Those who navigate life best are those who learn to live with gratitude and with grief.
Because, here’s the deal: life is often full of hurt and pain and struggle. As Westley says in The Princess Bride, Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something. Sometimes, such merchants mean well; they might even be people of faith – confident that the act of belief covers over our pain; fixes all our hurt; erases the struggle. But they miss the hard reality of life, those who peddle this message – whether they do so from a perspective of religion, or science or pharmacology or self-help. Money, medication, even meditation won’t neutralize the difficulties of this life.
That’s where grief comes in. Grief faces the distance between life as it should to be, and life as it really is. Grief is honesty; it’s direct. The blade of grief is sometimes blunt, sometimes sharp – but it always cuts. Grief doesn’t deny reality, or turn away from it – but faces it, squarely.
Grief is about loss – the loss of what was, or what we thought would be. Of course, the most obvious example is the death of those we love. Those are losses of the largest order; but there are others, too. The loss of a career or a calling. The loss of a relationship. The loss of one season of a child’s life, which quickly gives way to another season. The loss of an expected future. The loss of independence. The loss of a past that’s not coming back. The loss of notions that we once held dear – about ourselves, our church, our country, our own understanding.
Loss is everywhere, and it’s not a matter of if we will face it – but how. You should refuse to believe anyone who offers a shortcut to facing it – whether they speak out of a scientific, religious, or political voice. Grief has no shortcuts. Pious phrases and platitudes rarely soothe. What does help, though, is an honest, open journey through its depths – with faith and friends at our side.
Gerald Sittser, in his wonderful book about grief, A Grace Disguised, tells about the aftermath of the evening when a car accident took the lives of his wife, his mother, and one of his daughters. Not long after that tragic event, Sittser had something he calls a “waking dream.” In it, the sun is setting and he is frantically running west to catch up to it and remain in its warmth. He can’t, of course. Exhausted, he looks over his shoulder to see the darkness closing in on him from the east. Terrified, he collapses to the ground – feeling as if he will live in darkness forever.
He talks with his sister about this dream, and she tells him: The way to reach the light is not to run to the west, chasing after the setting sun. Instead, it’s to plunge through the darkness, and head east – walking until one reaches the sunrise.
The way to face grief isn’t to deny it, but it’s also not to run after what is disappearing into the horizon. The way to face grief is to plod through it, step by step, walking toward the light of the rising sun – knowing that, for most of us, that journey isn’t a straight, unbroken line.
That’s grief, and though every life has more than its fair share, there is another side to the coin – one that feels like a different currency altogether. And that’s gratitude. Grief & Gratitude don’t seem to go together; in a way, that is certainly true. But what is also true is the fact that we must have both in our lives. Where grief faces up to loss, gratitude names what often is overlooked – for gratitude starts from the place of presence, not absence. Without losing sight of what is not, it starts from the place of what is. Gratitude starts by seeing life as a gift, taking nothing for granted: not this breath, not this day, not these people, not this sip, not this bite, not this moment. Where grief recognizes the hurt and brokenness all around us, gratitude recognizes that there is beauty and meaning around us, too.
The truth is: we simply cannot live authentic, meaningful, honest lives without both Grief & Gratitude. Those who choose the former, and deny the latter, become bitter, hardened, hopeless. Those who chose the latter, and avoid the former, are in danger of becoming polyannaish, hollow, even legalistic.
But while both are necessary, it also matters where you start. If you begin from a place of grief, it’s hard to find your way to true gratitude. If you begin by seeing what’s wrong, it’s hard to find your way to the true center of what is right. So, while an authentic life will have both grief and gratitude, the authentically hopeful life will start with gratitude – a gratitude that believes that even in the midst of the deepest grief, there is meaning. Grief may be our current reality, but it is not our ultimate destiny. In fact, the reason we can grieve the moments of dusk and darkness, is precisely because there is a sun.
This is demonstrated by Romans 8.28. We often cite this beloved verse with confidence that God is working good through all things – as we should. But this confidence is real and true because it comes in the midst of the struggles of life. Our assurance is not that God will clear away all the difficult overgrowth on our path; He doesn’t take away the challenging, uphill climbs. God does not promise that all of life’s journey will be good. But He does promise to be with us every step of that journey – using each one for our good and our growth.
And we find this to be truest when we acknowledge our grief and our gratitude. Romans 8.28 – all of Romans 8, for that matter – is a honest look at our brokenness, and the brokenness of all creation. One of the key words in Romans 8 is groaning – and it’s everywhere. For we know that all of creation has been groaning until now, Paul says in verse 22. But it’s not simply that creation is groaning – it’s that creation is groaning with or groaning together. This is no isolated, occasional longing to be remade and restored; rather, all throughout creation, voices are crying out, together. In verse 23, that groaning reaches us – the people who long for redemption and wholeness. We, too, are groaning for the day when our bodies will be made new.
Creation groans, we groan, yes – but we are also joined by the Spirit of God. In verse 26, Paul recognizes that we don’t know how we really ought to pray. In our deepest moments of pain and uncertainty, we find that the Spirit himself is interceding on our behalf with wordless groanings – groans that God hears, receives, and interprets.
This is the essential background to Romans 8.28. In God’s creation, in all that God has made – including us – there is a desperate longing that we can’t completely put into words. But God hears. God knows. And God responds. That’s the power of Romans 8.28 – and the remaining verses in that chapter. Even through tribulation or anguish or danger or sword, God is with us. Even when we aren’t sure what is happening, or what is to come – even in the midst of our deepest grief, Death itself – we will not be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the midst of Paul’s majestic ending to Romans 8, he inserts a strange Old Testament reference, found in verse 36: On your behalf, we are given over to death all day; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. I’ve never really known what to do with this verse. In fact, many times as I’ve read Romans 8 alongside hospital bedsides or funeral home caskets, I’ve skipped over this verse. It just didn’t seem to fit.
But recently I read the 2 OT passages that Paul is citing: Zechariah 11 & Psalm 44. The Zechariah passage describes the failure of God’s people – and God letting them face the reality of their sin. God’s people refuse to be shepherded, so a shepherd is predicted who won’t care for the lost, or seek the young, or heal the injured, or feed the healthy. It’s a picture of desolation, destruction – of grief and groaning.
Psalm 44, meanwhile, is a cry for God to vindicate the righteous. The writer says, We know that it’s not our sword that brings us victory; it’s You, of God. So where are You? We’re devoured like sheep; scattered to the nations. The psalmist goes on, making his case: We haven’t forgotten You, God – for Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. And then Psalm 44 closes with these words: “Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (NIV).
Paul takes both passages – both the desperation of our sin and the desperation of our struggle – and incorporates them into Romans 8, and the groaning for redemption, vindication and hope. And Paul makes clear: Jesus is our answer. Jesus is our hope. Jesus is the shepherd we need. He is the one who cares for the lost, seeks the young, heals the injured, and feeds the healthy. He is the one who laid down his life for our sake – and then rose up to help us. His love is truly an unfailing love.
And so, whatever groanings we have, whatever brokenness we feel, whatever is pressing against us – no matter how strong it is – it can not win. For Jesus has overcome; and through him, Paul says, we are more than overcomers – we are gloriously victorious. For no matter what we groan in or through – our groanings are answered – and one day will be fully answered.
And so, faithful people DO groan. Along with all of creation – and with the Spirit within us – we groan. But we do so, grateful that our groanings have an answer. For as we face our grief – and the grief of all creation – we do so knowing that we have a redemptive God working in ways we can’t fully see and certainly don’t completely comprehend. We can grieve for what is not, precisely because we are grateful for what already is – and for what one day fully, gloriously, will be.