Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. —Matthew 5:4
We tend to think the world is divided up into basically two kinds of people – good people and bad people. The Bible shows us three kinds of people. One, people who make up their own rules and live for themselves. They want to be happy, but self-centered power grabs and sexual fantasies and ego-displays fail. Two, people who accept that there are moral rules and they try to do the right thing. The problem for these people is, obeying God is like paying taxes – as C. S. Lewis explained. After they’ve paid God, they only hope they still have enough to live on. They don’t really want God, but they’re stuck with him. So they’re not happy either. Three, people for whom the will of God is their own will. God isn’t competing with their desires; God is their desire. They’re learning to say with the apostle Paul, “For me to live is Christ.” These people are happy – but they’re also sad. They’re happy with a happiness that will get better forever, and they’re sad with a sadness that will be comforted forever.
If you’re the first kind of person, living in the fast lane, here at Immanuel you might be surprised at how accepted you are. If you’re the second kind of person, walking the straight and narrow, you might feel misunderstood. Here at Immanuel the real Jesus sets the ground rules. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus congratulates not those who are rich with their own rightness but those who bring their poverty to him. That was the first Beatitude. Now he builds on that: “You’re not only poor but also sad? You see your own sin, you see the evil in this world, and you can’t laugh it off any more? Congratulations! I will comfort you forever.”
“Blessed are those who mourn.” What an odd thing to say – that the heartbroken people are the lucky people. How does that make sense? When the real Jesus gets through to our hearts, he stretches us emotionally. He stretches us in two directions at once. We become happier, and we become sadder – both. Things that used to entertain us now bring us down, and things that used to drag us down now thrill us. When what breaks the heart of God breaks our hearts too, Jesus says, “Way to go!”
For example, David Brainerd was a missionary to the American Indians. In his diary for October 18, 1740, he wrote:
In my morning devotions, my soul was exceedingly melted and bitterly mourned over my exceeding sinfulness and vileness. I never before had felt so pungent and deep a sense of the odious nature of sin as at this time. My soul was then unusually carried forth in love to God and had a lively sense of God’s love to me.
Brainerd wasn’t overreacting. Mourning is a part of real Christianity. It was the wardrobe through which Brainerd stepped into the Narnia of the love of God, and there is no other way. Do glib, shallow people feel the comforts only God can give? The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 takes us to a deep place in the heart of God when it taught us to pray:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness…. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.
Does that seem extreme to you? It doesn’t to Jesus. As he becomes more real to us, our emotions deepen. We can’t be blasé, like that first human profile, and we can’t be hardened and calculating, like that second human profile. In fact, the grander your gospel becomes, the happier you’ll be and the sadder you’ll be. The real Jesus frees us from our natural narrowness. He is saying, “It’s a sure sign I’m becoming real to you when you start mourning in all the best ways.” Let’s take this second Beatitude in two simple steps.
Blessed are those who mourn
Not the way we would launch a new movement, is it? How many ads do we see for products guaranteed to be depressing? We don’t want to mourn. But Jesus is looking us right in the eye and saying, “Your hopes are dashed? Nothing in all this world can soothe the ache inside? Now that’s what I’m talking about!”
How could it be otherwise? Mourning is simply the emotional impact of poverty in spirit. The second evidence that the real Jesus is becoming real to us is grief over our sin – not denying it, not blaming others, not using soft words to prettify it, not being flippant about it, but feeling it. It’s been one of the marks of true Christianity all along. One of my favorite hymns is “Come Down, O Love Divine,” from the fifteenth century, which includes the line:
Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
The Bible is the most joyful book in the world. It is also the most serious book in the world. It tells us how deeply we’ve hurt God and how willing he was to suffer, in order to restore us. At the center of the biblical story is the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). And the final scene of the Bible is God wiping every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4). The Bible is crowded with prophetic calls to sorrow, incentives for sorrow, warnings against a callous lack of sorrow. One whole book of the Bible is about mourning – the book of Lamentations. About one-third of the Psalms are laments. Jeremiah was “the weeping prophet.” Jesus wept (John 11:35). Paul said, “I served the Lord … with tears” (Acts 20:19). When Paul sized himself up, he said, “Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24). He wrote to some nonchalant Christians who were trivializing sin in their church, “Ought you not rather to mourn?” (1 Corinthians 5:2).
In one of the most overlooked verses of the New Testament, James wrote, “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9). Yes, let’s locate that verse in the context of the cheerful news of the gospel. But does that verse have any place in your Christianity? It does in real Christianity. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo received a deep wound on his journey. He never fully recovered. But it made him a profound hobbit, because deep wounds deepen us.
If we follow Christ, we will be hurt – most painfully through our own growing self-awareness. The old flippant “nothing is sacred” silliness dies. And the more we care about others the way Jesus cares – about our children, neighbors, roommates – the more we suffer over them too. What’s so bad about that? Jesus loved us at great cost to himself. He got involved. He became vulnerable. We’re glad he did. And he’s not against our comfort. He is for our comfort, as the second half of this Beatitude says. At Christmas time we sang, “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!” But Jesus is against false comforts.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compares two books – George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell prophesied a Big Brother who would oppress us, but Huxley foresaw a future where people would love their loss of maturity:
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared we would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
At the end of the Bible, the Revelation of John prophesies a terrifying Beast to devour us, but also a great Whore to seduce us. In this world, destruction might just feel great.
The unforgivable sin today is not being funny. Do you find yourself feeling awkward and embarrassed when people are getting fun out of things that are shameful? Or when someone tells a blasphemous joke and you feel out of place? At that moment, Jesus the King of a new world is saying, “Blessed are you! You belong to my kingdom!”
Let’s accept the social awkwardness of following the real Jesus. When we find ourselves on the outside socially, Jesus himself is giving us a gift. He is giving us the gift of the sadness that will take us into real happiness forever. Let’s not be afraid of that. What if Jesus gives a comfort so rich it can reward any loss, a comfort so enduring it will last forever, a comfort so bountiful we can share it with everyone, no matter what wound they’ve suffered? What if Jesus gives a comfort so final it will outlast all pain? What if he sees your depression not as evidence against you but as a reason to love you even more? What if our best days are not behind us but still out ahead of us? What if our happiness doesn’t come from things we not only might lose but must lose? What if the future will greet us with wave upon wave of mercy forever? And what if this heaven-sent comfort enters our hearts not because we’ve earned it but because Jesus earned it for us and we only receive it with the empty hands of faith? People who stand to inherit that happiness are well off. And Jesus wants to make you one of them – if you don’t mind mourning over things that should be mourned for.
Jesus high-fives us when he sees us mourning at two levels. First, when we mourn over our own evil. The Bible calls us to “weep, mourn and wail” (James 4:9). Is it even possible to be Christians without tears? Jesus also high-fives us when we mourn over others. We should grieve over the church, for starters. Christians who don’t care about the vibrancy of their church should wonder how real their Jesus is. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, wrote this hymn about the church:
For her my tears shall fall, for her my prayers ascend,
To her my cares and toils be given till toils and cares shall end.
Jesus himself could have written those words. Who will shed tears and pray and care and toil until the Holy Spirit visits us again in our generation? We should also grieve over our world. The Bible says that Lot – he was a sorry believer – but Lot, living in Sodom, was “tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8). What did Lot hear, late at night, in his neighborhood there in Sodom? Real Christians do not merely condemn the evils of their society; they grieve over them. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You are withholding your affections” (2 Corinthians 6:12). It is wrong for a Christian to withdraw emotionally. Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). He wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35, 38). His heart was touched for people. Isn’t that what we love about him? Do you remember “I am a Rock,” by Simon and Garfunkle?
A winter’s day, in a deep and dark December – I am alone.
Gazing through my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow,
I am a rock, I am an island.
I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock, I am an island.
Don’t talk of love. Well, I’ve heard those words before.
They’re sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I’d never loved, I never would have cried.
I am a rock, I am an island.
I have my books and my poetry to protect me.
I am shielded in my armor.
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb,
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock, I am island.
And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.
That song knows nothing of the real Jesus. In his kingdom, rocks become hearts and islands become bridges.
For they shall be comforted
The very word “comfort” is derived from a Latin verb meaning “to strengthen.” We have the same Latin root in our word “to fortify.” The gospel comforts us not sentimentally but strongly, so that we can comfort all around us. It’s the power of the real Jesus in us today.
How could it be otherwise? In the Old Testament God opened up to us his deepest heart when he said, “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1). The Bible gives God the title of “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort,” who comforts us so that we can comfort one another (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). That’s how we are comforted. In two ways – vertically and horizontally. Vertically, God comforts us personally and directly, and horizontally it flows out from each of us onto one another. It’s why our Care Groups are so important. We experience the comfort of God through one another. And when Jesus was about to leave this world, he told the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit, “another Comforter” (John 14:16), to stay with us forever.
So do you see? God the Father is our Comforter, Jesus the Son is our Comforter, and the Holy Spirit is another Comforter. And if God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)? The Bible says that our Messiah came into this world with the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit in history, “to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort all who mourn, the give them the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:1-3). Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). He said, “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). When the disciples were defeated and intimidated, with the doors locked, the risen Jesus entered in and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-22). Paul calls it “the peace that surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
In other words, it’s a peace of mind that doesn’t make sense—not in this world, anyway. God gives it. Sometimes we lose heart. Life can be brutal. We’re tempted to medicate our pain with frivolity or fight back with rage. But we have a Friend who rules above it all and says to us today, “Peace be to you.” And when he returns, he will destroy all evil. Not one particle will be left, not even the evil inside us. The Bible says that sorrow and sighing will flee away (Isaiah 35:10).
But for now, let’s embrace the mourning that Jesus congratulates. Let’s allow our hearts to be broken, like his heart. C. S. Lewis wrote,
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers … of love is Hell.
When you mourn, it moves the heart of Jesus. You can open your heart and tell him everything. And he will say, “Blessed are you.”