Happy Sorrow

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

Matthew 5.4

One of the ways ‘in’ to the Beatitudes is to understand them as promises of happiness. The word ‘blessed’ means ‘happy’, and so each of these statements is a kind of promise of Christ’s way to joy.

But then we’re hit by a paradox in this verse: how can you be blessed or happy and mourn at the same time? Isn’t that a contradiction?

We need to explore what Jesus is teaching here, but there are two really important clarifiers: (1) He’s not talking about any kind of mourning or grief. There are plenty of other verses that address the sufferings of life in general. (2) If there’s a logical progression to these Beatitudes, it follows that this is mourning for sin. The first Beatitude is about being poor in spirit, which has to do with recognising that you come to God empty-handed without any righteousness of your own. Therefore, this second Beatitude is about mourning for your sin.

Why are we blessed if we mourn?

1. It is good to experience deep sorrow for sin

We live in a culture that is fairly hostile to expressions of mourning and grief. We label much sadness as ‘depression’ and so make it out to be something abnormal, as though all depressed people are sick (which is surely masking the real problem in many cases; the question of why they are depressed). Note too, we love facile entertainment that allows us to experience escape, even listening to our playlists all day long to lift our mood. And we’re embarrassed or ashamed to show others, even our friends, what’s really going on inside if we are down (just look at the way people seem to always present their best side on Facebook).

Sadly, this inability to handle real human emotion has affected the church. For a long time now the church has been experiencing a couple of pressure factors. First, there's the reality of shrinking attendance. And second, the church has been increasingly aware that our message — with words like ‘sin’ and ‘judgment’ and ‘hell’ — is out of tune with the modern world, and sounds a little shrill. So churches have opted for a much lighter, more entertaining, and less offensive posture. 

But surely that just betrays the fact that we don’t really believe what Jesus is saying here: that there is a kind of joy that can only be experienced through grief? 

A first rule in medicine is accurate diagnosis, and if many people are experiencing sadness, melancholy, and even depression, perhaps the truth of this Beatitude speaks directly into that situation: that joylessness is usually caused by sin, and that Jesus has the answer.

So if you experience this mourning, I think that’s a good thing for these reasons: (1) It shows you have a conscience, that something of the brokenness you feel is because you are weighed down with guilt; (2) It shows that God is speaking to you, giving you the opportunity to get right with him; (3) It shows that you were designed for something that you haven’t yet found — that your lack of joy is because, in some sense, your life is not yet complete without a close relationship with God; (4) It means there is hope of the problem being addressed.

2. It is a genuine sorrow for sin that God is looking for

While many people are experiencing the negative effects of their sin, and of the sins committed against them, merely feeling sad is not enough. Paul talks about too kinds of sorrow: 

'For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death' (2 Corinthians 7.10).

It means that the sadness you feel may not be the right kind.

‘Worldly grief’ is a sorrow for the consequences of what you’ve done, but secretly wishing you could have gotten away with it. ‘Worldly grief’ is a sorrow for how you feel, a kind of self-pity that you wallow in. ‘Worldly grief’ is a show to placate others, like the Israelites who knew how to put on a show of tearing their clothes to try and convince God they were going to change, but God says, ‘Rend your heart and not your garments…’ (Joel 2.12-13).

'Godly grief' is different. It’s the kind of sorrow that always precedes true conversion. Look at the woman who wept on Jesus feet, aware that she was a sinner (Luke 7.38). Look at the prodigal son who comes to his senses and decides to humble himself (Luke 15.17-19). Look at the tax collector who beats his breast and cries out for mercy (Luke 18.13).

This is why the church must never offer a truncated gospel with all the offence stripped away. We can’t tell people ‘God is love’ without also telling them that there are things he hates. We can’t tell people ‘God has a great plan for your life’ without also telling them that that plan begins with dying. We can’t announce that ‘All are welcome’ without also explaining the cost of following Jesus. Mourning comes before joy.

Even Christians need to experience this mourning from time-to-time. We groan in these bodies (Romans 8.23). That is what David experienced on account of his sin. It caused him physical pain when he had sinned and not confessed it to God:

'For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer' (Psalm 32.3-4).

3. With real sorrow comes deep comfort

This is what Jesus is promising: real sorrow comes before real joy. 

You have to see that this is so different from anything else on offer in the world today. It’s not a ‘plaster’ to cover up your brokenness. It’s not an anti-depressant, or a CBT course, or some other temporary fix. It’s not a denial of what you’re feeling either, as you’re encouraged to hide the reality of your guilt, shame, and loneliness. And it’s not a twelve-step programme of self-help to get you out of the ditch.

Instead, God is saying that he can offer you joy, the joy of knowing him, of experiencing his love, of calling him Father.

We experience this at the beginning of the Christian life. Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11.28-30). Jesus offers to take your load, your burden, and in exchange he gives you his strength and help. That is comfort. In his death on the cross Jesus bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53.4). 

We also experience this throughout the Christian life. When we sin we experience grief. We’ve offended God’s Spirit, and we aren’t walking in closeness of fellowship with him. But God makes the way back very simple: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1.9).