Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4) This beatitude is probably even more perplexing to the world than the first one, as its basic meaning is “O the happiness of those who are unhappy!”
Just as the first beatitude used the strongest Greek word for “poor”, so the second one uses the strongest Greek word for “mourn”, describing a passionate outpouring of grief for a lost loved one. In this beatitude, however, the primary meaning is not sorrow because of a bereavement or other personal troubles, but sorrow for three other causes.
Firstly, there is a desperate sorrow for our own sin, unworthiness and spiritual failure, knowing that this grieves the Holy Spirit. This sorrow follows naturally from being poor in spirit. It is the attitude of Isaiah when he saw the Lord in the temple and cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
This is the godly sorrow which “brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is the sorrow of the “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) which God does not despise. Rather, He takes away our mourning and gives us the oil of gladness (Isaiah 61:3, NRSV). We are comforted by the many promises of forgiveness that fill His Word and the joy of salvation is restored to us (Psalm 51:12).
Indeed, the joy of salvation is a happiness we cannot truly experience until we have felt the sorrow of conviction for our sins, a sorrow so deep and sincere that it leads us to repentance. This happens not only at the time when we commit our lives to Jesus, who died to take away our sins. It also happens repeatedly as we walk with Him for the rest of our earthly lives. If we are honest in examining ourselves, we will find sins of thought, word and deed every day, sins that cause us to mourn as we confess them in prayer and simultaneously to rejoice as we know ourselves forgiven.
Secondly, there is the sorrow that arises from having our hearts broken by the suffering we see in the world around us. To weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) is to be like our Lord Jesus, who wept with the grieving friends and relatives of Lazarus, even though He knew He was going to raise Lazarus to life again (John 11:11,33-35).
Sometimes there is an extra reason to mourn for others – not only their suffering but also the sin that caused it. In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah pours out his heart and we see that he is overwhelmed with a double sorrow: (1) the suffering of his people who have been taken in exile to Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem and (2) the sins of his people which brought about their downfall at the hand of God. Six centuries later, Jesus wept over the same city and for the same two reasons: their stubborn sinfulness and the suffering it was to bring them (Luke 19:41-44).
Thirdly, Richard Chenevix Trench describes a mourning that arises “out of a sense of exile here, of our separation from the true home of our spirits, out of a longing for the eternal Sabbath”.8 This too is a sadness included in the promise of comfort and joy.
Jesus promises that those who mourn in these ways will find superlative happiness in God.
Such sorrow is an inward sorrow, between each of us and our Lord. There is no sense in this beatitude that Christians should be dour and moody with those around them. Although we never read of Jesus laughing, He surely made others laugh with His humorous images of planks of wood in our eyes or camels being threaded through needles. He went to wedding receptions and made sure there was plenty of good wine (John 2:1-10). In fact, He was criticised for enjoying the normal pleasures of life (Matthew 11:19).
The Christian life is a serious business but we should not be over-solemn as believers in earlier generations sometimes were. Just as there is no advantage in material poverty, so there is no advantage in general misery. Neither poverty nor misery are good in themselves. The promise of this beatitude is only for particular kinds of mourning. Nor should we force ourselves to seem always bright and bubbly, as some today feel is essential for Christians.
We should grieve over our own sins, over the suffering and sins of others, and as we yearn for our heavenly