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©Douglas Beyer 2000

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GOOD GRIEF: "Happy are those that mourn!"
Matthew 5:4

Matthew 5:4Christianity has always seemed peculiar because it places sorrow among the resources of life. The rest of the world, on the other hand, doesn't know what to do with sorrow. Modern society tries to cover up its griefs, miseries and wounds. Like the ancient Persian kings who forbade upon pain of death bringing anything sorrowful into their courts, so we avoid and repress our griefs. Grief has become the new "pornography." It is rarely mentioned in polite company. And when it is introduced into normal conversation, it usually produces an awkward embarrassment. It is the new "unmentionable."

So carefully have we taught our sons, "Big boys don't cry," that when they grow up they believe that there is something unmanly about shedding tears. Men and women will often apologize for weeping at the death of a loved one as though sorrow revealed a defect in their faith.

How far have we gotten from Jesus! The shortest verse in the Bible is one of the best: "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Since the Savior, who will someday raise us from the dead, wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus, no disciple of his need apologize for his or her tears today. Tears are the safety valve of the heart when too much pressure is on it.

While our modern age is compulsively pursuing an illusive life undisturbed by painful and unpleasant things, Christianity recognizes and accepts grief and suffering as something useful. We do so not morbidly or masochistically, but because we know God ordains sorrow for a purpose — a purpose which we confess is often hidden from our eyes, but which we grasp by faith.

We know that though God had one son without sin, he has none without sorrow. Long before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah declared him to be "a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). He suffered excruciating pain (the word "excruciating" has the word cross, "crux," in it).

Having suffered his own pain and the pains of others, Jesus is well qualified to say, "Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." The bliss of the brokenhearted — how strange that sounds! What did Jesus mean? There are three different interpretations. He may have meant either one or all three.

THE PERSONAL INTERPRETATION

Perhaps Jesus meant it personally. Those who are able to feel the pain of the loss of a loved one are better off than those whose feelings are numb. Psychologists now confirm that hearts that never feel sorrow can never feel joy. It is literally truth that the happy people are those who can experience the depths as well as the heights of human emotion.

At the very least, sorrow awakens us to the struggle between good and evil. It compels us to leave the safety of being disinterested bystanders in the drama of life and forces us to be active participants. It was said of Mrs. Joad in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, "Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding."

History reminds us that some of the greatest people have been those who have suffered most. They graduated from the school hard knocks whose colors are black and blue. Time and again God washed their eyes with tears so that they could see straight. With refined insight they know what is really important in life so that they do not waste their precious time with the trivial or unimportant.

The biggest cynics, on the other hand, are very often those who have the least right to be. Living in a protected and privileged environment they look out on the troubles of others and conclude there is no just and loving God. An old Arabian proverb says it well: "All sunshine makes a desert."

Life does not make us what we are. We make life what it is by our attitude toward it. Our whole world is shaped by our attitudes. Happy or cynical, comic or tragic, life appears to us as we react to it. Our life can be completely changed by a shift in our thinking. We can live in the depths or heights. The altitude is in our attitude.

Though sorrow we grow strong as we let God into our hearts through the broken places. L. B. Bridgers discovered this the day he lost his wife and family in a tragic fire. His response was to write the familiar song:

        "There's within my heart a melody.
        Jesus whispers sweet and low,
        "Fear not, I am with thee. Peace, be still,"
        In all of life's ebb and flow.

        Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know.
        Fills my every longing. Keeps me singing as I go
."

THE SOCIAL INTERPRETATION

Jesus may have meant, "Happy are those who mourn," personally. But he may have meant it socially: "Happy are those who mourn for the sorrows of others." Vicarious suffering is at the same time the most pitiful and beautiful of all.

Your first response may be to call it unfair. Your sense of justice declares that one should suffer only for his or her own sins and sorrows. You want nobody to suffer for you, nor you for anyone else. But on second thought, would you really want it that way? Would you want to live in a world in which a parent would feel no sense of shame for an immoral son or daughter? Would you want to live in a world in which a wife would shed no tears for a drunken husband, or a husband would not grieve for wayward wife? Like Moses (Exodus 32:30-32) and Jesus (Matthew 23:37), great saints have always suffered the griefs of sinners.

Wilberforce, the great nineteenth century British social reformer and Christian activist sought the freedom of slaves without resorting to war. In the House of Commons he said, "I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself in common with the whole Parliament of Great Britain for having the horrid trade carried on under our authority. We are all guilty." His vicarious sorrow for an oppressed minority was the beginning point for abolition of slavery without civil war.

SadnessA little girl whose mother sent her to the store for a loaf of bread was gone a long time. When she finally got home her mother asked why she was late. She explained that a friend of hers down the street had broken her doll and that she had to help her. "Help her?" her mother asked. "What could you do?"

She said, "I sat down and helped her cry."

Blessed are those who know how to sit down and help someone cry. Happy are those who mourn for the sorrow of others.

Vicarious suffering is knitted into the very fabric of life. The human race would be poorer if it were not. Oh the pain sometimes becomes so intense that we cry out, "I wish I didn't care." But in our quieter moments we are very glad we do. Blessed are those who mourn for others for they shall be comforted.

        Forget the ache your own heart holds
        By easing other's pain;
        Forget your hungering for wealth
        By seeking other's gain;
        And make your life much briefer seem
        By brightening up the years —
        For tears dry quicker in the eyes
        That look for other's tears
. (Author unknown)

God comforts you not to make you comfortable, but to make you a comforter. The apostle Paul writes, "(God) helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:4). Christian faith is not a happiness pill, but a relationship with God that affects everyone else you touch.

THE ETHICAL INTERPRETATION

When Jesus said, "Blessed are they that mourn," he may have intended that we understand it ethically. Happy are those who mourn for their sin, for they shall be comforted. When you sin, is your conscience grieved? Be glad! Rejoice that you are not "past feeling" (Ephesians 4:19).

A man whose feet had been frozen and later amputated said, "As long as I could feel the pain, I was happy." As long as you can feel the pain of a wounded conscience, you have good reason to be happy.

Unfortunately, this is the very sort of pain we struggle to avoid. We much prefer the psychologist's couch to the mourner's bench. We want God's blessing without God's purging. We want the crown without the cross. We forget that Christ came to make people good, not just feel good. To all who mourn for their sin, he offers comfort — the wonderful comfort of forgiveness, acceptance and renewed fellowship.

"The sadness that is used by God," Paul says, "brings a change of heart that leads to salvation" (2 Corinthians 7:10). The ancient church fathers describe that change in two ways: attrition and contrition. Attrition is when a stone is broken by a hammer. It is change because of fear of the consequences. Contrition is when an iceberg floating southward is melted by the warmth of the gulf stream and sun. It is change because of love. The first comes by the law which reveals our sin; the second comes by the gospel which reveals the mercy of God.

Although Christian faith is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort, it does not begin in comfort. It begins in mourning. It is no use trying to go on to that comfort without first going through the mourning. C. S. Lewis reminds us, "comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth — only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair." (Mere Christianity)

THREE COMFORTS

The scriptures identify three stages of comfort for those who go through personal, social and ethical mourning. There is, first of all, the comfort of conversion when we answer Christ's invitation: "Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). John Newton wrote,

    "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
        In a believer's ear!
    It sooths his sorrows, heals his wounds,
        And drives away his fears."

Besides the comfort of conversion, there is the continual comfort available to the converted. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the church at Corinth: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction" (2 Corinthians l:3 RSV).

Finally there is the comfort expressed in Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man. After a life of begging at the gate of the rich man, Lazarus dies and is carried by angels into Abraham's bosom. There we are told, "Now he is comforted" (Luke 16:25). Even for those who live a miserable life on earth — or perhaps especially for those who live such life, there remains a final comfort in heaven. Then they shall know the profound truth Jesus spoke when he said, "Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

From his prison on Patmos John foresaw the day when "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be anymore pain: for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4). Until that time, if circumstances find you in God, you will find God in your circumstances. For if he numbers our hairs, he surely numbers our tears. Be thankful, then, for your broken heart, if, by being broken, you are brought to God for mending.

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