On Grief and Gratitude

By Vanessa Vera

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thess 4:16-18

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, likely because the scents and flavors of the fall point to even more joyous celebrations to come. This time of year as we enter the Christmas season always brings much joy and anticipation, and Thanksgiving, with its amber tones and abundant food, seems to usher this all in. Nothing quite communicates joy like roasted poultry, the scent of cinnamon and pumpkin pie. Except, maybe, coconut custard pie.

But joyous holidays and celebrations have a way of also evoking sadness for those of who have suffered deeply or are in the midst of suffering--which is nearly all of us. If you aren’t suffering now, you have, and surely you know someone who is.

An abundance of suffering

In this last year and even this last week, there have been those within our circles and our church community who are facing big, scary giants. Dear friends have buried loved ones or are watching those close to them struggle with cancer and debilitating disease. Others are suffering through miscarriage and coping with infertility. Some are missing loved ones lost long ago and wondering where their hope and joy has gone. They thought they’d be “over it” by now, but the loss lingers. There are friends among us desperately struggling through depression, anxiety and mental illnesses, with a pain in their soul and a cloud over their lives that’s hard to lift. We have friends and neighbors who are picking up the pieces of torn marriages and healing from the wounds of adultery. Some perhaps aren’t wrestling with grief, so much as with uncertainty -- uncertainty of the future and what God has planned. Others are wrestling to trust the Lord with their finances while others struggle to find work. There are friends long-separated from loved ones because of military deployments, incarceration, or distance. And there are brothers and sisters battling against sin and its consequences and wondering how they’ll overcome and live victoriously.

A call to gratitude

How can we be grateful amidst these harsh realities--amidst profound loss, when our hopes and dreams are dashed, when we’ve sinned and failed beyond reason, when we are financially strapped, at a critical crossroads with a spouse, or even in unstable and scary political climates?

We can be grateful when we remember the goodness and character of God. When we remind ourselves that our hope and our help does not come from our circumstances, however joyful or grief-stricken, but from our Creator. When we remember the Lord’s words, and are reminded of who He is and what He has done, it breeds gratitude. This isn’t a gratitude that negates or attempts to replace suffering and loss; it’s a gratitude that pierces through it, like a flower pushing through heavy concrete.

For the Christian, Thanksgiving is not a holiday; it’s a posture. It isn’t a self-help mantra to be printed on mugs and t-shirts, reminding us to be grateful for unknown things in an unknown universe. Gratitude is a call from the Maker of the heavens and the Earth to His creatures. It’s a call to remember who He is and what He has done. To remember that He gives and takes away, and that this very statement is a testament to His sovereign and inexplicable power.

An attitude of thanksgiving is a call to remember that God is in control--in infinite, loving and powerful control. And that is something for which we must give thanks. He is good. He is for us. And He has a plan where both the beautiful and the broken are being worked out for our good and His glory. We can be grateful when we remember that though God allows us to experience crushing pain, He is also the God to who restores us and draws us to Himself.

The Scriptures remind us of this repeatedly:

Job, famous for his suffering, acknowledges that we must not only accept blessings from the Lord, but also sorrow.:

“Shall we indeed accept [only] good from God and not [also] accept adversity and disaster?” (Job 2:10, Amplified)

Job continues:

“For He inflicts pain, but He binds up and gives relief; He wounds, but His hands also heal.” (Job 5:18, Amplified).

The Scriptures also remind us of the Lord’s deep compassion toward those who suffer:

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18 ESV)

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV)

And it nevertheless exhorts us to gratitude, prayer and joy:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV)

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV)

But this, friends, is hard.

Grieving with gratitude

Five years ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, I held my beautiful infant daughter in my arms. My first and only child could not have been more perfect to me. She was all I could have imagined and more. My hopes and dreams had taken new shape, and they were embodied in this sweet girl. In a dimly lit hospital room, I stared deeply into her peaceful face and sang a worship song to my girl.

“There is power in the name of Jesus…” I sang. “There’s no circumstance that is big enough to withhold His wonderful name. There is power in Jesus’ name.”

I sang this song to my baby as her heart beat one last time and she was taken up to be with the Lord. Two days later, I would lower her tiny casket into the ground; a burial of my dreams as I knew them.

Amidst tears, in the pain-filled numbness of a frost-bitten soul, it is hard to imagine there is anything to be grateful for. Indeed, for me it was very difficult. And if I’m really honest, at times it still is. This Thanksgiving will be difficult, as all Thanksgivings, and Christmases and birthdays and anniversaries for the last five years have been. I will likely drop a fair share of tears; and so will so many others this season, all for different reasons.

To be challenged to be grateful in the midst of grieving is an appalling notion. It can sound like another Christian cliche that attempts to minimize the depth and reality of our pain in exchange for a superficial smile. But for the Christian, for those of us redeemed by the work of the Gospel, there is much for which we can be grateful, even through tear-blurred eyes.

We are grateful in our grieving that death doesn’t get the last word; for it is swallowed up in victory. (1 Corinthians 15:54)

We are grateful that Christ is fluent in the language of tears, and that those tears are never wasted, but gathered up in His bottle. (Psalm 56:8)

We are grateful that the Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up our wounds. (Psalm 147:3)

We are grateful for Gospel community, for people who laugh and mourn with us, and feed our bodies and our souls. (Romans 12:15)

We are reminded in times of agricultural harvest, that those of us who mourn and sow the seeds of tears will reap a harvest of joy. (Psalm 126:5-6)

Ultimately, we are grateful that our deepest sorrows, searing losses, vexing circumstances and most condemning sins are no match for Christ’s wonderful name.

When we wipe the tears from our faces, and look upward toward the hills, we are grateful for a strong and mighty Savior; an undeserved yet absurdly gracious salvation; and a hope that will outlive and outlast the bitterest of griefs.

Happy Thanksgiving.

An admonition: To tell a person in the throes of deep grief to instead be grateful can be appalling, deeply offensive and can compound grief. Grief is real. It’s profound. It’s unique. More often than not, before we can effectively encourage someone toward gratitude--which is good and right--we must pay the price of weeping with them, listening to them and sitting with them in their sorrow. Take the time this Thanksgiving to love on the broken among you, even as you may be suffering through brokenness, too.