How Can Jesus Possibly Say That Those Who Mourn Are Blessed?

How Can Jesus Possibly Say That Those Who Mourn Are Blessed?

Comfort for the Grieving

The doctor said, “The child has severe hemophilia.” In the crib looking up at me with charming brown eyes lay a beautiful baby boy. A “severe” hemophiliac. My son. Emotions swirled. “Are you sure?” I asked, feeling helpless. “Yes,” he responded.

Much of life happens before you are ready. Our hearts race and our minds search for meaning, but some circumstances resist explanation. So it was for me on that day, surrounded by the beeping ambience of the neonatal unit. Powerless, I simply stood and watched.

However, despair is not the end of the story. It is simply the occasion when our spiritual senses are awakened to behold new, life-giving dimensions of God’s presence. In Jesus’s words, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

The shocking, even scandalous, ring to this statement hits you in the face. Blessed? How can Jesus possibly say that those who mourn are blessed? In her book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Nowhere in her list are blessed and comfort. But perhaps they should be.

Life in the kingdom, after all, is not about striving for happiness or avoiding the ills of human existence that bring us face to face with mourning. It’s about receiving and finding, even amid the pain and suffering of life (Eph. 1:3; James 1:17). “Blessed” is therefore not an achievement, an attitude, or an emotion. It is the tangible gift of God’s loving embrace, an identity in Christ that experiences life as it ought to be—even when we mourn.

In the months leading up to Angela’s delivery, I was a seminarian teaching Matthew’s Gospel in Sunday school. My wife, great with child, sat in the front listening attentively. One morning, I introduced my students to a concept called the “upsilon vector.”

A Counterintutive Pattern

Upsilon is a Greek letter that looks like the English capital U (or like a Y when it’s capitalized). Its contours trace the trajectory of Jesus’s experience in terms of his descent into apparent defeat (suffering and dying on the cross) before ascending three days later in consummate victory (in the resurrection). It is the counterintuitive pattern of Christian life that my seminary professor, Royce Gruenler, outlined when he stated, “We can expect to follow the same path of defeat and death, victory and resurrection.”

We observe the upsilon’s ironic pattern in nature, from the changing of the seasons to the kernel of wheat that falls to the ground and dies before it produces fruit. It’s also found in the great stories of antiquity, as when Persephone must first descend into the underworld and marry Hades before spring can be reborn. In Scripture, we see Jacob’s hip dislocated before he undergoes his transformation into Israel (Gen. 32:22–32). And we have the supreme example: our crucified Prince of Peace who rises from death to begin the new creation.

My Sunday school lesson expounded this redemptive idea with pathos and conviction. However, seeing my pregnant wife’s robust belly in my peripheral vision, I was confronted by some persistent questions: “What if this child introduces suffering into my life? Will I be able to exhibit the peace that I’m now fervently proclaiming?” I swallowed hard and kept on teaching.

Two months later, our son was born. After a routine medical procedure, he continued to hemorrhage. Shortly thereafter we learned of his bleeding disorder. The upsilon vector immediately sprang to mind. Now was my opportunity to apply it. But it immediately became apparent that one descends into brokenness not with confidence, strength, and peace, but with many tears, sleepless nights, and mourning. In Jesus’s words, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38).

Health-and-wealth religion is misguided because it fails to understand the means of comfort in our mourning, namely the cross of Jesus.

How should we respond to such pain and despair? Some assert that God doesn’t want his children to experience illness or disease. We must claim healing, they say, which is God’s desire for the church. How I wished it were so, especially in those early years when we struggled to stick an intravenous needle into my son’s tiny veins.

Health-and-wealth religion is misguided because it fails to understand the means of comfort in our mourning, namely the cross of Jesus. Martin Luther says it well: “He who is not a crucianus, so to speak, is not a Christianus: He who does not bear his cross is no Christian, for he is not like his Master, Christ.”

Cry to the Father

Life is fragile and all too brief. According to the Psalmist, our lifetimes are a “mere breath.” We may perhaps live into our seventies or eighties “by reason of strength,” but our experience is generally full of “toil and trouble” (Ps. 39:5; Ps. 90:10). Sometimes life leaves you weeping in the dark.

In such moments of misery, we cry out to a Father who cares about our pain, who invites us into his presence to express our concerns (Matt. 7:7–11; 1 Pet. 5:7). In view of this reality, theologian Kelly M. Kapic has offered a helpful framework for understanding and expressing biblical lament.

“These cries,” writes Kapic in his book Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, “do not form a subversive antireligious voice but operate at the heart of the biblical canon among the prayers and songs of the people of God. They are part of their liturgy and worship.” To ignore the need for such lament is to live in denial, overlooking the simple facts that life is messy, we are weak, and God is merciful. It also fails to recognize lament’s redemptive value.

This lesson came into focus for me when I taught my son how to ride his bicycle. One thing everyone knows about the process of learning to ride a bike: it is full of falling. However, falling isn’t a viable option when your blood doesn’t clot. So, I ran behind my son’s bike with arms outstretched for an hour, up and down the sidewalk, ready to throw my body onto the pavement as a cushion to break his fall.

Walking home that afternoon, I looked at my boy. Yes, he had fallen, and my lunges were too late, but the damage was minimal. As I looked down on my son holding my hand, my thoughts naturally went upward to the Father in heaven. I wondered, What is God’s posture? What are his thoughts toward us?

Then I imagined God saying: Keep pedaling, son, despite your fears. I know all the bumps in the road, and, although you falter and even wipe out, my grace encircles you to the end.

So it has been for us. Despite the powerlessness and pain of life, God’s grace-filled provision has surrounded us through every turn of the journey. Truly, as Christ said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Chris Castaldo is the author of The Upside Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes.

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Author: Chris Castaldo

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