‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’Matthew 5:4
Few things characterize our modern world more than the ubiquitous presence of noise. Not simply noise as sound, but noise as everything that fills the gaps in our increasingly shrinking attention spans—muzak and radio, television and the internet, YouTube and Netflix, roadside advertisements and tailored online advertising cookies. As nature abhors a vacuum, so our world abhors silence.
Of course, all this noise serves a purpose—it keeps us occupied. With no moment left to our own thoughts we are protected from the frightening implications of those thoughts. Is this all worth it? Is purchasing really all that matters? Am I only a cog in the global economic machine? What really is the meaning and purpose of my life?
There is a sadness in the world, and all our noise and distraction is designed, I believe, to keep us from thinking too much about that sadness, to keep us from feeling it. Think about it—our world does not tolerate sadness. When you are in pain, it encourages you to medicate—physical as well as emotional pain. A bad breakup? Retail ‘therapy’. A rough day at work? Ice cream. Frustrating thoughts about your future? Hours to waste on the internet. Feeling lonely? There are games to play, shows to watch, and things to see. We have a culture-wide habit of comforting ourselves against feeling what’s really going on.
To our self-distracted world, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Comfort will not be found in denying sadness. Comfort will not be found in distraction. Comfort will not be found in the internet, or dating, or money, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or games, or shopping, or food, or friendships. In all these ways, we are medicating ourselves against feeling what really matters. And comfort will be found by those who mourn.
What does it mean to mourn? To mourn is to grieve what is worth grieving; to feel our feelings. It means to acknowledge in our hearts that the world is not right, that our lives in this world are not right. It means, especially, to grieve the gaps in our experience. All mourning, in fact, is linked to gaps—most explicitly, the gap left behind by the absence of a departed loved one. But extending from this, all the gaps in our experience warrant mourning—a missed opportunity, a lost relationship, broken relationships, moving from a beloved home, the absence of a father figure, a particular failure. The list can go on. At any point when our experience fails to match our expectations, we encounter a gap—and that gap generates a sadness. Those who mourn acknowledge that sadness.
Alongside the pervasive noise of our culture there is also an abhorrence to grief. Grief is embarrassing. Grief is to be gotten over quickly. Grief is to be kept private. The worst thing imaginable is for grief to spill out into other relationships, for our inner pain to be made manifest to others.
Against this, once again, Jesus claims that it is those who mourn who will be blessed. Those who feel the pain of this world. Those who reject false comforts, who reject the allure of those intoxications and distractions that preserve us from acknowledging that the world is very often a place of pain and difficulty. The irony, of course, is palpable—only those people who are willing to feel the pain will experience true joy. Everyone else is parading emotional scar tissue. In other words, while the world tells us to medicate, Jesus tells us to feel. While the world urges us to escape from the pain of life, Jesus commands us to engage. Against the urge to medicate through shopping and food, through distraction and escapism, the second beatitude sounds a strong warning: it won’t work. Only the people who refuse to escape, who refuse to self-medicate will find what really matters in life. Only those who feel pain can be comforted.
Mourning is a strange thing. Despite our aversion to it, it has three profound fruits. First, if you are willing to mourn, you will be present. The person who mourns is, first of all, present to his own body. When you feel your feelings you are intimately linked to what is going on in your physiology. Extending from this, the person who feels her feelings finds herself present with the suffering of others. Everyone suffers, after all; only the delusional think they are immune. The person who mourns can come alongside others in a truly unique way.
This, in fact, is the second fruit—for mourning is the wellspring of empathy. As a worldly non-mourner I can only condemn and judge the pain of others. As a personal mourner, I can come alongside others. Mourning creates community. Mourning opens a door to friendship and emotional consonance.
A third fruit of mourning is the gift of joy. If you deny the pain of life, and attempt to make all of life a kind of endless pleasure, then slowly but surely all your pleasures will be reduced to boredom. He who denies the range of human emotion will be condemned to experiencing only one emotion: boredom. But to the one who feels his feelings, to the person who digs deep into her pain, the full range of human joys open like a panorama.
When Jesus blesses those who mourn, he is not suggesting that the whole state of the Christian life is one of unalterable sadness; he is suggesting that those who rely on the comforts of the world, those distractions that keep us from feeling pain, will inevitably rob us of experiencing our own joy and the joy of others. He is not telling us to be perpetually sad and downcast; Christ is telling us to feel our feelings, and to resist those false comforts that rob us of true comfort.
Once again, we come to an attitude, a promise, and an invasion. The attitude of the second beatitude is that if we are going to be a people who mourn, we’ve got to feel our lives; not attempt to escape them. That we, as followers of Christ, must become conscious of, and consciously reject, those places of worldly distraction that offer us false comfort.
The promise of this beatitude is that if you do reject the world’s comforts, you will get God’s. God will draw near to you. God will make Himself manifest to you in other people. You will discover that your pains do not isolate you, but offer doorways to greater intimacy with others. You will discover and experience true joy.
Lastly, this beatitude promises an invasion: if you will choose to feel what is going on, to reject the alluring power of worldly comforts, then your life becomes a thin place where God will meet you with His gift of true comfort. He may meet you directly, comforting your spirit, or through the community, comforting you as you join other believers in this rejection of false comfort. But either way, in your otherworldly authenticity He will begin to shine through you to others. One of my pastors used to say, ‘People want a genuine alternative to the world, not a cheap imitation of it.’ In following this beatitude, you yourself will come to exhibit the Christian alternative to the sadness of the world.
Set aside some time to write a few pages in a journal. Use that space to reflect honestly on your week. What went well? What went poorly? What was painful or frustrating? Pause to reflect on the process: if you are brutally honest with yourself, what is the role of mourning in that account? Try God out, and pray to receive His comfort in the midst of whatever’s going on in your life (or the life of the world).