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The pivot between grief and gratitude

Lynne Baab • Saturday November 27 2021

The pivot between grief and gratitude

Imagine you are crying about something, perhaps the death of a family member, the loss of a dream, an argument with a friend, or something deeply frustrating that’s happening in your body. Perhaps you feel distant from God in the midst of this sorrow, and you wonder if God sees what you are experiencing. Then imagine some time passes, and you are now laughing at a joke, relishing a delicious meal, or gazing awe-struck at a blazing sunset. What got you from one place to the other?

Almost all of the psalms of lament pivot from sadness/grief/anger to thankfulness/praise/joy. Some of them describe that pivot fairly clearly. For example, the first 13 verses of Psalm 10 recount the psalm writer’s anger, frustration, and grief that the wicked prosper. Verse 14 then describes the writer’s realization that God is not distant: “But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands.” The remaining verses of Psalm 10 recount God’s power, justice and kindness.

Psalm 77 describes sadness so deep that “my soul refuses to be comforted” (verse 2). After eight verses expressing sadness, the psalm writer expresses frustration in verse 9: “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?’”

Verse 9 is followed by "selah." Scholars aren’t sure what what this word means in psalms – a musical interlude perhaps – and I wish I knew what happened to the writer of Psalm 77 at the point where “selah” is inserted here. In verse 10 the writer affirms that something has changed: “And I say, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’” The rest of Psalm 77 is full of praise and thanks.

These psalms leave us with key questions. Is there something we can do to get to the point where we recognize that God does indeed see the things we’re sad about? Can we open ourselves in some way that allows the Most High to change our grief into joy, or at least into acceptance?

Psalm 73 makes clear what facilitated the pivot from anger/frustration to peace/thankfulness for this psalm writer: “I went into the sanctuary of God” (verse 17). Sometimes we choose to enter into the presence of God, and we pivot from grief to thankfulness. The “sanctuary of God” surely includes church, but I also often feel like I’m entering into God’s presence in nature and while praying alone or with others.

A friend recently wrote, “In Psalm 73 the situation doesn’t change but the insight does.” Her thoughts raise the question of where and how our insight changes. My husband believes that offering up lament prayers with others “cleanses the palate,” and he can then praise and thank God with a heart that feels both honest and cleansed of sadness.

Hebrews 4:12 indicates that God's word effects change in us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” I hope that most Christians have experienced at least one instance where reading the Bible has given the kind of insight that turns grief into thankfulness.

Seeking God’s presence in worship, nature, lament prayers, and the Bible – alone or with others – often does not instantaneously change our grief into thankfulness. I worry that the biggest obstacle to pivoting from grief to gratitude is our expectation that it will happen quickly. I worry that we too often adopt our culture’s obsession with being optimistic and upbeat, and thus we feel like we’re failing at something important when we sit with grief and let it stretch us large.

I gave a seminar on grief and gratitude at my church two weeks ago (I’ll post a link when the recording is uploaded to our church website), and one of the participants reminded us that when grief and sadness linger for a long time, professional help might be necessary, including anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications or various kinds of therapy. I don’t want to minimize the significance of depression and anxiety. But I do want to say that for many of us, we simply don’t know how to sit with sadness for very long, and learning to do it will hurt, because grief always hurts.

However God does see. The Holy Spirit does change our grief. God brings joy after sorrow because Jesus walks with us minute by minute and day by day. God also brings joy in the midst of sorrow. I wrote last week about an equally important reality, that sometimes we experience grief and gratitude at the same time. We hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other.

 (Next week: Grief and gratitude in Advent. Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Hawea, New Zealand. 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. Available as an audiobook, as well as paperback and for kindle. 

The concluding posts in my 2019 series on grief and thankfulness: 

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