Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Matthew 5:4
I remember New Year’s Day. The sadness. A gnawing ache. A restlessness. A deep sense of dissatisfaction. “Maybe you’re just tired,” I said to myself. “A touch depressed. Why don’t you get some extra sleep, go see a funny movie, call an old friend, get lost in a book.”
After all, I’ve been there before. I know what to do! When feeling depressed, if all else fails, read a good biography. You’ll find out others had lives that weren’t all that easy. John Wesley struggled in a difficult marriage. Robert Frost was past 40 when his first poem was published. George Fredrick Handel went bankrupt twice. This is life! This is the way living really is! It was then, is now, and ever shall be until Jesus comes!
Another ploy I use when down is to count my blessings. Let’s see, 26 years of marriage to Kathryn. She’s not only my best friend, but I get to take a long walk with her almost every day. Three growing, healthy children, all Christians. Good health. I don’t think I missed a single day of work last year. The opportunity to preach on college campuses and impact a future generation. Four days of scenery and snow skiing in New Hampshire like you wouldn’t believe! A book accepted by a publisher. A chance to write for three national magazines. Being a part of a fine local church with all her love and joy and challenge. Fixing up an old stone house to live in. Getting to sit at the controls of an F-16 fighter jet. Piloting over the Grand Canyon. The adventure of exploring and preaching across Bermuda. Driving around in an old but restored 1988 Mustang (even though the heater does not work!)
So I said to myself, “Shouldn’t that be about enough?” Still I wasn’t perking up. So I quoted Shakespeare to myself, the old priest’s advice to Juliet, “A pack of blessings rests on your head, but thou, like a sullen and pouting wench, frowneth upon thy fortune!”
“Maybe you’re just greedy,” I mused. “You expect too much. You’re just another overly ambitious preacher!”
“Or maybe,” I feared, “it’s repetition depression.” You know. Last year was so wonderful, but can I do it again next year? Will there be more joy, more love, more faithfulness?
Still my spirits were low. So I sat down and seriously asked myself, “Just what is it you want, Stephen?” A new car? No. Another house? No. A boat? No. A fancy trip? No. A job that’s different? No. New friends? No.
What I want is God. I don’t want to sin anymore. I want the Bridegroom to come. I don’t want to have to look on human wreckage anymore. I want God’s kingdom to come. I want to go to heaven. I want to look upon the face of Jesus.
No. I’m not suicidal. It’s just a yearning, an unfulfilled
longing, a grieving in my soul.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. I was having lunch with a businessman. He is one of those humans who has it all together– faith, spouse, children, career, looks, health, income. We had a deep, brooding conversation for 45 minutes and he confessed quite honestly, “I wonder what it’d be like to be really happy for ten minutes.”
Jesus had a word about all this in his Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The notion of mourning in this beatitude means grief or weeping or sadness. But it means more than crying over the death of a loved one. It also includes mourning over sinfulness, grief over loss of innocence, the sorrow of repentance. It is to feel the hurt God feels when he looks out over a sinful world.
The best translation of this passage is: “O the fulfillment of the unfulfilled. O the happiness of the unhappy.” In the English language we recognize such a statement as oxymoronic. That’s like “pretty ugly” or “rush hour” or “tax simplification.” Two notions that don’t belong together are oxymoronic. But still Jesus utters his second beatitude: “O the blessedness of those who let God break their hearts with the things that break his heart. O the happiness of them that care, that feel, that cry over sin. They shall be comforted.”
Some think the Christian life is all smiles, that we should try to be bubbly in the spirit every moment of every day. But such an attitude flies in the face of Christ’s second beatitude. It is more in keeping with the world’s character than it is with God.
For the world says, “Blessed are those who don’t care, who don’t get involved, the partygoers, the flippant, the high, those who insulate themselves, who live life in the fast lane, who go where the good it.”
But Jesus said, “O the fulfillment, the blessedness, the joy of those who care, who mourn, because God is going to bring in the day of comfort.”
Did it ever occur to you that it is a sin to get too comfortable in this sinful, rebellious, and hurting world?
In Ezekiel 9 the Lord observed the wickedness of his people. And He commanded his angels, “Go through the land and put a mark on the foreheads of all those who sigh and groan over sin. Then draw your sword and kill the rest! And begin at the temple!”
Christ knew how to sigh and groan. He wept at John’s funeral. He lamented Lazarus’ passing. He cried over Jerusalem.
The psalmist wrote, “My eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep thy law” (Psalm 119:136).
In Philippians 3:18, Paul confessed, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Where is it one finds this sort of authentic sin-grief in our world today? In Durham, North Carolina, a jury was gathered to hear a case involving a brutal murder. A female juror, hearing the horrid details of drugs, rape, and homicide, was so overcome with the pain
of it all she began to weep. She finally had to be dismissed.
I like that. For we today are far too calloused when we can look upon drunkenness, divorce, abuse, murder, lying, greed, Sabbath breaking, and theft and never once feel so much as a twinge of heartache.
I see this beautiful attitude in the life and art of Vincent van Gogh, a turn-of-the-century Dutch impressionist painter. As a young Christian van Gogh sought ordination to the ministry. Since his education was inadequate, the only license to preach he could obtain was through a missionary society which sent him into the Belgian coal fields. Here were the poorest of the poor. And van Gogh lived among them. He ate their food, shared their clothing, and preached his heart out.
The missions society, upon checking on him, found him to have become as starved, dirty, and ragged as his miners. He was fired for being an unfit reflection on the society.
Van Gogh began to paint out his grief. He used his canvas to show the world the face of coal miners and their abused plight. Over the next 20 years he finished 2,000 pictures.
Not one sold during his lifetime. Lonely, overlooked, unloved, some say van Gogh went insane. He shot himself and died two days later in a rented flat above a pool hall in France. His body was place on a pool table. Many of his paintings were hung on the walls of the hall. He was laid to rest in obscurity.
My favorite van Gogh painting is titled, Starry Night Over The Rhone. The viewer is on the shore of a lake. It is night and across the water is a town, the lights of a party reveling happy couples making merry. Yet there is a cold, dark gulf separating the viewer from the fun. A feeling of isolation sweeps over you. But in the sky! Oh the sky! The stars burn brightly, like torches, lending a sense of hope from above.
Folk singer Don McClean wrote a song about van Gogh in which he laments: “For they could not love you, but still your love was true. And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do. But I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
I also see this godly grief in my friend, Jim. He and his wife were unable to have children of their own. So they adopted. A three-week-old baby girl was placed in their loving arms. They named her Joy. And together they set out to make a happy life. But as the child grew it became apparent something was seriously wrong. Short attention span, volatile emotions, learning disabled— all the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome. Evidently Joy’s mom had drunk way too much alcohol during pregnancy and damaged the child. So Joy will always struggle. She’ll never have the life she should have. And Jim mourns.
A juror at a murder trial, a Dutch impressionist painter, an adoptive parent. They all teach us that some things in life are so awful that the only way we can handle them is by weeping. And when we weep, we find God with us.
Isaiah 53:3 describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
There is a legend in Jewish folklore about “Lamed-Van-Tzaddkim.” He is one of the ten righteous men by whose merit God allows the world to continue.
Recall Genesis 19:16-33. The two angels have set out to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham greets them and invites them in for a meal, and learning of their mission pleads, “If you find ten righteous men in the city, will you show mercy?” The angels agreed.
According to rabbinical legend there was but one righteous man in Sodom. For many years he’d lived, taught, prayed, and encouraged his city to God. His labors were met only with scorn.
Still he begged his listeners to turn to God.
One day as he walked the streets of Sodom a child asked, “Poor stranger, why do you live here weeping and teaching us? You spend yourself body and soul, but can’t you see it’s hopeless?”
To which the righteous man replied, “When I first came here I thought I could change people. Now I know I can’t. But if I keep crying and caring and praying I can at least keep them from changing me.”
“O the happiness of the unhappy. O the fulfillment of the unfulfilled. O the blessedness of those who mourn, who let God break their hearts with what breaks His. O the joy of those who care, who weep, who can still feel. They shall be comforted, soothed, healed, requited.”
I point out that there are large groups of Christians who promise to remove your grief. Some charismatics pledge to you a prosperity, an overflowing, so that you’ll always live life on the peak.
Then there are some fundamentalists who look at mourning and say, “Buck it up! Pray harder. Do right. Open your Bible! There’s no use feeling sad!”
And there’s the self-help book shelf at the Christian book store. Just fix yourself with a good read like You Can Be Joyous Everyday! Or, Blow Away the Dark Clouds of Depression Forever! But I don’t want my grief removed by anyone but Jesus!
Soon. So soon, my sisters and brothers! In that great getting up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well!
No more obesity! No more unemployment. No more scorn. No more cancer. No more alcoholism.
Arthritis? Gone forever! Loneliness? Vanquished! Old age? No more! Sin? History! Pain? A bygone! Rejection? A thing of the past! Death? Swallowed up in life!
What will it be like, then, to wake from sleep refreshed and find life an endless, pristine celestial morning? What will it be like to raise an arm and find it strong, youthful and new again? What will it be like on that distant shore to look into a mirror and see one’s own face without wrinkles, fatigue, worry, the ravages of time? What will it be like to look into the face of an old friend and see perfect companionship? What will it be like to stand and look on the face of
Jesus, to be cuddled in his arms and have him wipe away every teardrop? What will it be like when we’re comforted and can sing new songs of Zion without distraction, without hypocrisy, without the static of our feeble flesh?
Behold, I hear the voice of God say, “Now the dwelling place of God is with men . . . There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain . . . I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21)
And the church says, “Even so, Lord, come!”
All of this God has taught me since New Year’s Day. It’s okay to feel sadness, to have unfulfilled longings, to grieve.
To do so is normal in a world like ours. It might not change anything. But it will surely keep the world from changing you.
“O the blessed fulfillment of those who mourn. They shall be comforted.”
Lord, let me feel as you feel, care as you care, mourn as you mourn. And on that day may I receive your comfort. Amen.