“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”—ST MATTHEW 5:4.
Evidently the truth here does not lie on the surface. There is no inherent blessedness in being unhappy, nor could any commendation be bestowed on indulging in low spirits. We must go outside the mere state of mourning to find the justification of the blessing pronounced on it. There is a mourning which is as much a self-indulgence as rioting; there is a mourning which casts a blight on all who come near it; there is a mourning which one may bring on oneself by one’s own absolute choice. Our common-sense tells us that such mourning cannot be blessed; there must be qualifications to be made and explanations to be given here. Christ never meant to pronounce all unhappiness, whether self-caused or self-indulgent, to be blessed.
Really to understand Him we must take into view the facts of life. If we were living in an ideal world, where everyone did as they should do, and where death and sin did not cause such often undeserved sorrow, there would be no meaning in a blessing on mourners. Mourning is an imperfect state considered absolutely; considered relatively it may be the highest state possible, but clearly it is for reasons outside itself that the blessing is pronounced upon it. We cannot open our eyes to things around us and not feel that the conditions of our present being have everything to say to the real comprehension of this saying. We feel at once that there is mourning and mourning—that some mourning could never be called blessed, e.g., that it must be more right at any rate to make the best of things than to wail helplessly under the trials of life, that there cannot be a blessing on mere physical low spirits or mere depression. And yet there is mourning which, when we know enough about it and when we look on at its issue, we can see to be blessed. They who weep with others, they who share burdens, they who make the sorrows of others their own, they who feel the separations of death in a way which, far from starving, enriches their nature, which, makes them more tender, more considerate, more helpful to others who sorrow—we can see how thrice blessed is their mourning. They shall surely be comforted—their sorrow shall find its true justification, in the joy of which none can rob them.
And even short of this I think that, without any unhealthy, morbid feelings, we can own the blessedness of sorrow, i.e., of sorrow of a certain kind, of sorrow which does its work and leaves its power behind stamped indelibly upon the life. We can see that suffering has a power of its own; that those who have had much of it, of whatever kind, in sickness and bereavement, or disappointment, or any trial (if they take it the right way, if they do not either rebel and count God an enemy, or sink down into flaccid inutility, if they bear the discipline of life as determined to extort its inner meaning; if even, while they feel how it hurts, they remember how it strengthens) have a strange, almost unearthly power in their lives. Where is there in truth such power as the power of the heroic sufferer? Where is there such influence as in him or her who has been ‘through a great deal’? Not on thrones, nor in upper seats, nor in tongues of fiery eloquence, nor in strong imperious wills is there to be found any equal of that noble power which, while it diffuses itself without an effort, and fascinates by its very glance, yet carries the unmistakable evidence of heavy burdens strongly borne and of deep suffering patiently endured, of the Cross not sullenly borne but willingly accepted.
How shall we bear sorrow when it comes to us so as to make it a blessing? This is the question which will occupy us this morning. A great American Preacher* has pointed out with his usual lucidity that there have been two theories from the Christian point of view on the subject—one of them imperfect, partially true, often used in a misleading fashion, which one may call the theory of compensation, which rests on the hope that it will all be made up to us by-and-bye; the other less common, always the deeper view, but more realized in these days through the influence of certain modern writers than it ever was before—the theory of transformation which points to a present cure for sorrow, and a present power in sorrow; which, when grasped, makes us able to say with no glance at the dim future, but with our eyes on the present, with no unreality, but with deep earnestness, “Blessed are they that mourn”—“It is good for me that I have been in trouble.”
Let us think of these two theories in their practical working. The compensation theory has very much the advantage so far, that it is easily understood. It looks so fair and just and equal. “If you suffer now,” it says, “never mind; you will be happy someday. If it rains today it will be fine to-morrow—the discomfort will pass—only be brave and bear up. Happiness will come by-and-bye.” This is the Christian philosophy of the many; the highest conception that many have of any Christian feeling on the subject. It has been called the doctrine of the endless up and down; it has its counterpart in the universe, and in man’s nature, in the ebb and flow of tides, in the compression and expansion of the heart or lungs.
In this way to many a weary-hearted soul heaven presents itself as a compensation for the sorrows of the earth. The world is the “down” and Heaven is to be the “up”—the bad prosper here, there everything will be made right. We must set our teeth tight and endure here, and then there everything will be as it should be. The deeper the misery here, the more complete the joy there. This is the idea which, under cover of some texts from the Bible, has taken possession of many Christians. So far does it possess them that they seem to think that if they are not “down” enough here, they ought to apologize for it, that the really pious attitude is a pose of resigned melancholy; at any rate, that to be happy here must be less right than to be miserable. It is this which has led to all the excesses of a barren asceticism; which has justified the self-inflicted scourge, and the secret macerations of an unhealthy egotism. But surely the whole theory misses whatever truth there may be in it, by insisting that that truth is the whole truth. Its eyes are so fixed on the horizon that it cannot see the beauties and the possibilities which lie beneath its very feet. And by degrees it loosens its hold on the living God Who is here and now, not to torture but to help, not to afflict but to inspire. God becomes the synonym for the afflicter. God’s Will is never our happiness, but something which we must endure. It always has the sound of piety, but is really most impious in its results, for it banishes God’s goodness into the dim distant future and sees Him here and now not as, above all, good, but only as the scourge of His people.
And the very virtues, which this teaching is supposed to produce are so often caricatures. It is often said, that this compensation theory, if insisted upon, will make men patient and resigned, but the forms of patience and resignation are varied and manifold. There is the higher form of each, and the lower. The lower form of patience in man or woman is little more than the uncomplainingness of the beast of burden—the dogged and sullen yielding of the donkey to the burden from which he cannot escape. Or a lower form still is the reckless excitement of the spiritual gambler. There is nothing cheerful, nothing calm, nothing inspiring about these lower forms of patience and resignation.
Turn away and look for a moment at a much higher theory about sorrow, which our greatest modern prophets, in poetry and prose alike, have taught us as the true outcome of the Gospel story, nay, even of the tragedy of Calvary, the theory of transformation—the theory which treats sorrow as a great present purification, not as something to be endured now, and to be followed some day in a far-off Heaven by a great reaction, but as something which has here and now a power of its own—a power of transformation; which brings a peace not in the dim future, but a peace here and now; a power unfound elsewhere, a power which produces a religion which does not bid men sit down and dwell only in the future, but which says “things have here and now possibilities within them, even dark things have: the way to treat them is not to lie down and wait till they are over, but to use them.” There is the secret difference in the use of life’s discipline, of life’s sorrows. It is the temperament we bring that makes the distinction. *“One artist uses the stone and makes it an altar, a stonemason uses the same sort of stone, and makes it only a doorstep.” The determining power lies finally in the different attitudes of the two men who use the stone. So it is with trouble. One man makes out of trouble a present power, something that lifts himself and lifts others with him; another man makes out of trouble a burden to be borne—uncomplainingly it may be, resignedly it may be—but it depresses all who are near him; he looks for its issue to the future, but in the present it has no use for him. Therein lies the difference. The compensation theory forgets how great man is; it puts him into the power of things that happen; he must go where they carry him, and trust to being cast up on dry ground some day. It is fatalism. “Kismet,” he murmurs, if he is a Mahommedan. “It is God’s Will” with Christians means often much the same thing. We admire strong solid resignation; it is a splendid statue, but it is not inspiring. The Christian doctrine of a transforming power within man teaches us quite differently; it says “all things are yours;” it is you who make them what they are. It is for you to use trouble and so to find its power; so you will find a present God Who will not show you the way out of trouble in some far-off time and place, but Who will show you how misery may now become instinct with happiness, Who will show you in the trouble the way to conquer the trouble, by using it. For trouble teaches dependence upon God, trouble rightly used is not a cramping restraint, but a liberating power. “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.” Trouble teaches us dependence on Him Who is, and lives; aye and not dependence only, but association also, the association that comes of a deeper knowledge of the nature and purpose of God.
Who God is, what God is, what God means—to know these things is to be comforted with no distant promise, but with the present enfolding by the everlasting arms. This is the secret of the promise, ‘they shall be comforted,’ comforted here and now, comforted because they are more conscious of God; and to know God is to have a deeper joy than any happiness that comes of prosperity can bring. The man who transforms trouble by the knowledge of God is the man who, “going through this vale of misery, uses it for a well, and the pools are filled with water.”
So may it be with us; so may we rise to that knowledge of God’s Nature and purpose which transforms every trouble, and makes it an instrument of present power, and, more wonderful still even, of present comfort.
* Cf. Phillips Brooks, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” p. 24.
* Phillips Brooks, supra.
Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on Mourners (I). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 25–33). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)