“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4, ESV)
The beatitudes are not disconnected propositions, there is no “or” clauses.
They are related to each other, sequentially. It’s not “blessed are the poor in spirit” or “those who mourn…” those who mourn are poor in spirit or rather “those who are poor in spirit mourn”. This connection helps us understand why and what the mourning is about.
Those who are poor in spirit mourn because they are poor in spirit.
A logical progression
It is quite a logical progression. There is a sense in which we mourn and lament over what we are or were apart from the grace of God because of the ultimate outworking of our poverty of spirit and our negative standing before the God of unrelenting righteousness, peace, and joy.
We ought to be moved, even disturbed by the outcome of such negative standing before God – which is characterised in this life by an active enmity toward God, and a disdain for everything He is, has always been, and will always be – as well as an abhorrence for what He has done, is doing, and will do. We ought also be moved and disturbed as we consider the reality of being left in such a state – for now, in and of ourselves, we might seem to live quite a comfortable life, wherein our suffering is relatively negligible – like, you might have gone to the right school on the right side of the tracks on the right side of town… you might, even now, have a comfortable job with a comfortable income – or live with those who do and who share that comfort with you… you may be relatively healthy, unplagued by the kinds of illnesses and conditions that present us with questions about quality of life, eugenics, and euthanasia.
But if that’s all, and you never turn from your sin, you never repent, and you never trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sin, to have all your sin removed, and to have Him clothe you in His righteousness – then that is as good as it gets – the middle-class utopia is as good as it’s ever going to get.
The Wrath of God
You see, unless you trust Jesus for your salvation, turning from all that is contrary to the nature of God – the wrath of God remains on you. This is not something that fire and brimstone preachers have made up – it’s something that Jesus said – even in the context of Western Christianity’s favourite verse. Most people know John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” but few people realise the implications. If we believe in the Son of God we will not perish, but that means if we do not believe in the Son of God, we will perish. John affirms this in the less known 18th verse “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God”
Verse 36 has even stronger warning. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The wrath of God remains on him. Remains! Was, is, will be!
How We Respond
I wonder how we respond to our poverty of spirit – I wonder how we respond to the reality that it’s not simply that we are neutral towards a just and holy God – but that apart from His grace, we are actually in opposition to Him – opposing all He is, all He does – thus making ourselves His enemies?
I think the prophet Isaiah got hold of this. He got to see a glimpse of who God really is, or rather, what God is really like. In Isaiah 6 we’re told Isaiah saw Yahweh, the God of Israel high and lifted up, the train of His robe filling the temple and these indescribable creatures lauding His holiness “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty…” How did Isaiah respond? “Woe is me for I am undone, I am ruined, I am devastated…” Why? Isaiah had not only seen God as God is, but Isaiah saw himself by comparison. He confessed “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…” This was Isaiah’s lament. What is yours?
So this is the kind of mourning that is part of the gospel, as we realise who God is and who we are apart from Him. We mourn over our unrighteousness and sin; we lament over our open rebellion towards God.
Then comes the blessing. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
Our mourning is present and active – it’s something we do, and something I believe we ought always do – as part of our relating to God, as part of our looking at God in His righteousness, and then back at ourselves in unrighteousness…
The comfort is future and passive. It’s future not necessarily in the sense that we have to wait until Jesus returns before we get it – though there is a sense in which whatever comfort we receive now in the gospel is only partial and will only be ours in its fullness when Jesus comes to finally wipe away every tear and console every heart. It’s also future in the sense that it’s not complete until then – so it’s something that is ongoing.
But it’s also passive – that is, it’s not something that we do – rather, it is something that is done to us. We don’t comfort ourselves… we don’t comfort each other… and there is nothing inherently comforting in the act of mourning over our sin.
The comforting is something that God does.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort who comforts us in all our affliction…” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
We are comforted by the God of all comfort by the promises of the gospel – namely that Jesus Christ came to save sinners; He came to save the spiritually impoverished; His death was for those who do not look to their own resources – because realising they have negative equity, throw themselves on the mercies of God and join with 19th century hymn writer Charlotte Elliot “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me and that thou bidds’t me come to thee o Lamb of God, I come… I come…”
And then may we realise that in the gospel God opposes the proud, those who think they have everything they need in and of themselves… those who do not realise just how desperate they are without God to do everything necessary for their life and salvation… and that grace is the grace that teaches us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright, godly, and with self-control in this present age as we wait for our blessed hope, the appearing of our glorious God and Savior, Jesus Christ.