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Gratitude in a Land of Lament

1 How long, O LORD?

will you forget me for ever? *

how long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,

and grief in my heart, day after day? *

how long shall my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look upon me and answer me, O LORD my God; *

give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;

4 Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," *

and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.

5 But I put my trust in your mercy; *

my heart is joyful because of your saving help.

6 I will sing to the LORD, for he has dealt with me richly; *

I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.

Psalm 13

My in-laws have had a rough year, as age and illness have forced them from their beloved home into assisted living and Alzheimer’s disease slowly chips away at what’s left. They are sad, angry, and frustrated by the situation and by their inability to change it, which is perfectly reasonable. Sadness, anger, and frustration are appropriate emotions when so much of what you have loved and worked for in life is being taken away from you.

Lament is an appropriate response, and no one should be expected to put a happy face on when they don’t feel it. But with my in-laws, the litany of lament seems endless, and they have little regard for the many small mercies and moments of grace that have also appeared in these difficult days. And that has led me to think about others I have known who have faced similar circumstances and felt similar grief and anger, but who have not been consumed by them.

People approach the inevitable suffering of life differently. Some are consumed by suffering, and even things that should be sources of joy are dimmed. Others acknowledge their grief yet still find blessings to count, which brings light into their darkness. And it seems to me the difference comes down to the practice of gratitude.

In the Psalms, lament and gratitude are often found side by side. In Psalm 13 the psalmist cries out in lament: “How long, O Lord, how long?” The poet feels forgotten by God, under attack by enemies, and uncertain of how to respond. He is filled with unrelenting grief.

But then the tone changes, as the poet remembers what God has done in the past. He affirms his trust in God’s mercy, and his lament turns to songs of praise. While we do not know exactly what saving help the psalmist is thinking of in this moment, in other psalms the poet recalls God’s provision in the wilderness, deliverance from enemies, and times of plenty and prosperity.

The gratitude for God’s past action turns into hope for God’s future action. Salvation is no longer impossible; suffering no longer gets the last word. The psalmist’s circumstances haven’t changed, but lament is turned to praise, sorrow is softened by gratitude and hope.

The psalmist never makes light of suffering, and grief and sorrow are never dismissed as inappropriate. Lament cries out and expects God to respond. But gratitude makes space for waiting upon the Lord, for hope that better days are ahead. And hope helps us to grasp whatever blessings come our way, whether it’s a grandchild’s wedding or a new friend. It frees us to rejoice in the small things, even when our circumstances are full of reasons to lament.

Gratitude without lament ignores the reality of our struggles and allows us to turn our eyes away from suffering without trying to relieve it. But lament without gratitude can easily lead to hopelessness and despair. Faith asks us to hold the two together in tension, allowing us space for anger and grief while also holding on to hope and joy.

November is the month when we pause as a nation to give thanks for the good things in our life. Social media is full of people doing “30 Days of Gratitude” and making daily posts about what they are grateful for. It can all be a bit much if you are living in a land of lament, which is one reason why the holiday season is so hard for many people.

Perhaps we need to take our cues from the psalmist, and alternate our posts between lament and gratitude. How long, O Lord, must we endure? And thank you, O God, for your saving help! Maybe we can learn to sing songs of gratitude in a land of lament, and so find new strength, hope, and comfort wherever we are.

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