Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life

by Melissa Taft
two hands cover for kindle fw

by Lynne Baab

I was raised by a hyper-optimistic mother. All problems, she believed, should be faced with an upbeat attitude. Grief was okay – as long as it was brief. And grieving was limited to deaths of loved ones and major catastrophes. 

As a young adult I discovered Jeremiah’s sadness and angst. He experienced and expressed emotions I had always considered to be negative, and his honesty before God felt soothing and healing. Later the wild and passionate emotions of the Psalms gave me further permission to experience a wide variety of feelings, including sadness and anger, and to bring those emotions into God’s presence.

My journey of learning how to deal with “negative” emotions was further enhanced in 2019, when I came across a quotation by psychotherapist Francis Weller: “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them.” Godspace’s curator Christine Sine wrote a post about the quotation from Weller last month. She mentions that she first heard the quotation in a book that she found very valuable. That book is now out – Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life – and I am the author. 

The book is the fruit of two years of pondering and trying to learn to live with grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, and to allow myself to be stretched large by both of them. One of my major insights is that the very nature of the Christian Gospel involves both grief and gratitude. We grieve the brokenness and pain in our world that made it necessary for Jesus to come to earth, and we rejoice and give thanks that he did. We juxtapose this grief and gratitude every time we have Holy Communion. We hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other simultaneously.

In pondering this picture of two hands, I spent a lot of time in the psalms, where a pattern of pain/anger/grief almost always shifts to thanks/praise. I am fascinated by the pivot points in many psalms of lament. These pivot points make clear that sometimes the grief hand is quite heavy and full, and other times the thankfulness hand predominates. 

 Psalm 77 begins with expressions of sadness and pain, and then in verse 10 the psalm writer describes the way their perspective has changed: “And I say, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’” The second half of the psalm is filled with thanks and praise.

So often when we are grieving we feel that God is distant and uninvolved. Psalm 10 begins with 13 verses of anger and grief about the prosperity of the wicked. Then in verse 14 the psalm writer expresses great joy at God’s involvement in human life: “But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you.”

In this journey of grief and gratitude, I have learned that the extreme optimism I was raised with has continued to influence me. I have a strong practice of thankfulness that my husband and I began more than 25 years ago, and the consistent practice of gratitude has been transforming. This recent journey focused on two hands has revealed that deep inside, I always expected that if I could only be thankful enough, then I wouldn’t feel sad about anything. Finding so many places where grief and gratitude are juxtaposed in the Bible has helped me understand that grief will always be a significant factor in human life on earth simply because our brokenness is so profound. We can honestly grieve human pain and selfishness, as well as natural disasters and nasty viruses, while we also give thanks for God’s amazing gifts: the fresh air after a rain, the soft fur on a kitten or puppy, the sweetness of fresh fruit, a glorious sunset, the delights of a good novel, an interesting conversation with friends, the hug of a child. 

I am hoping churches might recommend my book for Advent or Lent, since the themes fit those church seasons so well. Each chapter has discussion questions, so small groups can discuss it. I’ll close with Christine Sine’s endorsement for my book, a thrilling affirmation that this journey I’ve been on will be helpful for others, too. 

Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life is one of the most important books I have read in the last few months. I have long been an advocate for gratitude as a way of life, but Lynne Baab helped me understand that grief is just as important and often the missing element in our practices. We all need a better understanding of how grief and gratitude intertwine in a healthy life. This is a must-read book for everyone as we emerge from the challenges of the COVID pandemic.” 

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Christine Sine and Lilly Lewin are hoping you’ll join them THIS Saturday November 20th at 9:30 am PST. for a retreat to rekindle the wonder of the Advent season! This year of isolation and another Christmas in a pandemic has taken its toll–we are so excited to present what we believe is one of the most important events we have hosted! Register here to either join us live or download the retreat after the live session to view and experience at your convenience. Come with a creative heart, be inspired, have fun, and reconnect with the WONDER of the season.

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