There’s a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that circulates periodically, “Sorrow looks back. Worry looks around. Faith looks up.” Surprisingly this quote was recently featured on a church sign, a picture of which was widely circulated on social media. I say surprisingly partially because of the quote itself, and partially because of Emerson’s denial of the deity of Christ, rejection of Christianity, and role in the rise of transcendentalism (for more on this read here).
At first glance the quote might seem harmless, and could perhaps even sound right or true. However, void of greater context it can be added to a long list of platitudes and sayings beautifully formatted into memes to be well-meaningly yet injuriously forwarded to grieving people.
The quote seems to make the mistake of countless other platitudes. It implies sorrow is antithetical to something else, in this case faith. It conveys the idea that to choose one is to put away or reject the other. Sorrow puts away faith, or faith puts away sorrow.
I remember an acquaintance who has not lost a child telling me not long after Sarah died that they don’t know how God does it, but they are so thankful that somehow He takes all the pain [i.e. sorrow] away. I was not offended by their words, they had no ill intent. Instead I found them helpful in understanding some of the misconceptions about sorrow and grief. I think a similar thought process led to the Emerson quote being enthusiastically shared by so many Christians.
The thought of any sorrow lasting a lifetime is uncomfortable, even unbearable. From the outside looking in it’s more comfortable to believe there must be a way to make the sorrow go away.
“You just need to have more faith.”
“Stop looking back.”
“Focus on the future.”
“Just move on.”
“You’ve got to let go of the past.”
“You just need to live in the present.”
Thankfully God’s Word makes it clear that sorrow and faith are not antithetical. They are absolutely not in opposition to one another or mutually exclusive. To the contrary, in scripture and in life we see over and over again that great faith is uniquely evidenced in the midst of deepest sorrow.
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying [his] bag of seed, Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves [with him.]” Psalm 126:5-6 [NASB]
The darkness of sorrow is a backdrop upon which the light of faith shines most brilliantly. Sorrow need not be denied or hidden as if its presence compromises faith. Sorrow should be honestly exposed and shared as a platform to display the beautiful reality of the Hope of our faith as followers of Jesus Christ.
Additionally I would argue that for many, perhaps even most, sorrow is not found looking back. Looking back I see my family intact, I see my precious daughter’s short but richly full life of seventeen and a half years. I see joy upon joy and blessing upon blessing when I look back. Looking back, I love and cherish the memories of our intact family.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is also quoted as saying “what lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” When one is shrouded in sorrow following deep loss, particularly the loss of a child, what lies within us is shattered and what lies before us is anything but a tiny matter. The prospects of the remainder of our earthly lives without our precious children is daunting.
The reality is sorrow is found looking at the present and the future, not in looking back. Sorrow is found in the ever present void of our child’s absence. Sorrow is found each time her chair sits empty, each holiday, each time she is not here to celebrate her sisters’ or her birthday, each of her sisters’ weddings where she will be glaringly absent, on and on the list goes.
Sorrow is an uninvited guest physically abiding where my child once did. My child will not return for the remainder of this earthly life, and the sorrow of her absence will not leave. Those who know the pain of child loss have no qualms acknowledging that fact.
The future will invariably continue to hold sorrow, but it is also the future that holds our Hope. As followers of Jesus Christ we are to “fix our Hope completely on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” What lies before us is no tiny matter, it is the greatest of matters.
“Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:13 [NASB]
There is coming a glorious reunion day in the future, “in just a little while,” when my beautiful intact family of the past will once again be made whole (Heb. 10:37). In an instant the complete joy of that future day will eclipse into oblivion the darkness of all the sorrow of the in between days.
Through the promises and hope of Jesus Christ, we can and do join Paul in enduring and persevering, “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). The certainty of Sarah’s present glorious well being and the confidence that I will soon see her again liberate me to find joy even in the presence of the persisting sorrow of her absence.
“but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, … as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.” 2 Corinthians 6:4, 10 [NASB]
May we as believers never be guilty of shaming the sorrowful into silence by implying their sorrow reflects lack of faith. May we instead compassionately encourage the brokenhearted among us to freely and boldly offer up their costly songs of mingled sorrow and praise to Him, sorrowful yet always rejoicing. A fragrant offering to Him and a glorious display of His miraculous provision, amazing grace, overflowing mercy and sustaining power magnified against the backdrop of sorrow. To Him be the glory.
Come, Lord Jesus.
“For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.” Hebrews 13:14-15 [NASB]