphor, the psalms model a life where one hand is more prominent for a while, then the other. These lament psalms often have a clear pivot point between sadness and thankfulness, which I’ll write about next week.

In my two-year journey with this metaphor, I have also found that in many instances grief and gratitude are mixed together in the same moment. So often when I think about the blessings of the house we live in, I also feel sad about the growing number of people without a home. When I thank God for the parts of my body that work well, I also grieve the parts that are less functional and comfortable than they used to be. When I thank God for people who have helped me and loved me, my mind turns to relationships that are broken or challenging, and I grieve those relationships while rejoicing in others.

Grief and gratitude are juxtaposed in the Bible quite often. The very heart of the Gospel message involves both grief and gratitude. We grieve that the world is so broken that God had to intervene in Jesus, and we are so grateful that Jesus came to earth. We describe this combination of sadness and joy every time we have holy communion.

So many stories and themes of the Bible evoke grief and gratitude at the same time. We grieve that the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, and we rejoice that God freed them. We grieve King David’s sinfulness and excesses, but we are thankful for his heart for God that is represented in so many beautiful psalms. We grieve that many people opposed Jesus’ ministry, and we are grateful that many others responded to him. We grieve that the apostle Paul has to mention endurance and patience so often in his letters – because they are sadly necessary in the life of faith – but we are so thankful God does give us strength through the Holy Spirit.

The back-and-forth model found in psalms of lament is helpful because it gives us confidence that grief will end. Often we refrain from grieving deeply or even letting ourselves cry because we are afraid we will get stuck there forever. The lament psalms reassure us that weeping usually endures for a finite period, and joy returns.

It is equally helpful to affirm the picture of two hands holding grief and gratitude at the same time. For much of my life I have believed that if I could just be thankful enough, then I wouldn’t feel so sad about things. Finding so much grief and gratitude juxtaposed in the very heart of the Christian Gospel has helped me realize that my grief isn’t caused by lack of thankfulness – at least not usually – but is caused by the brokenness of the world that we will live with until Jesus comes back. I have beaten myself up for feeling sad because I thought I should be able to fix my sadness. Now I feel so much freedom to enjoy the lightness of thankfulness while also feeling the heaviness of sadness. Both are present in so much of life.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. We feel sad about so many things, and the sadness hurts. Give us the comfort of knowing and experiencing that you are feeling sad right alongside us. Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the world, have mercy on us. Shine your light on our lives so we can see your many gifts. Open our hearts to thank you for the gifts we see. Amen.

(Next week: what makes pivot points happen? Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

My new book – Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life, now available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle.

Some of the posts from my 2019-2020 series on grief and gratitude

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