Mourning Has Value – Those Who Mourn #2

Today is part 2 of a series on the second Beatitude from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4. In the first post, I wrote about how mourning logically follows our awareness of needing Jesus because we are poor in Spirit.  When we mourn this way as Christians, we deeply acknowledge that we aren’t happy with the consequences of having sought our own way.

Many religions and philosophies see no value in sorrow.  Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers hated it and strived to avoid it.  Eastern religions sometimes deny its reality and seek to live above it.  On the other hand, in Christianity and Judaism stories like those of Job are highly valued, and verses like these from Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 are common –

“It is better to go to the house of mourning
      than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
       and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
       for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
       but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

In Christianity, mourning can have value, helping sanctify us, making us more like Christ.  Mourning can be a form of confession – a way of saying the same thing about sin that God does.  When we mourn doing wrong things or neglecting things that should have been done, we agree with God on what is “wrong” and what “should” be done.  It is not the same as repentance but is often a preceding part of it.

The framework of the series of posts on Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – shows many ways living outside the kingdom of heaven fails us and others:

  • Times we were too proud or ashamed to act (Post 1)
  • Times we thought earning God’s favor was more important than loving Him and our neighbor (Post 2)
  • Times we thought our own sins were ok because we thought they weren’t as bad as someone else’s (Post 3)
  • Times we failed privately because we couldn’t see the consequences or the point in trying (Post 4)
  • Times we didn’t love someone because they weren’t like us (Post 5)

Therefore, we should mourn!  Emotionally reacting to these things means that knowing we are “poor in spirit” is more than just an intellectual or logical idea.  Sin needs to mean something to us, deeply.  However, this mourning is not the same as despair, depression, or meaninglessness.  In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, spoken through the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings: “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.”  Only God can see the end, and there is more to come!  In Christianity it is but part of a journey, or in the case of the Sermon on the Mount, part of a sequence of Beatitudes.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4

In the next post of the series, I plan to talk about Jesus’ reaction to death and the consequences of sin, focusing on John 11: 33 and 11:38.  He knows more about it than we ever will, and He cares deeply.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

Blessed are Those Who Mourn #1

Recently I began writing about the Beatitudes, the opening statements from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, starting with Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The crowds who gathered to hear Him needed to hear this Beatitude first of all because if anyone refuses to be humble before Christ, the rest of His speech won’t matter.  The more we see Him as the King we need, the more He can, and will, bless us.

Next Jesus moved to the second of the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:4 –
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Before digging into the meaning of this statement, today’s focus is on the idea that Jesus did not put the set of Beatitudes in a random order, but that He intends them as a sequence. Not everyone takes this view, but to me the sequence makes sense and Jesus – the best teacher ever – would not do anything by accident.

To see the connection between the first two Beatitudes, consider the book of James where he cautions against being a “double-minded man”.  The book begins by saying that going through trials helps a Christian grow.  In testing times, we should ask God for wisdom – trusting God’s voice within our conscience, calling us to action by faith – and he contrasts that with being “double-minded.”  While God gives wisdom “generously to all without reproach,” a double-minded man ignores wisdom and ends up “driven and tossed by the wind…unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:5-8). The original Greek language suggests being “double-minded” is like “having two spirits.”  Such a person cannot make up their mind which voice to follow in their conscience; while having God’s guidance, they are unable to follow it and end up lost.  They do not have the kingdom of heaven.

Later, James comes back to the word “double-minded” in 4:8, saying that overcoming this inability to follow God’s guidance is “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you” (4:1).  Then in verse 9, he recommends: “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”

Thus, James provides a link in the Beatitudes’ progression.  Being double-minded is like lacking the kingdom of heaven.  Inability to follow the right voice leads to our “quarrels” and “fights”, while leaving us “unstable.”  Knowing these consequences of failing to be poor in spirit, James suggests mourning as the first, and proper, response to our spiritual poverty.

We do not naturally associate blessing with mourning, but neither did being poor in spirit seem like blessing.  When we mourn, we acknowledge that we have not been poor in spirit but have sought our own way.  That this has consequences.  Jesus offers us blessing now in the reassurance of comfort to come.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4

Over the rest of this week, I hope to expand on what this mourning means, Jesus’ reaction to those who mourn, hope God provides for those who mourn, and the link to the next Beatitude.  For the rest of the Beatitudes, I hope to show how each one builds blessing upon blessing as the kingdom of God is built within each of His people.  We will see how God’s plans affect mine as we go.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

Poor in Spirit #5: No Confidence in the Flesh

Finally, here is the last post in a 5-part series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  If you want to catch up, here are links to the previous posts in the series: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday.

Today’s thought begins with how the Apostle Paul, who met Jesus on the road to Damascus[1], emphasized how being “poor in spirit” is universal across all demographic characteristics:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is call, and in all.” – Colossians 3:11

Paul wrote these verses differently, meaning they are not comprehensive.  He simply couldn’t include every possible example of the ways Christ eliminates barriers, but provided examples of the main point, which is “all.”  Prior to these verses, he writes that “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:27) and that we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:10) This “new self” is the new identity, which is the only one that matters, that we are “sons of God”.

What does this have to do with “Blessed are the poor in spirit”?

Paul knows that Jesus provides – in full – the only way for salvation on the cross and through His resurrection.  What we think are accomplishments “in the flesh” do not make us “rich” in spirit, and in fact may make us worse off.  Paul expands on this in Philippians 3:4-7, discarding any confidence he has in the flesh as “loss”:

“Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”

Adding some more modern terminology, Paul is saying that his obedience to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, his genealogy, his denomination, his nationality, and his recognition as a religious expert provided no value, in fact negative value (“loss”), toward his salvation in Christ.  From the earlier verses we can add gender and economic status to the list. His “identity” in earthly terms is a negative whenever it gets in the way of his “identity” in Christ.  When he counted on these things for salvation, they only clouded his view of what was really needed and were in the way of accepting it.  They were a distraction, wasted time.  This applies to anyone: religious pedigree, ethnicity, nationality, or any other accomplishment is at best a zero contribution, and at worst a negative one if it causes someone to refuse His free offer of His righteousness.

It also affects how we present Christ to others.  If our own definition of “poor in spirit” includes a complete lack of faith in our “flesh”, it becomes easier to offer the gospel to “all” others, to approach them in love, and therefore to reflect the kingdom of heaven.  To love our neighbor includes not limiting who our neighbor is.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person beaten and abandoned on the side of the road is only identified as “a man.”[2]  If we know that our identity also did not matter in our salvation, that it may have made us even poorer in spirit, the identity of our neighbor will not matter either.  The unity and outreach of the church depend on the idea that all are equally “poor in spirit.”

Pray, or even beg, for Christ to enable you to embrace your new identity, your new Spirit, and provide new motivation to be a more faithful subject in His kingdom.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

Post Script
I imagine that every Babel – every attempt at building a system of righteousness other than that provided by God – begins with a small clique of people who think: “If I bring together enough people (like-minded people like me, of course), we can do this better.”  However, one of the ways they “do it better” is by shrinking the definition of neighbor – right at the beginning of the process.  In Philippians 3 above, Paul says that he formerly saw persecution of his enemies as part of righteousness.  When you believe your identity brings you closer to righteousness, the necessity of coercing others to become like you may seem like a rational conclusion.  But “rational” is not the objective.

Also, when anyone thinks “earthly characteristics we have in common” are a shortcut to righteousness, they may end up surrounded with others who in reality are poor in spirit but are less likely to realize it because everyone around them is affirming their earthly identity.  Instead, defining “us” as all of humanity in desperate need of a righteousness beyond what they can accomplish results in a very different dynamic, where both compassion and spiritual growth are easier to come by.  Iron only sharpens iron when there is a bit of healthy diversity and disagreement.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] Acts 9:3-9
[2] Luke 10:30

Poor in Spirit #4: The Scope of Our Need

Today is part 4 of what was supposed to be a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Having taken yesterday off, we pick back up today and hopefully finish tomorrow.  If you want to catch up, the three previous posts are linked: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday

Today begins later in the same chapter as the Beatitudes, where Jesus includes in sin matters of the soul’s inclination, which are “entirely” internal:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28

We have all heard people saying what is done in private, either alone or with other “consenting” people, is none of our business.  “Who does it hurt?” they say.  In this later section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells everyone that He cares about what they do, in public and in private.  Even within themselves.  He is not saying this to embarrass anyone, but to break down their spiritual pride and lead them to depend on Him.  To Jesus, intent makes us spiritually poor as much as action does.  Sin is not a matter of consequence; it is a matter of conscience.  It includes not only the action, but the inclination to the action.

But who does it hurt?  When excluding from our definition of sin things that other people don’t see, we may be tempted to turn faith into performance art, like the scribes and Pharisees, who “do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”[1]  Those “ashamed” from Monday’s post who come to church looking for compassion will only feel alienated unless they join in the performance.

If only public “righteousness” matters, the pressure of keeping up appearances can mean that internal sins – though just as important as external sins with “obvious” consequences – remain private and un-dealt with, keeping us from relying on Jesus to restore the joy of our salvation!  Compensating for guilt, and the pressure of managing expectations, become primary drivers of action rather than the guidance of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit is nowhere to be found.    When we know we are not really changed and are failing, we may try to hide it to keep up appearances.  We harbor guilt and bitterness and become unable to accept ourselves and love others.

Instead, testimony of our brokenness is an essential part of Christian witness.  In his letters to churches, the Apostle Paul repeatedly mentions his own past because it highlights the grace of God and power of Christ in redeeming him.  Likewise, those connected to Christ must confess their brokenness openly and ask His help.  Hiding our brokenness – keeping it private (sometimes even trying to keep it from Him) – obscures the power and necessity of the gospel from those who need to hear and understand it, and also keeps us from experiencing its power in our souls.  If we do not count as brokenness things where we do not see the consequence, we keep Jesus at a distance and the kingdom of heaven will not rule us.  Who does it hurt?  Well, us to begin, then also those around us who we love less as a result.

Humanity’s need is spiritual.  Our brokenness comes from the inside, not the outside.  From conscience, not consequence.  When humanity denies that brokenness is an internal, sometimes hidden, problem, it faces only the symptoms of the problem, and with the wrong prescriptions.  External forces cannot fix our internal inclinations and will tend toward the original sin of Adam and Eve, seeking the tree of wisdom in the garden that seems to offer an alternate way of governing ourselves.  Any laws, including some forms of religion, or systems of coercion will not fundamentally change us, but may provide an appearance of doing so, or worse, an incentive for a harsher system of coercion.  When coercion isn’t working, and spiritual solutions are denied, greater coercion often follows.  Unless we know we are broken, and how we are broken, we refuse the solution offered by the kingdom of heaven and remain lost looking for an alternative that does not exist[2].

We must not accept anything less than Christ’s righteousness.  But we must accept Christ’s righteousness at our very core.  Only the power of the gospel – the good news of the kingdom of God – can make straight what is crooked at its very root[3].

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] Matthew 23:5-7
[2] I’m not advocating for anarchy or libertarianism or any particular form of government but pointing out that what a society thinks its government can, and should, do reflects that society’s view on what it expects government to solve.
[3] Ecclesiastes 1:15 and 7:13

Poor in Spirit #3: Give Up Your Lists

Today is part 3 of a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Monday covered how the statement could make both the “proud” and the “ashamed” humble and be blessed by God.  Tuesday was about the rich young man who was fully set on earning his own salvation to see that it was impossible, all while Christ was right before him, loving him.

Today begins with Luke 18:10-14 –
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Similar to Monday’s post, this passage is a rebuke to the proud, while comforting the ashamed, which is made clear at the end of the verses.  This passage also plays on stereotypes of the Pharisee as one who would have been perceived as religiously superior, versus the tax collector, who was under the ban, or that time period’s rabbinic version of excommunication[1].  At the end of the first sentence, the audience would have been expecting the Pharisee to pray well – after all, they were the “experts.”  But as an “expert” in the law, the Pharisee prays (and thinks) in terms of lists of good things and lists of bad things.  As a result, he is able to credit himself with all good things and the tax collector with all bad things.

The only way to manage this level of pride in spiritual accomplishment is to narrow down your list of “sins” to “things that other people do.”  He also excluded more subtle or internal manifestations of sin from his lists.  For example, at other times, Jesus said Pharisees “devour widow’s houses,”[2] which may have been a form of extortion.  Also, in his heart he may have been unjust and an adulterer just by making this prayer.  God’s justice on the tax collector was poured out on Jesus – who was this Pharisee to say who that justice applied to?  Also, in over-emphasizing the law, the Pharisee was “cheating” on God by idolizing the law as a way to salvation.

By narrowing the list of sins to “what others do,” and reducing those sins to the external evidence of them, rather than the heart level, this Pharisee blinded himself to his own need, and therefore missed the blessing.  The only way to feel rich in spirit before God is to lower the standard, or to humbly accept Christ’s righteousness in place of your own.

King David in Psalm 51, writing of his repentance after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed, declares in verses 16-17:

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
            you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
            a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

This broken spirit and contrite heart recall the first Beatitude’s promise of blessing and the ability to follow God’s will, which David prayed for back in verse 12 of Psalm 51:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
            and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

We can’t have a record of our sins and the sins of others if we want to receive God’s blessing.  Doing so is only likely to destroy our ability to love those who God loves and to whom He offers His grace, including ourselves.  We are poor in spirit, but we only realize it when focusing on Him, and we only are blessed when we decide His standard and opinion are the ones that matter.  If we are Christians, the standard is Christ and through our adoption as children of God, He sees Christ’s righteousness when He gives His opinion of us.

Humbly knowing this, we can go to our house justified, and in eternity be exalted by Him, the only one we should compare ourselves to and the only one whose judgement matters.  For now, it will enable us to love God and love others as we love ourselves.

To find love and joy, give up your lists and replace them with Christ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] See an earlier post, Found! A Man in Need of an Ally, for an explanation of the ban as applied to tax collectors, and for Jesus’ striking decision to forgive Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.
[2] Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47