The odd thing about the Beatitudes is that, while they all begin with the word “blessed” or “happy,” most of them seem at first to have nothing to do with blessing or happiness. Our Puritan ancestors burdened us with the illusion, still widely popular today, that material prosperity is a sign of God’s favor. Almost everything in our culture affirms wealth as a blessing.
Jesus tells us wealth is an obstacle to blessing and happiness. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). And the first blessing Jesus pronounces in the Beatitudes is upon “the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), or in Luke’s more original version, upon those “who are [materially] poor” (Luke 6:20). It doesn’t make sense at first.
Neither does the second Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Who in their right mind, while in the midst of grieving the loss of anything – a parent or spouse or child, a love, one’s health or job or investments, a precious opportunity or dream in life – who in their right mind would associate grief with a blessing from God?
The fact is, I can’t even think about blessing as a fruit of mourning until I recognize this: God wants me to be happy but doesn’t expect me or any of us to be happy all the time. Some people have the idea that a Christian ought to be perpetually happy, always smiling, always cheerful, always skipping along and talking about joy and peace and love. That idea is completely out of touch with what I know about life, and I think it’s out of touch with the life God created.
“For everything there is a season,” the Teacher said, “and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:1, 4). God doesn’t expect me to be happy all the time; God doesn’t expect me to feel blessed all the time; and when life is hard, God doesn’t expect me or any of us to grin and bear it, to stuff our emotions, pretend we’re okay, and smile through the storm. Weeping and mourning are in our nature, and if we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:37), then maybe weeping and mourning are in God’s nature, also. And that brings me to how God may bless those who mourn.
1. In mourning, God draws us close. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,” the psalmist wrote, “and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). Not only does God promise us as God promised Moses, “I’ll be with you. I won’t give up on you; I won’t leave you” (Josh. 1:5 The Message). God also promises a special nearness to those who mourn, the brokenhearted, the crushed in spirit.
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote of a devout man who quit praying because he never got any response from God. In a vision, the guide of souls spoke to him, “This longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection.”1 In the midst of grief, God can seem a million miles away, but what we feel is not always what’s real. Grief is the empty cup God fills.
2. God gives us a church family for support. There’s an old saying: When you share a joy, it’s doubled; when you share a sorrow, it’s halved. When you carry grief all by yourself, you carry a load God never intended you to carry. Mourning is not the work of an individual alone; it’s the work of a whole community. Healing comes in groups, in community, in the church.
We are all part of one body, St. Paul wrote, members of one another like the parts of a body are members of the same body. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:5, 15). If we are the church, we are not so many individuals living out our faith the best we can. In Christ we belong to one another, and we are meant to bear our burdens together.
That’s why today support groups are an essential part of every healing discipline. That’s why I talk so much about the need to be part of a small group in the church. It’s more than the strength of our Methodist tradition; it’s the way God made us for healing.
3. God uses grief to help us grow. One proverb in the Good News translation says, “Sometimes it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways” (Prov. 20:30). And St. Paul assures us “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God uses pain to get our attention, and God transforms pain into something good.
In the eighteenth-century classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote, “Each blow from the hammering of the sculptor’s chisel makes [the stone] feel – if it could – as if it were being destroyed. As blow after blow descends, the stone knows nothing of how the sculptor is shaping it. All it feels is a chisel chopping away at it, cutting it and mutilating it.”
If you were to ask the stone what is happening to it, it might reply, “All I know is that I must stay immovable in the hands of the sculptor, and I must love him and endure all he inflicts on me to produce the figure he has in mind.”2 The task of faith is to be receptive to the way God is using grief to shape us, and to abandon ourselves to God’s will for us and through us.
4. In mourning, God uses our pain to help others. Recently I was part of a spirited discussion of the question: What is the first priority of the church, to nurture our members or to prepare and deliver ministries outside the congregation?
The view of The United Methodist Church – and, I believe, the view of the Christian faith – is that we are blessed, as God blessed Abraham, so that we will be a blessing to others (Gen. 12:1-3). Our mission as the church is to learn from Jesus, and help others learn, how to live in harmony with God so that the world will be transformed.3
In God’s economy of grace, there’s a purpose to your pain. God “comforts us in all our troubles,” St. Paul wrote, “so that we can comfort others. When others are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For when God comforts us, it is so that we, in turn, can be an encouragement” to others (2 Cor. 1:4, 6b NLT).
For someone suffering cancer, there’s no better counselor than someone who survived cancer. For someone who is mourning the death of a spouse, there’s no better counselor than someone who has successfully passed through a similar grief. For someone in an abusive relationship, there’s no better spiritual guide than someone who has survived an abusive relationship.
Your mourning, when it’s done in a healthy way, prepares you to be in ministry to others who mourn, and your greatest ministry will come out of your deepest hurt, because you can relate, because you can say “been there, done that.” If you’re going through a tough time, that’s life, and it’s a school of ministry preparing you to help others who go through something similar.
Is your heart broken by the loss of a spouse, the loss of a job, the loss of your health, the loss of a dream, the loss of a way of life? Don’t suppress or discount your feelings, and don’t let anyone else do that to you. Mourn the loss, and mourn it with others in your community of spiritual friends. And all the while, be attuned to how God is helping you grow into the blessing of your ministry to someone else.
Notes — 1. Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155-56. ▪ 2. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, tr. John Beevers (New York: Image Books, 1975), 82. ▪ 3. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2012, par. 120.