How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times
Article by Robert Emmons (2013)
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What is the Science?

Robert Emmons, the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude, makes a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. When hard times come, this distinction can help us maintain practices of gratitude in spite of our negative emotions. The necessary perspective that gratitude can give, while difficult to grasp, is worth the effort.

Emmons argues that cultivating gratitude builds up a “psychological immune system” that softens despair when problems arise. Ironically, one key practice in developing a perspective of gratitude is remembering and reflecting upon difficult times. When we examine the contrast between our present good blessings and previous struggles, we develop space to express gratitude. Emmons also recommends facing our mortality as a way to cultivate gratitude. Research shows that imagining the loss that death brings can help us see blessings, even in mundane existence.

Reframing our negative experiences by recognizing the redemptive quality they bring creates space for healing and development. Compared with simply rehearsing previous negative experiences, reframing produces profound transformation.

“But being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.”

-Robert Emmons

What is the Theology?

Christians can create redemptive memories out of their pain in the practice of lament. The psalmists made use of painful experiences in order to appeal to God’s faithfulness. Most laments, while mourning or complaining, include a crucial “and yet” that proclaims God’s goodness. Our sermons can create a space for congregations to experience the tension between our present pain and God’s enduring faithfulness. As pastors, we must invite this tension rather than quickly dismissing it for fear of discomfort. As the research shows, experiencing the pain of loss and working to reframe it can build resilience. Our sermons can be a model for facing difficulty without flinching.

The Lenten season also provides resources for the congregation to consider their own mortality as we journey with Jesus to the cross. The call of the disciple of Christ is to take up our crosses daily, laying down our lives so that salvation can be found. As we consider the implications of our death, we can discover gratitude, even in the midst of “our light and momentary troubles.”

As you consider your sermon, think about how to help the congregation name and attend to the discomfort of past trials and our future grief in death. How did our faithful witnesses bear such burdens? How do we find resolve and faith in the midst of grief and sorrow?

What to Consider

  • Think about a particularly painful or trying experience in your past. How has God redeemed that experience today? What contrasts can you see between your emotions at the time and now?
  • Do you tend to “settle in” with grief and trial or quickly dismiss its discomfort? How does your reaction contribute to positive formation? How does it negatively form you?
    In what ways are the people in your sermon text facing their trials faithfully? How can we learn from their example?
  • What stories of grit and resilience inspire you? How does their reaction to grief and pain help you tell your story?
  • Does your faith tradition have formal rites or liturgies for responding to grief and pain? What existing resources can your congregation draw on when trouble comes?

How to Go Deeper

  • Lead your congregation in writing personal psalms of lament. Begin with their description of a painful experience, noting how they call out to God (even with complaint). Save space at the end to claim God’s faithfulness by beginning with “And yet…” or “Even still, you are…” Invite congregants to share their laments with one another.
  • Read a corporate psalm of lament (for example, Psalm 44) as a responsive reading. Invite the congregation to consider their emotional resonance with God’s people.
  • Celebrate a “saints day.” Traditionally, some churches celebrate the day of a saints’ death (especially martyrdom) by remembering their virtue before God. Who in your congregation or faith tradition is known for their resilience in the face of trouble? Take time to tell their story as a testimony to God’s faithfulness.
  • If your faith tradition lacks a formal rite or liturgy of lament or grief, consider developing one. Gather participants among the congregation who have shown resilience and invite them to contribute.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

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About the Author:

Kyle Sears is a church planter and ministry coach (and husband and father). He is pursuing an M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary while working for the STAR Office at Fuller. He loves a good story, and finds himself called to help others envision a life lived between the overlap of heaven and earth.