Let's Study the Beatitudes! Part 3, The Mourners
The Christian life is no stranger to apparent paradoxes; apparent because they are not true contradictions. Yet there are many times where we seem pulled between two opposites. Walking the path between grace and truth can be a challenge in our interactions with others. We wrestle with the sovereignty of God and our own responsibility in our lives. In the beatitudes Jesus presents us with another one: blessed are those who mourn. How is this a Christian paradox, you may ask? Perhaps you have wondered how Jesus’ commendation of mourners squares with Paul’s command to “rejoice in the Lord always?” On the surface, a command to continually rejoice seems directly at odds with Jesus’ commendation of mourners. The answer lies in both the circumstances of our mourning and the promise that Jesus gives.
To solve the apparent paradox, we must first consider what Jesus means by mourning. Is Jesus saying that those individuals who walk around in sadness all the time are the truly blessed ones? Why would mourning be a virtue at all for God’s people? It is helpful to notice the two virtues that Jesus lists on both sides of this one: poor in spirit and meekness. Both of these are particular dispositions of humility and honesty toward one’s own character and abilities. So rather than seeing mourning as a life of continual sadness, we should see mourning as an attitude that there is something in us or about us about which we should mourn. If poorness in spirit is the realization that we have nothing in us of true worthiness, and meekness is the recognition that we have no inherent personal strength, then mourning should be seen as the recognition that there is something within us that should bring us true sorrow. It’s not that we walk around joyless and sad all the time, but rather that we recognize and mourn over something within ourselves. But what is that thing?
Set at the beginning of the sermon that encompasses the next few chapters of Matthew’s gospel, these beatitudes set the tone for what follows. And one of the primary foci that Jesus discusses is that none of us are righteous in and of ourselves. He continually highlights the righteousness of the Pharisees as a false righteousness, a self-righteousness that is incompatible with being one of Christ’s disciples. Rather than trying to find righteousness for ourselves, the life of the disciple is characterized by looking outside ourselves for righteousness, or as Paul specifies, looking to Christ who is our righteousness. And so the mourning that Jesus is referring to is a sorrow over our own unrighteousness. The Christian doesn’t bring one’s own worthiness before God but rather comes with the honest and humble recognition that we have no righteousness of our own. We are filthy sinners at enmity with God. We transgress the perfect law of God. We constantly sin and are unfaithful to God and to one another. A true and honest self-evaluation will inevitably reveal much within us to be sorrowful over. There should be no doubt that our sin and rebellion should cause us sorrow. If it doesn’t it is clear that we haven’t truly wrestled with what it means to rebel against a God of infinite love and justice. We also must be clear that our sorrow must be about sin itself and not simply over the consequences of our sin. As children so easily only begin crying when they are caught for their crimes rather than for the crimes themselves, so too many of us only feel sadness when the consequences of our sin come back to bite us.
As we’ve considered the true sense of Christian sorrow, solving the paradox rests also in the promise given to those who mourn: they shall be comforted. Martin Luther famously spent years as a miserable wretch, hidden away in a monastery room in utter sorrow over his sin, trapped in a theological system that could never truly offer hope of final forgiveness or temporal comfort. It was only when he read Paul’s letter to the Romans that he found comfort for his sin: that believers can truly be reconciled to a holy God through the work of Jesus Christ alone for us. The words “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” offer comfort for those who are sorrowful over their sin and the evil in their hearts. Luther famously said, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is, there I shall be also!” Christians then can both be sorrowful over the sin that still so easily entangles us and be joyful always because Christ has made satisfaction for that sin. Like most Christian paradoxes, the mystery is solved in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He died so that in our sorrow over our sin, we can look up and see the righteous Son standing before the throne on our behalf. And that is something to be joyful about.
Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.
 Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent College, 2003), 86–87