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SM #3: Good Mourning

Updated: Feb 18

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted and defended. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:4)

CORE (The heart of the message):

Life is loss. To be born is to begin to die, to love is to begin to lose, and as we move through our painful lives we continually experience the loss of purity. Everything in this ephemeral world ends, including our own illusion of innocence, and when we grieve we are tuning into reality. And yet through the Holy Spirit and fellow citizens of the kingdom of the heavens, when we grieve honestly we will be comforted and defended.

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Jesus has begun his Sermon on the Mount with a series of beautiful blessings before ever giving a command, demand, or direction. Grace comes first, and we are meant to remember this later when the Sermon sets the standards high.

We will find in this sermon that Jesus blesses the sad but not the mad. He will soon warn about the danger of anger (the emotion that sits us in the seat of judgement), but Jesus always encourages our sorrow. Perhaps when we are tempted to be outraged, we should transmute that energy into lament. Lament may include a kind of anger, but it refuses to be stuck there. According to Jesus (later in this chapter), anger by itself destroys relationship; it kills vulnerability. It is hard to engage intimately with an angry person. Sorrow on the other hand wrestles honestly with the experience of loss or offence or failure, but leaves our souls soft and open to others.

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

Blessed. The Greek word here translated “blessed” (makarios) means something like fortunate or flourishing. It’s like our English word “lucky” but without the randomness that luck suggests. We could translate it “God has made lucky those who” or “God’s favour is upon those who” or “Flourishing are those who”, but “Blessed” probably still works best, as long as we remember that it points to a Blesser behind the blessing. The word carries a connotation of communication, exhortation, declaration, and congratulation. That is, the translation might be more literally “Blessings upon…” or “God blesses”, the way we might say “Bless you” when someone sneezes, but with real power to make the wish a reality. The blessings come from somewhere and Someone. (For more on this, see our first 1820 study on the Beatitudes.)

Mourn. The Greek word here (penthos) means to lament a loss or an end. It could refer to grieving over a death of a loved one or the loss of a cherished relationship. It could also refer to grieving with a godly sorrow over our own failure. Whether we have lost a job, a relationship, a pet, or a plan we hoped to accomplish, or we have lost our own sense of purity and innocence because of our own failure or someone else’s failure in our lives – to be sad and sorrowful is to be in tune with reality.

Comforted/Defended. The Greek word here (parakaleo) is interesting. It could be translated comforted, encouraged, defended, or advocated for. It is the root of the word that Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit throughout John 14-16 as our “Comforter” or “Advocate” (parakletos). This word can have legal overtones, literally meaning the act of coming alongside someone to say something encouraging or in their defense. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is our parakletos, our Advocate or Defense Attorney, defending us against the accusations of the Accuser/Adversary (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word "Satan"). So our word here could be translated “defended” (as in, those who sorrow over their own sin will be defended from the accusations of others) or “comforted” (as in, those who have lost something or someone significant will be closely encouraged). The English word "comfort" aligns with this well: com (to come alongside and be with) + forte (to strengthen). To "comfort" someone is to come alongside and strengthen them. In our minds we should stay flexible in our translation – between comfort, encourage, or defend – depending on the context. What is clear here is that this word is in a future, promissory tense, but we also know from the rest of Jesus’ teaching that the future realities of the kingdom are already starting to be experienced now. So, Jesus may be saying that when we mourn the loss of a loved one, kingdom citizens will be surrounded by the love and support of a wider, global family in this life. And when we mourn over our own sin we will have him, his Spirit, and his Church come to our defense as our advocates against the accusations of the Enemy. The grace that restores sinners is the heartbeat of the Gospel.

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head. ~ King David (Psalms 3:3)

Notice the duel role of our divine Advocate/Comforter as both a defender/protector AND uplifter/encourager. And today we, as the body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, have the privilege of being both to one another.

In another image, the apostle Paul tells believers to "take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one" (Ephesians 6:16). In some Roman military formations, such as the testudo (“tortoise”), each soldier's shield was helping protect not just himself, but other soldiers as well. Are we using our faith to protect our own hearts and the hearts of our sisters and brothers against the burning arrows of the Accuser?

Never trade what you do know for what you don’t know. Because when tragedies strike, the question is always “why?” That question will haunt you and make you crazy. I don’t know why. But what I do know is that God is good and God loves me and God is working on his perfect plan in my life. So I’m just content with that.

~ Pastor Chuck Smith (Quoted in the book “Jesus Revolution”)

CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

At first read this Beatitude doesn’t seem to be saying much. “Life is hard, but it will be better, so chin up!” But the longer I live the more relevant this Beatitude becomes.

As kids we used to sing the song, “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” I trust Jesus appreciated our hearts, but he was probably also shaking his head. This “Christian” song is not in tune with the teaching of Christ. (If you're out of the loop on this Christian classic, here is a link to a version of that song – as long as you promise not to teach it to your children:

A few times in my life I’ve suffered deep mourning, including recently. The entire experience has become a “thin place” for me – a place where the veil between heaven and earth becomes thinner and we experience more of the light of God shining through. I feel more sad and more glad and more gross and more joyful and more terrible and more… well, I just feel more. Mostly, I feel a rich gratitude for the close, come-along-side comfort and encouragement and advocacy and grace I receive from God through other citizens in the kingdom.

I am also learning the beauty of people who take the initiative to care. I realize how passive I am. When I hear of someone going through tragedy I tend to pray from a distance, thinking “If they need me, they know where to find me.” Why did I not see how inadequate this is? God help me to love actively as you have loved me through your saints.

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

Christians are never urged to seek suffering; they are, however, encouraged to recognize that suffering is an extraordinary teacher. ~ Kenneth E. Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes)

Jesus is laying the groundwork for an honest, open, authentic, embracing community. If those who are downcast are exalted in his kingdom, then we don’t have to fake it till we make it or pretend to be better than we are. Citizens of heaven on earth are real people, really being real in real life, really. We get to drop the masks and make confession of sin or grieving loss or just feeling defeated by life all a part of our normal conversation. What acceptance, what grace.

Good grieving is a godly response to loss of all kinds…

Sometimes we mourn the loss of our own purity.

Jesus said to enter the kingdom we must become like little children (Matthew 18:2). For many of us, that innocence seems so far away. We have failed miserably and sullied our souls as well as our relationships. For us, grieving our own sin is a do-or-die aspect of our healing process.

Mourning over personal and corporate sin has a rich tradition within the Old Testament scriptures (1 Samuel 7; Nehemiah 1; Daniel 9; etc) and this would be one clear application of our present Beatitude. The apostle Paul wrote:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 7:10)

There is a kind of sorrow that bogs down in self-pity and leads nowhere. But there is a kind of sorrow for our own sin that partners with the courage to rethink and repent. This godly sorrow is part of us owning our sin and taking steps to make things right best we can. Jesus and his kingdom citizens come alongside us to offer comfort, encouragement, acceptance, and advocacy throughout this hard process.

As we cover in our first post on this site, A Mercy-Full Church, part of the pattern of interaction in any kingdom community (called churches), should be the welcoming opportunity to confess our failures and be met with the simple response of prayer on our behalf (James 5:16). No moralizing lectures or disappointed finger-wags or virtue signaling or self-righteous grandstanding or performative ethical outrage, but a gentle coming alongside the person mourning their own sin in prayerful advocacy: that is, praying for them not against them or even just away from them (as in, “Lord help our church recover from this person’s sin, and we remember to pray for the person they offended that they would be well, and we pray for those whose faith would be impacted by this sin”, etc). The first response to confession is comforting prayer that comes alongside the sinner. Praying for them. This advocacy is our Beatitude in action.

And as Jesus points out later in Matthew, sometimes we need the help of two or three emissaries of mercy to reach out to us in private confrontation before we have the courage or even the presence of mind to confess our sin. Yes, sometimes someone will confess their sin on their own initiative, but Jesus anticipates that most of the time loving confrontation will be the necessary catalyst to confession. There is grace for that too.

Blessed are those who mourn over their own sin, even after they needed to be confronted, for in my kingdom they will be comforted and not crucified, defended and not destroyed.

At least, that’s the vision of Jesus.

Jesus illustrates this Beatitude through his Parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Once the semi-repentant massive screwup of a sinning son comes back and submits to his father, the gracious dad throws him a welcome home party, no strings attached. This is so upside down when compared to the religious and secular cultures of Jesus’ day and our day, that most of us will identify more easily with the older brother’s reaction. That brother protests his father’s radical embrace of grace. This older brother points out that he has never sinned against his father like his little brother, and yet is receiving no special treatment for his steady state faithfulness. The father simply responds that being a part of the family should always be enough of a reward, and that the larger celebration is reserved for resurrection, since the prodigal son “was dead and is alive again”. (This story, we should notice, is a more fleshed out telling of the parables of the lost coin and lost sheep in Luke 15.)

In the kingdom of heaven on earth, sinners are celebrated when they mourn their failure, and self-righteous “older brothers” are left standing in the field.

Sometimes we mourn the loss of a person.

To lose a friend or family member, a partner, or even a pet is to lose the most we can lose. God IS love (1 John 4:8, 16), so this universe runs on relationship. In the end, soul-to-soul connection is all that matters. Love is life. And to lose connection with a loved one is to experience death in our own souls.

And yet, to mourn like this is to acknowledge that we have experienced real love – and this is life’s biggest blessing. And we are grateful that Jesus came to help us through our hardest times of grieving. We know that Jesus believed he was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to … bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:14-21). Jesus has come not just to heal broken bodies, but to mend broken hearts and restore broken relationships. Sometimes that healing will happen in this life and other times we will have to wait until life after death. But either way, for the disciple of Jesus, loss is not the end of our story.

Ultimately, the person we mourn missing most is Jesus himself. Strangely, even though we have never walked with Jesus physically on this earth, if we are his disciples, we miss his tangible presence, and mourning that loss is a part of our spirituality. To be a Christ-follower today is to live in the minor key of lamenting our way through this season of separation from our Saviour.

I’m not making this up. Later in Matthew’s gospel we read:

Then John’s disciples came and asked Jesus, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14-15)

Perhaps this passage can only be applied to Jesus’ first generation of disciples, but most scholars tend to see all discipleship lessons as transferable to us today. So, to follow Jesus today is to live with a yearning to be reunited with the One we miss, even if we have never physically met him in the first place. As our souls submit to Jesus and live out his teaching, we find both greater joy and greater sorrow: joy at the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven, and sorrow that it still feels so incomplete and so far-off. And related to this thought…

Sometimes we mourn the incompleteness of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Christ-followers grieve that something beautiful has begun but is not finished, the kingdom is at hand but not fully realized, inaugurated but not established. So, in the meantime our experience of the beauty of the kingdom of heaven on earth is still permeated by pain.

Just think for a moment of the dark side of church history, and church present. The Christian church has done so much good, and so much evil. We invented hospitals – and put more people in them than any other religion. We spread a beautiful message of love – often by slaughtering anyone who wouldn’t accept it. We have championed objective truth – and tortured people we thought failed to embrace it. We evangelize courageously, but to what end? Jesus’ words of woe to the Pharisees could often apply to segments of the Christian church: “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).

The question arises, if the Kingdom of Heaven has already begun here on earth, why is the world so filled with pain and suffering and selfishness and sin? And why does the Church itself seem so polluted by worldly values like angry judgementalism, inflexible legalism, and divisive infighting? The answer is that, while the kingdom of God has begun, the other kingdoms have not yet been removed. We are living in the time of overlap, and there is much to be joyful about and much to grieve at the same time.

Our sense that something is wrong with everything is not neurosis – it is reality. And grieving is our appropriate engagement with that reality.

Sometimes we mourn the death of a dream.

It is worth mentioning that some people live every day with the pain of unfulfilled expectations. They have never married as they thought they would, or had the children they hoped for, or accomplished career goals they anticipated. Their dreams are dying as the years pass. This is a deep spiritual pain that cannot be easily set aside.

If this kind of mourning describes you, please know this: God gets you. God knows what it’s like to have a dream for his creation that went unfulfilled. In fact, that dream turned into a nightmare:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God grieves (also see Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30). Jesus was prophesied to be a man of sorrows acquainted with grief who would take up and bear our sadness (Isaiah 53). Before he clears the temple as judgement upon the whole religious system, Jesus first weeps over Jerusalem's missed opportunity to embrace him as their king who would lead them to peace instead of war against the Romans, a war they would lose terribly (Luke 19:41-44). The Greek word here describes out-loud wailing, a sorrow that cannot be contained or kept quiet. And if this was Jesus' emotional reaction to the failure of Jerusalem's Jews to follow his way of peace, I can only imagine his gut-wrenching lament over the past two millennia as he has watched the violent history of his own Church unfold. Jesus knows the acute pain of the death of a dream.

As we read through the Bible, we learn that God knows what it’s like to have a spouse cheat on him, to have his children turn on him, to have his friends betray him, deny him, and abandon him. God understands sorrow. In fact, in our own sorrow we may experience a deep heart connection with God’s heart. An early Syrian Church Father, Saint Ephraim, said that until we cry, we do not know God. To mourn is to connect heart-to-heart with the Jesus who weeps at Lazarus’ tomb and over the city of Jerusalem, and the God who regrets making humankind after seeing how much we hurt one another and who currently sees the sorrows in this world and grieves alongside the oppressed.

Yes, God mourns with us, God comforts us, and God equips us to be agents of comfort to others:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Our mourning has purpose, even if that purpose is merely for God to equip us to better understand our world and to offer needed comfort to the many around us who are also grieving loss. Let’s not let a drop of our sorrow go to waste.

A heart that knows how to grieve is a heart that knows how to love. ~ Amy-Jill Levine (The Sermon on the Mount)

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Ezra 10:6; Psalm 3 (especially v. 3); 30:5; 119:136; Ecclesiastes 7:2-4; Isaiah 61:1-3; 66:2; Habakkuk 2:3; Luke 4:16-21; 15; 19:41-44; Romans 5:1-5; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4; 2:5-11; 7:5-16; 12:21; Philippians 3:18; James 4:7-10; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Revelation 7:17; 21:4

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. Review the kinds of mourning mentioned in the commentary and talk about which resonates most with you these days.

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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