Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 (NIV)
One key theme in the beatitudes is the reversal of fortunes. The poor (who are assumed to be outside of God’s favor) are the ones who are blessed and included in the Kingdom. Likewise, those who mourn will be comforted. Jesus seems to be drawing on the following passage from Isaiah 61:1-3,

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
 to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3  and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,

the oil of joy instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

You may recall that this is the passage Jesus read from during when he began his public ministry in Luke 4. We see several connections between the beatitudes and this “year of the Lord’s favor” passage, such as the poor, the brokenhearted (pure in heart), comfort for those who mourn, righteousness, and the promise of a reversal of fortunes.

It seems likely that Jesus was intentionally drawing on the themes of Isaiah 61 in order to say that the promises God gave his people in the Old Testament were coming to fruition through his life, death, and resurrection. And in a similar vein, Jesus’ presence on earth is an early taste of the kind of comfort God will one day provide to all of his chosen people (e.g. when God wiped away every tear from our eyes, Revelation 7:17).

What Kind of Mourning Did Jesus Have In Mind?

John Stott reads the Beatitudes in a highly spiritualized way: The poor in spirit recognize their spiritually poverty; they mourn over the sin of the world and their personal sins; their awareness of their sin leads them to develop a humble (meek) attitude, and in response to their spiritual shortcomings they strive to pursue righteous living. Reading the beatitudes in an exclusively spiritual way would mean Jesus is referring to mourning over sin, as Stott argues:

“It is plain from the context that those here promised comfort are not primarily those who mourn the loss of a loved one, but those who mourn the loss of their innocence, their righteousness, their self-respect. It is not the sorrow of bereavement to which Christ refers, but the sorrow of repentance.” The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 39-40

While I agree that spiritual mourning is part of what Jesus has in mind, I struggle to accept that it is all he intended. Other scholars take mourning to refer to the pain and heartache we feel over all kinds of tragedy and oppression, including from the loss loved ones, oppression and suffering, one’s personal sins, and the brokenness of the world.

To me, the wholistic view of mourning seems most appropriate. One thing we can do to try and understand Jesus’ intent in this passage is look at the times and places Jesus wept:

  1. In Luke 19:41, Jesus wept as he looked over the city of Jerusalem—mourning its spiritual decline.
  2. In John 11:35, Jesus wept alongside Mary and Martha when Lazarus died.
  3. In Hebrews 5:7, Jesus prayed to God with fervent cries and tears.

Jesus wept over the spiritual decline of God’s people, he wept over the loss of life, and he wept aloud as he wrestled with God in prayer. His example shows us that he likely intended “mourning” to be an inclusive term that encompasses all forms of grief—not just mourning over sin.

Experiencing the Comfort of God’s Presence

In Psalm 34:18, David writes about the comfort of God’s presence in times of trouble: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” This is the kind of comfort Jesus is talking about. God has not promised to take away every circumstance that might cause us to mourn, but he has promised to be close to us in our grief and walk alongside us in our times of tragedy.

There’s another reason why I see God’s presence as the primary way we experience his comfort. The word Jesus uses for “comfort” is the same word he uses to describe the Holy Spirit in John 14:26 (“Comforter,” “Advocate,” or “Helper”). The original word refers to calling someone alongside you to advocate on your behalf. The comfort that the Holy Spirit provides is not something we experience from a distance; rather, the Spirit dwells within us and is the primary way we experience the presence of God in our lives.