Monday, December 29, 2014

Blessed are those who mourn. Matthew 5:4

One of the hallmarks of popular religion in America today is that “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”[1]  Listening to some Christian teaching one definitely gets the impression that a Christian should never feel down and out, but rather that life should always be sunny.  And according to such people, if you believe the gospel, you should always be smiling and laughing, even in the face of difficulty and hardship.  Or, at the very least, the emphasis in much preaching and teaching today leaves little space for the place of mourning in the life of the Christian.

There is thus a mighty contrast, then, not only between Christ’s teaching and the world, but also between our Lord’s teaching and many popular religious emphases.  For our Lord says, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Not only does mourning have a place in the Christian life, it carries with it a blessing: those who mourn shall be comforted.  Note the way our Lord puts it in Luke 6:21, 25: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. . . .  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”

Now on the face of it, our Lord’s teaching seems a bit repressive.  But our Lord is not teaching that it is sinful to laugh, or to be joyful. (How could he?  For the promise in Luke is that those who weep shall laugh.)  Nor is he teaching that all weeping is good.  There unfortunately have been some Christians, especially in the past, who have acted as if being a Christian meant keeping a perpetual long face, as if holiness were identical with sadness.  There are some who have an unhealthy habit of introspection, who are always looking into themselves and morbidly fixating on their sins, who are in a state of perpetual despair about themselves.  But as we shall see, that is not what our Lord is recommending here, either.

On the other hand, however, what our Lord says here does rebuke the church today for much of its glibness and superficiality.  We are today so focused on external appearance and wanting the world to like us that we have little time for embracing a spirituality that makes room for both seriousness and joy.  The joy that so many people today embrace is far from the rejoicing with trembling that is encouraged by the psalmist (Ps. 2:11).

But when you look into the New Testament, this joyful seriousness is exactly what marked the early Christians.  In fact, it marked our Lord.  It has been pointed out that there is no record whatsoever of our Lord laughing.  That’s not to say that he never laughed, but it is significant that the gospel writers never describe a single instance of it.  We do read on several occasions that he wept – at the tomb of Lazarus, over the city of Jerusalem.  We read that he was angry.  We read that he was moved with compassion and pity.  But we never read that he laughed.  Why is that?  Surely it has to do with the fact that, as Isaiah put it, he was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).  He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (v. 4). That does not mean he was bereft of joy.  It was joy that carried him through obedience to death, the death on the cross (Heb. 12:2).  We are told in Luke 10:21 that “in that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit.”  But our Lord did not lead a life of joviality and fun.  That is only an inch-thick, surface-only kind of joy that doesn’t last.  That’s a Six Flags kind of fun that lasts for about three minutes.  What our Lord exemplified and modeled and offers is a kind of joy that is deeper and more lasting than you get in the roller coaster Christianity that is offered in so many churches.

But you see this joyful seriousness in his followers as well.  You see it in Paul who could rejoice in the salvation that he had in Christ, and yet at the same time acknowledge that he was the least of the apostles, the least of all the saints, chief of sinners.  You see it in the way he describes normal Christianity to the Roman believers: he tells them that along with creation we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).  Note the conjunction of groaning and hope.  That’s what makes for both seriousness and deep joy.

You see it in the Apostle Peter’s letters also.  There he writes almost paradoxically, “In this [salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:7).  In fact, he follows this up by describing their joy as “inexpressible and filled with glory” (v. 8).  There was joy and there was grief, coexisting in the same persons.  The joy didn’t take away the grief, but neither did the grief undermine their joy.

He goes on to tell them how they should live: not laughing their way to heaven as if there were no serious, weighty realities to face, but to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (1 Pet. 1:17).

So what we can say from our Lord’s words is that mourning is going to characterize the Christian.  But what exactly is our Lord referring to here?  It is at this point that context is key.  We should not read any of these Beatitudes in isolation from the rest.  They modify and interpret each other.  We live in a world where mourning is going to come in some form to everybody.  But these Beatitudes are not meant for everybody: they describe the character of the follower of Jesus Christ.  So the first thing we note is that this mourning is the mourning of a particular individual: Jesus blesses the tears of those who are his disciples, and no one else.

In other words, the person whose mourning leads to the promise of Divine comfort are those who are poor in spirit before God, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are pure in heart, who are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. 

Nor is it every type of mourning that is blessed here.  There is a wrong way to weep.  Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians, in reference to the passing of loved ones, that “you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  In other words, grieving and mourning without the hope of the gospel is a sinful kind of mourning.  For a Christian, to be without hope is to fundamentally contradict what we say we believe – in fact, Paul puts it strongly when he says that we are “saved by hope” (Rom. 8:24, KJV).  Despair should have no place in the Christian heart.  The Christian is someone who can say with the apostle, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:7-10).

It is even possible to grieve over sins in the wrong way, if you end up despairing of hope.  Judas repented this way.  As Paul put it in the same letter, “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting.  For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no less through us.  For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:9-10).  A truly repentant person not only grieves over their sin but also grasps the mercy of God in Christ.  They cry over their sin and hope in the gospel.

So how do we weep?  What is the type of mourning that our Lord blesses?  Certainly, it includes a mourning over sin.  It is the product of poverty of spirit – that, as we see our spiritual impoverishment before God, our sinfulness and dirtiness before God Almighty, we will grieve.  Godly grief, as Paul defines it, is a grief over sins that leads to repentance.  That is what God blesses.  It leads to salvation, the greatest blessing of all.

It is the type of grief that David expresses after his adultery with Bathsheba (Ps. 51:1-4).  It is not a mourning over sin because we have been caught, or merely because of the consequences of our sins, but because sin is a spiritually disfiguring thing.  Sin blocks fellowship with God, puts distance between us and the source of true joy and happiness.  Note that David does not mention Bathsheba; he says rather that “against you [God], you only, have I sinned” (v. 4).  As Thomas Watson put it, “The offence against God troubled him.  He grieved more for the treason than the bloody axe.”

There is in fact no true conversion to Christ without this.  According to the prophet, when God puts his Spirit in us and makes us his people, “then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations” (Ezek. 36:31).  We must be “cut to the heart” with God’s truth about our sin before we will say, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).

And even after we are converted, we are going to fall into sin.  When that happens, we need to have that godly grief that produces repentance.  While we are in this world, no one gets to the place where mourning over sin is no longer necessary.  We are not yet at the Place where God will wipe away every tear.  It is in heaven alone that there will be no weeping or crying.

And when we weep over our sin, we weep in hope in the mercy of God.  If we stop at our sin, we are stopping at ourselves.  When we are shown our sin, we need to look to Christ.  Though godly grief is necessary for true repentance, it is only necessary because it helps us to see our sin in its true colors and to hate it and to see our need for a Redeemer from sin.  But weeping does not purge sin.  No amount of crying will take away our guilt.  Only Jesus Christ can do that.  The gospel does not call us to penance; it calls us to faith in Christ.  As A. W. Pink put it, “True comfort is not to be found in anything in self – no, not in perceiving our own vileness – but in Christ alone.”

But it is not only our sin that we grieve over.  We look at the world around us, and we see injustice, cruelty, suffering, and pain, and we weep.  There are stories on the news now days that I can hardly even look at or read.  I just can’t stand them.  Not too long ago I saw something in the news that made me weep.  We must grieve for the sins and miseries of others.  The Psalmist said, “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (Ps. 119:136).  Jesus was grieved over the hardness of men’s hearts (Mk. 3:5). 

But we must not think that when our Lord blessed mourning, he was only referring to mourning related directly to sin.  There is no such limitation in the text or in the context.  The Christian does not only mourn over his sin and the sins of others; the Christian weeps and mourns over cancer and pain and loneliness and lost opportunities and unemployment and a multitude of other trials and difficulties.  God works all things for good to those who love him, including these things.  We suffer with Christ, not only when we suffer for his name, but when we deal with the trials that come to us through faith in him.  He brings comfort to his people who weep over broken bodies as well as broken souls.

Job wept, and his friends wept with him, when God allowed Satan to ruin his business and his family and his health.  But in the end, God gave him comfort.  The book of Job begins in mourning, and ends in God comforting him. 

But what does our Lord mean exactly, when he says that those who mourn will be comforted?  First, remember that the “blessed” that our Lord speaks is not a blessing we put on ourselves by a positive outlook or by a lucky break; rather, it is a blessing that the Lord gives.  The blessing is there and it is true whether we feel it or not. 

This is an incredible promise that mourning believers need to hold onto.  When you are weeping, remember that God has not forsaken you.  When we are at our very lowest, at the bottom of the valley, then we mourn and weep.  But even then God has pronounced a blessing over your life, and there is God’s promise that at the end of mourning there will be rejoicing.  The world has it backwards.  It gives you laughter first followed by mourning.  God reverses the process: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!  Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!  He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps. 127:4-6).  God puts your tears in his bottle and writes them in his book; he has not forgotten you (Ps. 56:8).

The comfort that our Lord promises, like the kingdom of heaven, is both present and future.  God certainly does not wait to give comfort to his people.  The Spirit of God sent by Christ is called the Paraklete, a word with such a wide range of meaning that translations have trouble rendering it.  Some translate it by “Helper,” some by “Advocate,” some by “Comforter.”  These are all included in the meaning of the word.  He helps us and he advocates for us and he comforts us.  And this Spirit who comforts God’s people is not some distant promise: Jesus tells his disciples that “he dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:17).  He is the earnest of the inheritance (Eph. 1:14).

Paul speaks of “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” which “will [now] guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).  He prays for the Roman believers, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).

The means that God uses to bring comfort to his people are prayer (as Phil. 4:7 indicates) and the Scriptures (Rom. 15:4).  Hope is the only way to rescue a mourning person from despair, and the way that God ministers hope to us is through his Word; specifically, through the promises in his Word.  We need to be reminded in the midst of trials that make us weep that God still loves us, that he is still in control, that he is still working good for his people.  God’s Word helps us to refocus. 

God can even bring joy, not just despite the mourning, but because of it.  This is certainly true with respect to repentance.  But it is also true when God brings hard times into our lives and weeping becomes a frequent companion.  Spurgeon knew this truth better than most.  He said, “I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny.  But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable . . . Affliction is the best furniture in my house.  It is the best book in a minister’s library.”  On another occasion, he  said, “I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness . . . If some men, that I know of could only be favoured with a month of rheumatism, it would, by God’s grace mellow them marvelously.”  Indeed, the Psalmist put it this way, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps. 119:71).

All God’s people will shed tears.  They will grieve.  They will mourn.  They will also all have comfort.

But this comfort is not only present, its fullness awaits the age to come.  All comfort now eventually makes way for sorrow.  But the comfort that is promised here extends into all eternity.  In other words, there is coming a time when comfort will no longer be followed by weeping.  There is present comfort and there is a final comfort that will displace all earthly sorrows.

Which means that the comfort in the age to come is of such a nature that it will swallow up all earthly memories of our painful past.  “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).  Our hearts which now are plagued with sin and lust and discontent will one day be healed as we are perfectly conformed to the image of God’s Son.  Our bodies which are now in the process of returning to the dust, crippled by pain or undone by deformity, will one day be made new: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).  There is no earthly comfort that even approaches the heavenly comfort.

There is nothing wrong with sadness.  It is no mark of spiritual immaturity that we are downcast or depressed.  Mourning is our lot here.  It is said of the saintly John Bradford that there was hardly a day that he did not weep over his sins.  But we should always weep and groan in hope.  There is coming a day when we will be done with this sinful world and sinful body, which will be exchanged for a new body in a new heavens and new earth. 

The cause for mourning is the result of sin manifesting itself in our hearts, in others, or indirectly as a consequence of the fall.  But Christ has overcome sin, he has conquered death and the grave, and he gives the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life to all who trust in him.  This is the hope of the gospel.  It is what gives us joy in our sorrow.  May God give us grace to believe it in our joy and in our sorrow.



[1] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, page 41.


                                                            

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