Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. - Matthew 5:4
The first and possibly most famous part of the Sermon on the Mount consists of a series of eight statements, each of which begins with the phrase, “Blessed are the . . . .” In the Latin Vulgate, this portion is entitled “Beatitudenes,” which comes from the word for “happiness,” and is the origin of the common English name for this section, The Beatitudes.
A common misunderstanding about the Beatitudes comes from this title. The Beatitudes are not a recipe for how to be happy. Because of our highly individualized society, contemporary Western readers in particular read the Bible as a self-help book, but to read the Beatitudes that way would actually get them backwards. They do tell us how to attain happiness, but they describe a settled joy that is the result of membership in the Kingdom of Heaven. Citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, though, originates with Christ and His call to us to follow Him. We cannot simply use Him as a means to our own self-fulfillment.
A second way the Beatitudes can be misunderstood is if they are read as isolated, unrelated statements. Each of the Beatitudes is, in fact, related to the others, and the order in which they appear is intentional and important.
The first Beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (v. 3).” As discussed earlier, “poor in spirit” does not mean we are discouraged by our lack of wealth, but refers to our spiritual poverty, the lack of anything innately good or righteous in us. When we realize our moral bankruptcy before God and that we have no means to bargain with Him so that we might enter His kingdom, we come to Him humble and broken and He receives us on the basis of Christ’s finished work at the cross, and not because of anything that we have done.
To be blessed for mourning, then, does not mean that grief is a good thing in and of itself. If that were the case, we would deliberately seek sorrow for the good it might bring us. If we view the Beatitudes in series, however, we see that each one builds upon the last. So our mourning is related to our poverty of spirit. We come to the Lord humbled and broken, aware of our sin and depravity, and admitting that we have nothing of spiritual worth or value to offer Him. Instead, we have only sin and rebellion and selfishness. As citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, however, our sin grieves us. We mourn the wickedness and rebellion that are part of our sinful nature. And that is the right response to sin. Grief over sin pleases God and those to come to Him through Christ know the forgiveness He gives and are comforted.
So, far from being a self-help guide, the Beatitudes are a description of the ways in which God helps us. And rather than being disconnected and discrete blessings, they are all part of a great whole, in which we come to God admitting our emptiness and He welcomes us into His Kingdom. Then, as we mourn our sinfulness, we are comforted by the forgiveness that is ours in Christ.