We, creatures, seek comfort. We search for it among accouterments that make daily life less cumbersome and covet it in the midst of mourning. But it is the latter, our ardor for consolation, that makes Jesus’ word of blessing in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” all the more important for us. In these words, Jesus makes promises that, when fully understood, offer comfort that the world cannot give.
Jesus promises that we who mourn are blessed here and now. But with this promise comes two questions: first, what are we mourning? and second, what does Jesus mean by blessed?
Jesus opens his beatitudes in Matthew 5:3 with this reversal, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be poor in spirit is not about economic poverty or even social standing, though those who were poor economically and socially were and still are often considered poor in spirit, too. Instead, Jesus has in mind spiritual poverty, which transcends social and economic status.
To be spiritually poor is to be destitute of God’s favor, lacking in righteousness, and without resources to acquire it. The beggar and leper were as spiritually poor as the rich tax collector and the respected Pharisee. Jesus states a condition that we’re all in whether we recognize it or not. Acknowledging our spiritual poverty results in mourning the sin and evil our being “poor in spirit” brings about.
Here, there is a tendency to downplay the spiritual elements of life because they seem less immediate or far off from the physical. But sin and evil are not abstract concepts. They are concrete realities. We may not be able to measure spiritual poverty the way we would economic poverty, but the effects of our spiritual poverty in our own lives and the world around us are undeniably real.
Acknowledging our spiritual poverty results in mourning the sin and evil our being “poor in spirit” brings about.
What, then, does Jesus mean that those who mourn (their spiritual poverty and the evil it begets) are blessed? To start, in the context of Matthew’s gospel, the word “blessed” carries a greater meaning than mere happiness. Matthew uses it with an eye to God’s redemptive work. Jeffery Gibbs in his commentary on Matthew 5, puts it bluntly, “It does not mean ‘happy,’ but something much stronger, tantamount to ‘saved.’” It is a status conferred upon those whom God calls by the gospel and to whom he gives faith.
This blessed state is also present tense, meaning we are blessed now in our mourning of sin and evil. Jesus does not mean that we are blessed because we mourn or by the work of mourning. Rather, we are blessed by the faith God has worked in us through the proclamation of the gospel. By this faith, we recognize our need for salvation and are turned to the only source who can provide it: Christ himself.
We misunderstand this blessed state when we shift the focus of the Christian life away from the cross and turn Jesus into a safety blanket of sorts that we carry around to guard and protect us from any hardship that discomforts us. This is when we redesigned him to defend us against anything that causes us to mourn.
The absence of suffering, grief, and mourning are not signs of God’s salvation and favor. And neither are material blessings or creature comforts that we imagine might lessen them. This is nothing more than our sinful nature’s attempt to shorten the ladder to God by bringing about heaven on earth and placing our trust in our own means and measures of comfort.
But this is not the comfort Christ promises. Jesus’ promised comfort is future tense. It is not as if we are not also comforted now. Rather, our comfort is incomplete. We will always need comfort until the reign of God, his kingdom, comes in full with Christ’s return, and our suffering and the sin that causes it is no more.
This promised future comfort of Christ profoundly affects our present mourning. It means that we have permission to mourn over our sin and evil. Jesus does not command us to count our blessings, buck up, and sleep easy. His is a promise that in the midst of our mourning, in the midst of our grief and despair, we can know that not all is lost.
We will always need comfort until the reign of God, his kingdom, comes in full with Christ’s return, and our suffering and the sin that causes it is no more.
Here, Jesus calls a thing what it actually is. And there is a comfort in the midst of mourning when someone skips over the platitudes aimed mostly at comforting the comforter’s discomfort and instead speaks the truth. Our mourning is not ended or “fixed,” but Jesus’ words remind us that in this life it is still OK to grieve and that we do not do so alone.
We receive a foretaste of this promised future comfort every time we look again to the cross, where Christ suffered for us, and when we remember our baptism, where, by water and word, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ’s suffering and death, and the comforting promise of a resurrected life everlasting.