Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

February 20th, 2024 | 14 min read

By T. M. Suffield

The beatitudes are beautiful, we can all agree, but sometimes they feel inscrutable. It’s not immediately obvious how you live the life they describe, and it doesn’t take long in the literature to discover that there isn’t agreement on whether they describe a life you should be living. Several of them seem strange to the average Christian. To focus on just one, why is it blessed to mourn? Young Christians I know have suggested to me their confusion, especially because they’ve been taught that Christians are supposed to be full of joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says in Philippians 4:4. These feel like contradictory instructions. Surely mourning is passing away with this world and so is not a Christian attitude we should attempt to develop?

Matthew presents Jesus as a wise man, a sage in the tradition of Solomon—and in chapters 11-13 as Solomon himself, typologically—so we can expect many of his sayings to be presented as wisdom literature. Wisdom sayings don’t give up their meaning immediately, they are supposed to be turned over in the mind like a cow chewing the cud. The inscrutability of the beatitudes is a feature, not a bug. It is good and right for the incongruity of it all to stick in the mind and challenge us to think.

My argument is that we should consider the ways in which mourning is the way of wisdom and the key to maturity. We are blessed as we learn to mourn.

Mourning Our Sin

Whatever is supposed to be blessed about mourning, it cannot be something that continues into the age to come. Mourning must be finite as we are told that there is no more mourning in the New Jerusalem when the New Heavens meet the New Earth (Revelation 21:4). The end to which we are aiming, the fullness of the kingdom of God, does not contain mourning. Which suggests that the Beatitudes are in some fashion a model for what life should look like now.

If we needed more than that, a few lines later we are told, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” Even if there was a kind of mourning which persists into the age to come, we can all safely agree that persecution does not. The Beatitudes cannot be the case for all time. If Jesus is describing his Kingdom, he must be describing the Kingdom as it is now before it’s fully established.

Perhaps, therefore, we should read Jesus’ statement as an encouragement to mourn over our own sin. You find this in modern writers like Carson (Sermon on the Mount, 21), and Lloyd-Jones (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 1:53-55), as well as ancient writers like Chrysostom (Homily XV) and Theophylact (Excerpts from St Matthew). Lloyd-Jones is keen to argue that this mourning can only be spiritual and has nothing to do with our natural life in the world.

The problem as I see it is simple: Jesus doesn’t say that. He does explicitly qualify some of the other Beatitudes; it’s not all persecution but persecution for the sake of righteousness that is blessed, similarly it’s not all hunger and thirst but that for righteousness. Yet, it appears to be all mourning.

I don’t want to deny that our sin needs mourning, but I do want to suggest that if we narrow it to mourning for sin only, we are unnecessarily narrowing our understanding of what Jesus is inviting us into.

Defining ‘Blessed’

Part of the challenge is that we read blessed are those who mourn and think that the blessing from God is the mourning itself, or we assume that the blessing is the second clause: the comfort of God. I’m not sure either reading is understanding the beatitudes in their context.

Jonathan Pennington, in his The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, argues that the sermon is offering Jesus’ answer to the vexed question of what a flourishing life looks like. For Pennington makarios, typically translated “blessed” in our modern translations to follow Tyndale, is perhaps better translated as ‘flourishing.’

Makarios is used in the Septuagint to translate asher (happy, or a state of happiness) rather than barak (blessed, by the Lord), and therefore implies not that God will bless the people who do the content of the beatitudes, but that Jesus is describing the natural state of the way things are. The world is, according to Jesus, already like this if we have eyes to see (Pennington 42-54).

This isn’t so much an issue of mistranslation as it is changing emphases and understandings in the modern English-speaking world and church. Blessed would probably have carried these connotations to Tyndale’s first readers, but English has shifted so that we rarely use blessed in that form anymore.

If Jesus is suggesting that this is the world as it is, what human flourishing looks like, then the strong parallels with Isaiah 61 are intriguing in the Beatitudes. It appears that Matthew is deliberately universalising Old Testament blessings into general statements of flourishing. This fits with Matthew’s wider, and repeated, message that the covenant has been expanded to reach to the very ends of the earth.

Jesus starts his sermon with ‘a vision of a way of being in the world that will result in our flourishing.' That flourishing involves suffering as Jesus’ disciples while we await the kingdom he is inaugurating. Pennington describes the beatitudes as ‘divine gold of priceless worth’ that ‘appears to be only darkness.' Like wisdom sayings they don’t give up their gold immediately. They are supposed to shock us and I fear we have become overly familiar with them. Jesus is arguing that flourishing, the good life, requires mourning.

The thing the modern world wants to avoid most, sadness, is somehow a key to a good life. To us this appears to be profoundly non-flourishing. The shock we should feel is part of how the beatitudes are meant to work.

Reaching the Second Half of Life

The Jungian Psychologist James Hollis, in his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life introduces a concept of the ‘Second Half’ of life. There is, he argues, a moment in our lives when we come to a breaking point and have to then, in his Jungian approach, ‘discover’ where and who we are.

I’m not recommending Jung’s thought to anyone, though it’s been popularised recently through Jordan B. Peterson’s work. Much of it is antithetical to Christianity, not least the contention that we have to either discover or decide who we are. What is helpful in exploring the beatitudes, I think, is this suggestion that we come to a breaking point. In popular media it would often be described as a midlife crisis, though Hollis disagrees that this is the best way of framing it.

He describes people who are humbled by the events of their lives and their myriad attempts to fix and numb their problems being frustrated. There is a common pattern that our self-understanding shifts in mid-to-late life. It shifts much earlier for some, typically when someone goes through intense pressure rather than the common-or-garden suffering we all experience in life. It’s ideal when this is gradual over many years, but sometimes that isn’t the path we’re given to walk (Hollis, 24-25)

I’ve found this idea has some use pastorally, and in my own life, in explaining changes in perspective that people go through at various stages of their lives. It’s often the case that scarring experiences change the way we look at the world. I would contend that what Hollis is observing is the way that we are, in more typically Biblical categories, welcomed into maturity through suffering.

Hollis remarks on the way that we are left adrift in the modern world by a lack of mythology (it’s very Jungian) and ritual to help us pass from one stage of life to another. We might use Charles Taylor’s concept of the ‘social imaginary’ to describe this instead: the modern world lacks the stories and rituals to describe and facilitate us dealing with the challenges and suffering of life. Those stories and rituals would enable those steeped in them to enter into a richer and more rounded perspective on the world. While I think Hollis wrong in much of what he says, he’s wrong in better ways than most of the modern world. He doesn’t attempt to escape suffering but encourages moving through it, encourages memento mori, thinks that ‘progress’ away from human fragility is an illusion, dislikes the idea that we need ‘fixing,’ and argues that what we really need in life is not happiness but meaning.

My argument is that the modern church also lacks the stories and rituals to describe these transitions and facilitate them. The resources are all in the Bible, but what we need to do is learn a set of practices to help us integrate our suffering and mature as we do so. We could call that set of practices mourning.

What I’m proposing is that a contemporary reading of Jesus’ statement, in light of modern psychology with all its confusion and insights, could be: flourishing are those who mourn—who pass through suffering into maturity—because God will comfort them.

It’s this last point that the Jungian has little recourse to, that God will comfort them. Rather than needing to be the agents of our own remaking we can be remade in the image of God by his Spirit. We can even recognise God as the arbiter of the world and the one who allowed these terrible things to be done to us. That may not be a happy thought, but it’s a world of a different shape; one more replete with meaning and the possibility of meaning amidst the brutal chaos of our desolation.

Suffering Leads to Character

A connection is drawn between suffering and maturity in Romans 5:1-5 where Paul argues that suffering produces endurance, which in turn produces character, which goes on to produce hope. Growth in Christlikeness is achieved through the medium of suffering.

Though Paul doesn’t spell it out here, since the instruction is to ‘rejoice’ in our sufferings as we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, the implication is that there is a way of acting towards our suffering which produces the steps towards character rather than that automatically suffering produces character. I don’t think anyone really thinks that suffering automatically makes us ‘better’ in some nebulous way, but have heard Christians say what amounts to this in an attempt to comfort the grieving. There is often a frenetic search for what God is ‘doing’ in all the pain, rather than a focus on there being a way to approach the very worst of things that will grow character.

If you happen to be in the middle of a grievous horror as you read this, and do want to know what God is doing in your suffering: he is weeping with those who weep, and he is making all things new.

Peter picks up the same theme describing the testing that grieves us such that our faith is proved genuine (1 Peter 1:6-8). We are not instructed to seek suffering. To do so would be to put ourselves in the place of the only wise God who allows affliction to fall (e.g. Psalm 119:75), but also to misunderstand the connection between suffering and character. Difficulty does not breed maturity in Christ automatically, rather it presents the opportunity for growth.

We might think of the way that the writer of The Martyrdom of Polycarp counseled his readers to not seek martyrdom by handing themselves over to the authorities (4), but to be ready for it should it befall them.

Jesus tells us that those in mourning are truly flourishing because God will be their comforter, but this doesn’t simply mean that it provides God the opportunity to do so. If that were the case our pastoral advice would be to seek out suffering so God could comfort you and to crash inconsiderately in on mourning families to declare the goodness of God. Instead, it provides us with the opportunity, in the midst of painful and scarring circumstances, to seek comfort in the Lord.

This distinction is important, carrying with it the implication of mourning as active, whether it’s visible to others or not. Jesus is encouraging an active seeking of God as comforter in the midst of life’s darkest valleys. We are to walk into David’s most famous Psalm to find God at the bottom of the pit.

There is a danger that we are too sanguine about this as though it were a simple act. Integrating our emotions, deciding to allow God to comfort us, and even finding God amongst abject sorrow, are difficult acts. They require the Holy Spirit’s power active in us, and constant encouragement and support from the believing community. Mourning, in my experience at least, requires failing to mourn. It is as messy and imperfect an action as all human endeavour, tainted by my sin and yours. Yet Jesus tells us this is the path of flourishing so seek it we must.

Mourning as Jesus would call us to is not trite, it does not thrive on platitudes, but is the face-set-like-flint insistence that you will find the Lord not only despite the awful things that have befallen your life but also inside those calamities, griefs, and disappointments. It is a looking down to find a God who descended all the way to the doors of death (Jonah 2:5-6) and beyond; a God who can sympathise with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) and who is our companion in friendless darkness because the darkness is luminous to him (Psalm 139:12). We do not deny the reality of our struggles. It is a ‘looking up’ to find the God who rose victorious over death and dying, defeating the Enemy inexorably, so that we know, whatever the circumstance or pain, it remains fleeting. The endless days of glory far outlast the deepest pains (2 Corinthians 4:17-18); we do not deny the temporary nature of our struggles.

This is not a light or easy thing, but flourishing are those who mourn.

Mourning is the Path of Maturity

In his book From Bread to Wine, James B. Jordan argues that Christian maturity has distinct stages to it. Three, in his reckoning. He starts with the meta-pattern of the Old Testament, that Israel moves from being ruled by Priests to being ruled by Kings, to God directing them through Prophets. While we might be used to Prophet-Priest-King as a deliberate ordering to speak of Christ’s offices, this pattern is trying to observe the theopolitics of Israel through the story we are given and notice that these stages are distinct to each other.

The age of priests ran from Moses to Saul, the kings from Saul to the end of the Kingdom, and overlapping it the prophets from Elijah to Jesus (11). Jordan sees a progress of maturation in the kingdom through these stages. He isn’t suggesting that these figures don’t exist prior to these epochs, but that God’s kingdom is first ruled by priests, then by kings and priests, then internally critiqued by an order of prophets.

He highlights the priest as having a series of simple tasks to follow, teaching God’s word, supervising religious meals, and organising and discipling the people for worship. They largely deal with black and white issues of obedience. Kings have a more mature task, and the wisdom literature arises in their era for this reason. Wisdom is, as Jordan puts it, “not simple questions of right and wrong, but questions of timing.” The Law says when the feasts are, the wise man has to determine when to speak and when to keep silent. Kings exercise wisdom, which builds on and applies the law. Prophets are God’s counsellors, moving beyond applying God’s wisdom to joining God’s fellowship as a junior partner in the divine council.

He compares this both to the Lord’s Supper and to the average human life. Bread is for children and priests, wine is for kings and adults. We might notice that wine in the priestly rituals is poured out (e.g. Leviticus 23:13) but drunk by kings (e.g. Genesis 14:18) and by the new covenant people (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:25-26).

The average life starts with us learning obedience through obedience and struggle (priests) before eventually entering a ‘kingly’ period where we have wisdom to give to others, eventually we become old prophets who have tested their wisdom and can pass on law and wisdom to others who come after us. We are mature enough to give advice.

That’s a summary of a theme he expands in the rest of the book. The reason this might help us consider mourning is that Jordan insists that to move from being a Priest to a King you must be broken like bread. To move from being a King to a Prophet you must be poured out like wine. In the average life these transitions happen in midlife as your children age and in later life as your responsibilities are passed over to others. They can happen sooner if we are broken or poured out sooner.

It sounds very similar to the second half of life model we’ve already seen, though now with a third stage. The transitions require suffering. For Jordan this is typically the suffering of bringing up children and ordinary life—a long series of small knocks. It can of course happen other ways, he’s trying to speak in general terms about average lives, which few feel that they live. He grounds his argument in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, we see the transition from bread to wine through the Bible’s narrative and then Jesus teaches us in his liturgy and his own life that bread must be broken and wine poured out.

Maturity requires suffering. It often requires waiting too. Jordan draws attention to the way that Kingship is supposed to be bestowed by God, but attempting to seize it for ourselves is exactly what Adam did in the Garden. Be wary of the young man who wants to seize responsibility before it's gifted, or before he’s been broken like bread. Be wary of the older man who refuses to hand over responsibility to others, who won’t step upwards and backwards into an advisory role to share his wisdom, who won’t let himself be poured out like wine.

Mourning Leads to Flourishing

I am not arguing that flourishing requires suffering, but that life will always contain sufferings of various kinds. Whether we flourish or not is about what we do next. The suffering we are most likely to face in the prosperous United Kingdom where I live is different in kind to the suffering mostly faced in the New Testament world.

Whatever the circumstance, to flourish we need to learn—perhaps slowly and with faltering steps—to mourn our suffering. It’s an action, whether internal or external. In psychological speak we could describe it as integrating our emotions caused by our suffering such that we can go on to live our lives.

I remember when I was first ordained as an elder in a church, in my late-twenties, an older gentlemen in the church who had spent a long time with me sidled over and said something to the effect of, “don’t worry if you haven’t been broken yet, you will be.”

He wasn’t as pithy as that, I don’t think, but he expressed a sentiment that this would mean suffering. He was right. Yet I think that if I suggested that a young candidate for elder or deacon would be in for significant suffering if we appointed them, many would bridle.

To qualify my point a little, I am not saying that we shouldn’t ever appoint those who are young enough to be unbroken. I am saying that it should give us significant pause, should be unusual, and in the situations when it does happen should mean we adequately prepare them for the crash-course in discipleship that the Lord will offer.

Sometimes it might be kinder to allow God to break them slowly through the ebb and flow of life. This also allows the church to see their character formed through these circumstances which should give confidence that you’re making a good appointment; occasionally it may highlight the opposite too. It also maintains the normal order of things: elders should be old. Urban churches like mine that lack older folk are aberrations, even if we have to live in the place we find ourselves we must recognise the departure from the usual order of things and do what we can to address it.

Perhaps you could think of it like this: If you ever meet a church officer who isn’t very new to the office and cannot tell stories of significant personal struggle that has required them to learn to mourn—whether they use this language or not—then they have serious questions to answer. Pastors are broken.

Which is not saying anything more than that they are mature, and maturing, Christians. It does not mean that they cannot speak with boldness or clarity, but it does mean that they have been shaped by personal strife and the way they have handled that before the Lord. All Christians should be broken, which we are reminded of weekly as we partake of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord was broken and we follow his pattern, he was poured out and we follow his pattern.

At God’s table the body of Christ—in both senses—is broken. At the table we all mourn: our sin, our brushes with death (psychological or otherwise), and the death of God on our behalf. Then, in the eating and drinking we all receive God’s comfort to allow us to leave the Table rejoicing.

The Table is not a place of funeral rites. It’s not primarily solemn or reflective or for thinking about how sad the death of Christ is. Instead, it’s a place of real life, to bring our pain but also our mourning and in so doing receive from God all that he would give to those who mature through suffering; he would give us comfort.

T. M. Suffield

T. M. Suffield is a pastor, writer, and University Manager from Birmingham, UK. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @timsuffield, or read more of his writing at nuakh.uk.