This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beatitudes". See series.
"No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear." That is how C. S. Lewis begins his book A Grief Observed, a compelling account of his descent into grief after the death of his wife, Joy. Lewis's perspective in this book provides an interesting counterpoint when compared to an earlier book of his on a similar subject: The Problem of Pain. In The Problem of Pain Lewis writes, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain," but in A Grief Observed, Lewis says that one of the most disquieting dimensions of grief is God's silence. "When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him, so happy that you are tempted to feel his claims upon you as an interruption if you remember yourself and turn to him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms," Lewis writes. "But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence."
"What can this mean?" Lewis asks. "Why is he so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?" The difference between these two statements is a matter of distance. The Problem of Pain describes Lewis's perspective as an observer of pain. In a sense, it is a view from the outside. In A Grief Observed, he writes from an insider's point of view. Both of these perspectives are valid. But what are we to make of what Jesus says about grief in Matthew 5:4?
In the second beatitude, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Like the first beatitude, Jesus seems to have it backward here. Who wants to mourn? I don't want to mourn; I want to be happy. Strangely, Jesus says these two emotions are related. "Blessed" really means "happy." Happy are those who mourn. In order to respond to what Jesus means here, we need to understand three things.
Mourning is inevitable.
First of all, mourning is inevitable. Nobody likes the experience of mourning, but sooner or later everyone must pass through it. By declaring a blessing on those who mourn, Jesus indicates that grief is a normal part of the Christian experience—it is universal. It makes no distinction between race, creed, or color. Grief touches young and old, rich and poor, male and female—none are exempt. Everybody grieves because everybody, at some point, experiences loss. There is a kind of Christianity that gives the impression that faith in Christ exempts us from this kind of suffering. In the old hymn "Trust and Obey," the hymn writer declared:
Not a shadow can rise,
Not a cloud in the skies,
But his smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt, nor a fear
Not a sigh, nor a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.
Yet even the strongest of believers face times of dark shadows. We find a more balanced view in another old hymn which begins:
Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find, to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father's wise bestowment,
I've no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what he deems best—
Lovingly, its part of pain or pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
The words of this hymn are more balanced, though I think I like them less. The notion that seasons of mourning are inevitable is not very appealing to me. But I find Jesus' words even more disturbing. Blessed are those who mourn? What could he possibly be thinking?
My reaction is a bit like the character Hugh in Annie Dillard's novel The Living. Dillard describes a funeral service where Hugh listens as the preacher, Norval Tawes, reads Scripture and prays at the graveside. "O Death, where is thy sting?" the preacher prays. Hugh thinks, Just about everywhere, since you ask. The sting of death does seem to be just about everywhere. Who can say they haven't felt it?
And which one of us would be willing to say that its sharp pain is a blessing? If we consider Jesus' words carefully, however, it becomes clear that the blessing is not in the mourning but in something else.
Are those who mourn blessed because they enjoy mourning? No! Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Similar to the first beatitude, the blessing does not lie in the experience of mourning, but in the consequence that arises from it. The blessing that comes with mourning is the blessing of being comforted.
In the book Stories for the Journey, William R. White tells about a European seminary professor named Hans, whose wife Enid passed away. Hans was so overcome with sorrow that he lost his appetite and didn't want to leave the house. Concerned for him, the seminary president paid Hans a visit, along with three other colleagues, and the grieving professor confessed that he was struggling with doubt. "I am no longer able to pray to God," Hans admitted. "In fact, I am not certain I believe in God any more." After a moment of silence, the seminary president said, "Then we will believe for you. We will pray for you." The four men met daily for prayer, asking God to restore the gift of faith to their friend. Some months later, as the four friends gathered for prayer with Hans, he smiled and said, "It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me."
Comfort is either something we give to others, or it is something we receive from someone else. It is not something we do for ourselves. That is especially true of the kind of mourning Jesus has in mind here. This is a special kind of mourning.
Mourning is spiritual.
Jesus promises a blessing to those who mourn, because this kind mourning is spiritual. While someone's death is the most obvious cause for mourning, it isn't the only cause. We often grieve over the living. The apostle Paul writes about this kind of grief in 2 Corinthians 12:21 when he says: "I am afraid that when I come again, my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin, and debauchery in which they have indulged." Sometimes we grieve over the sinful actions of others. If you are a parent, you probably know how Paul felt toward the Corinthians. His sentiment is parental in nature. Paul had written to the church promising to visit but had been delayed. In the meantime, word reached him of serious problems in the church. One of the church's members was heavily involved in sin and was unrepentant about it. Even worse, the rest of the church seemed proud of this one's attitude: "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?" (1 Cor. 5:1-2).
What Paul has to say to the Corinthians seems a bit harsh to the modern ear. Put him out of the church? Where is the grace in that? Paul is supposed to be the apostle of grace. He talks about grace more than anyone else in the Bible. Isn't this a little inconsistent? It's worth comparing Paul's command to put this man out of the church with something he says in his Epistle to the Galatians, a letter shot through with the theology of grace. In Galatians 6:1, Paul commands: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted." What do you do when someone is caught in sin? You "restore" them. In the original language, this term means to return something to its former condition. In secular Greek the word was used to speak of setting a broken bone. This background helps us understand Paul's thinking about the kind of discipline he commanded the Corinthian church to practice. The action he wants them to take is restorative rather than punitive. The long term goal is not to put the man out but to restore him to his former condition.
For the most part, we don't go as far as the Corinthians did, boasting about the sinners in our church. We are just silent about it. We consider such things a matter of personal conscience. Have you ever wondered why it's so hard for us to hold one another accountable for our sin? One reason is because we are afraid of disrupting relationships. The tragedy of this is that the presence of sin has already introduced a serious disruption in our relationships. Ignoring its presence only makes it worse. But there is a more subtle, more personal reason we don't want to deal with the sin in the church. It's related to what Jesus says in the second beatitude. We ignore and minimize the sin of others, because we have never learned to mourn for our own sin. I should point out that the opposite can also be true. Failure to honestly deal with our own sin can make us ruthless when dealing with the sin of others. Jesus has more to say about this later in the Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew 7:3-4, Jesus says, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Either way, the solution is the same. In order to properly grieve over the sins of others, I need to grieve over my own sins first.
Every time I travel on a plane the same thing happens at the beginning of the flight. The flight attendants go through the "Litany of Flight." You know what I mean—they give their speech about buckling your seatbelts, finding the exits, and using your seat cushion as a floatation device. As if I'm actually going to have the presence of mind to grab the cushion and use it as a life preserver as the plane is going down! At some point in the discourse they say something that has always impressed me for its wisdom and common sense: "If the cabin loses air pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from the compartment over your head. If someone seated next to you is having trouble putting on their oxygen mask, put yours on first, and then help your neighbor." When you think about it, that really makes sense.
Jesus uses the same reasoning here. You can't help someone else deal with their sin until you face your own first. So what's the remedy? Holy mourning. Does Jesus mean that we should make a public display of our sin? Should we come to the front of the church and weep at the altar? Well, there's nothing wrong with that, as long as it's sincere. Weeping can be good, but it is not a guarantee of repentance. Speaking of this beatitude, Puritan preacher Thomas Watson said, "It is not so much the weeping eye God respects, as the broken heart." The broken heart is the problem that keeps us from embracing this idea of mourning. Who wants a broken heart? Have you ever broken your arm? Your foot? Your nose? When has a broken anything ever felt good? What makes Jesus think we would aspire to a broken heart? It's important for us to hear the promise connected with mourning.
Mourning is temporary.
Mourning is inevitable, but it is also temporary. Jesus makes a promise to those who mourn over their sin: "Blessed are those who mourn," he says, "for they will be comforted." They will be consoled. How does God grant this blessing of consolation?
One way he does this is through his Word. First John 1:9 promises, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." God also uses other people to console us. In 2 Corinthians 2:7, the apostle Paul tells the church of Corinth how to respond to a member who has been disciplined by the church and has repented: "Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow." This kind of comfort is the biblical counterpart to confession.
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, there is a point in the order of service where the congregation kneels and confesses its sins. "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts," the congregation says. "We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done." It is a powerful moment—but it isn't the end. While the congregation continues to kneel, the minister declares the words of absolution. He announces to the congregation that God pardons and absolves all those who truly repent. This isn't everyone's tradition; perhaps it should be. Those who mourn over sin need the comforting promise that those who confess are forgiven for Jesus' sake.
There is a third means God uses to comfort those who mourn over sin: his Spirit. In fact, in John 14:26, the noun form of this word "comfort" is used as a title of the Holy Spirit. He is called the "Comforter," or the "Counselor." One element of the Spirit's ministry in the life of the believer is to provide us with the assurance that we have been forgiven. Rom. 8:15 says, "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children." But in the end, even this is only a temporary measure. Ultimately, there is only one remedy for grief: the comfort of being in God's presence.
Perhaps that's why C. S. Lewis's book A Grief Observed ends the way it does. Like a symphony that isn't quite finished, it ends with an unresolved chord. Lewis concludes the book describing the final moments spent with his wife: "How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back!" Lewis writes. "She said not to me but to the chaplain, 'I am at peace with God.' She smiled, but not at me." His last line is a quote from Dante, "She turned once more to the eternal Fount." This note of ambivalence points to a final remedy for grief. According to Revelation 21:4-5, the remedy will come to those who know Jesus Christ as savior in the New Jerusalem, where God will "wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
Our tears of sorrow over sin will eventually be wiped away. Though we may sometimes doubt it, the promise of that day is certain. For now our pilgrimage to that city of happiness is a trail of tears—it winds its way through the valley of shadow. But only for a time.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.