Jesus tells those who mourn as participants of his kingdom that they are blessed: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:4; ESV). In a culture where people often medicate their emotional pain, Jesus’ words on the importance of mourning might be a hard pill to swallow. Of course, there is a place for using medication to address various physical and mental struggles. But still, when so many preach a gospel of positive thinking, Jesus’ call that people are blessed for mourning may be difficult to accept. Since when is blessedness and happiness associated with mourning?
A question that arises at this juncture is: why in the world would Jesus affirm mourning? For one, Jesus mourns. He is a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3). Just as he identifies with us as “God with us” in our sinful condition to take away our sins (Matthew 1:21-23; 3:15), so he invites us to identify with him in his suffering (See Matthew 26:37). Consider also that Jesus tells Saul that he is persecuting Jesus when Saul persecutes the church (Acts 9:5). Later, long after his conversion to the Christian faith, Saul/Paul writes about making up for the lack of suffering and affliction in the church body in his desire to identify with Jesus (Colossians 1:24). When we love someone, we not only rejoice with them in good times, but identify with them in hard times. So it is in our relationship with Jesus.
In addition to Jesus affirming suffering because he mourns and invites us to participate in his life, Jesus also affirms mourning because it involves honest confession: we are messed up. Those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) realize how desperate they are for Jesus’ grace and mercy. They realize that they are deeply wounded and in need of Jesus’ healing touch. Recognition of our spiritual need leads to mourning (Matthew 5:4). Only when we are honest about our situation and mourn our spiritual state can we really hope to experience wholeness.
There is at least one other reason why mourning is welcome. There are still many people who feel that life has been good to them. The individuals I have in mind truly believe they are doing well spiritually, even though they realize that they are messed up and that the world is messed up, too. They look at life as a glass half full rather than half empty. In fact, their cup of salvation overflows because of God’s mercy and grace. Nonetheless, these same people also keenly realize they are drinking from a fount that never runs dry and that God’s goodness is inexhaustible. No matter how wonderful life is, they know there is more—far more. And so, they groan, longing, aching, mourning, hoping with expectation for faith to become sight.
C.S. Lewis gets at this matter in The Problem of Pain. He writes about our indescribable desire for God and heaven: “We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.”
Those who mourn now will be comforted. We who long for his appearing will be comforted with Jesus’ mysterious, glorious presence and manifestation of his kingdom in its full splendor. Even now, we are blessed, though we mourn until that eternal day dawns. May we not medicate away our mourning by fixating on lesser pleasures. Rather, may we find in everything that we rightly desire an agonizing though tantalizing stepping stone that takes us upward to him.
For more on my work on the beatitudes, see my recent book Beatitudes, Not Platitudes: Jesus’ Invitation to the Good Life. You can see some interviews I did about the book here and here.