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Blessedness

There is in man a higher than love of happiness; he can do without happiness and instead thereof find blessedness. Was it not to preach forth this same Higher that sages and martyrs, the poet and the priest, in all times, have spoken and suffered; bearing testimony, through life and through death, of the Godlike that is in man, and how in the Godlike only has he strength and freedom.—CARLYLE.


Blessed are they that shall be in those days; for they shall see the good things of the Lord which he shall bring to pass for the generation that cometh, under the rod of the chastening of the Lord Christ in the fear of his God.—PSALMS OF SOLOMON.


A true account of human nature will recognize that it has a power of aiming at something which is different from happiness, and something which may be intelligibly described as higher, and that on the predominance of this higher aim the nobility of life essentially depends.—LECKY.



All ethical teachers are agreed in the assumption that the attainment of the true end of life (if it can be attained) brings happiness. It does not follow that happiness is itself the end that we are to seek. Happiness is rather the symptom of the well-being of an organism that is at unity with itself because it is fulfilling the law of its being. There are various kinds of happiness, as there are various kinds of well-being. A low type of character finds happiness in low pursuits; and the fact that a man is happy does not prove that all is well with him. So the moral teachers of the ancient world were obliged to search for a word that should express the kind of happiness that is ethically desirable, and the Greek word μακάριος (blessed) became the recognized term for the happiness that has moral content and value.


To the Greek dramatists the possibility of attaining to this blessedness seemed remote, for the gods were jealous of men who aspired to share their blessedness, and human well-being rested on a precarious foundation. So the man who would attain to blessedness must walk humbly before the gods and observe with care the ceremonies of worship that they demanded. Hence another name for happiness was εὐδαιμωνία (possession by a good spirit). The happiness of outward prosperity was of little worth unless the inner life was in tune with the infinite. εὐδαιμωνία was, in the teaching of Socrates, the equivalent to moral excellence—such moral excellence as a man may attain under the conditions of human life. Blessedness is the attribute of the gods alone, and may be shared only by the fortunate few who can tread the difficult path of fellowship with the Divine. Plato carried the thought of blessedness into the higher realms of idealism. Man attains to blessedness by rising above the tyranny of things to the contemplation of the ideal good. Aristotle, treating ethics from the practical standpoint, recognized pleasure as a legitimate outcome of rightly directed energy. But blessedness is to be attained only by transcending the ethical ideas of practical life by the power of contemplation. “The energy of the Deity, as it surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and therefore of all human energies that which is nearest to this must be the happiest.” We cannot follow out the idea of happiness in Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Stoicism aimed at the attainment of the Supreme Good by rising above the changes and chances of mortal life; while the followers of Epicurus sought for happiness in the harmonious exercise of natural faculties, undisturbed by inordinate desire or unattainable ambitions. “It is impossible,” says Epicurus, “to live agreeably without living prudently, decently and uprightly.”


Strait was the gate and narrow the way that the Greek philosophers offered to men as a means of attaining to blessedness, and few there were that found it. For the wisdom that could lift a man into the godlike atmosphere in which alone blessedness is possible was beyond the reach of the sinful and the ignorant. The gods had no desire to further the blessedness of men. The citadels of heaven must be won by human effort; no hand reached down to lift men to the Supreme Good that he longed for. Only rarely do we find such a sentence as Plato’s, “The gods can never neglect a man who determines to strive earnestly to become just, and by the practice of virtue to grow as much like God as man is permitted to do.” Even the Eros of Plato is something far different from the Agape of Christian thought. It is the emotional love that lifts men to God, not the moral love that brings God down to serve and suffer for men.


In the Old Testament blessedness has, from the first, an essentially ethical character, though it is closely associated with material well-being. As the disillusionments of the present threw men’s thoughts forward to the idea of the Messianic kingdom, blessedness came to be the special good that the elect people would enjoy in the new Kingdom. “Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God.”


Hebrew thought differed from the Greek philosophers in thinking of blessedness, not as a human attainment but as a Divine gift. And as religion touched more intimately the life of the individual, blessedness becomes, in the Psalms, the name for that fellowship with God in which all human desire is satisfied. “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity”; “blessed is every one that feareth the Lord”; “blessed are they that dwell in Thy house”; “blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee.” Blessedness is now independent of all outward circumstances; it is the present possession of the man who has entered into the secret place of the Most High.


It was this word (or perhaps its Aramaic equivalent) that Jesus chose to express the Supreme Good that He came to bring to men. But He swept away all that limited its full significance. Blessedness was no longer represented as a far-off good, to be attained by the wise and prudent; it was no longer a special boon granted to an elect nation. It was God’s gift to the poor, the sorrowful, the hungry. No man need be excluded from life’s Supreme Good, for God’s great desire is to share His blessedness with all His children. It is not material wealth, nor immunity from sorrow, nor the overcoming of desire, nor high-mindedness (μεγαλοψυχια), nor passionless justice, nor victorious self-assertion, that brings blessedness. It is like the river that flows by the road-side, of which all may drink who will.


And because it is offered freely to all it becomes the expression of a good that is universal. It is not a condition to be realized in the life of the isolated individual. It is as the member of a class, the sharer in a common experience and hope, that men are blessed. They shall be comforted; they shall inherit the earth; they shall see God. So at every stage we are reminded of the essentially social character of the Christian ideal. The blessedness that the Psalmist felt in being alone with God is now the blessedness of a redeemed society, drawn by the love of the Father into the fellowship of a gladness that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.


The Sermon on the Mount represents the Gospel of the Kingdom just emerging from its Jewish sheath. The later ethical teaching of Jesus was developed in the atmosphere of controversy and contention. Disputes about the Sabbath, about ceremonial defilement, about tribute-money or divorce, afforded the opportunity for the enunciation of the great ethical principles of the Kingdom. But in the Sermon on the Mount we feel the freshness of the morning of the new world. There is a sunny optimism in the picture that Jesus draws of the life of the children of the Kingdom, a sense of freedom and gladness in the awakened consciousness of a Father in the heavens who loves and cares for all His children. The Sermon is not the sum total of the Christian message; it is—shall we say?—the alphabet that the children must learn before they pass on to deeper things. But because we all need from time to time to be converted and become as little children, it is good to return to the simple outlines of these first sketches of the Christian character as they fell from the lips of Jesus.


At the gateway of the old Law the ten commandments stand like sentries on guard. They tell us of a moral law, hard to keep, dangerous to disobey. At the gateway of the Christian age the Beatitudes stand like white-robed angels, welcoming us into a great society of those whom Jesus has blessed.1 Is this all that the Christian life asks of those who would share it?


Yet is it, after all, so easy to attain the blessed life? The moral teaching of Jesus was never hard to understand, but it was always hard to carry out. In a world that over-values wealth, we are told of the blessedness of the poor; in a world that is ready to push with side and with shoulder we are told of the blessedness of the meek; in a world full of contest and rivalry we are told of the blessedness of the peacemakers. There is a revolutionary power in these simple sketches of the true ideal of life. The Magnificat begins with the same idea of blessedness—“all generations shall call me blessed”—and then the recognition of the holiness and mercy of God passes on to the revolutionary war-song of the new Kingdom—the proud are scattered, potentates are put down from their thrones, the humble are exalted, the hungry are fed. We must not ignore this side of the Beatitudes of Jesus. Blessedness is God’s gift to all who are qualified to receive it. But how can we dare to claim that gift—we who are neither poor in spirit nor pure in heart, who hunger after other things than righteousness, and have forgotten the way of peace? The Christian ideal judges us more sternly than the old law, for it asks, not for outward obedience, but for inward transformation. So Jesus told one who came to ask about the conditions of admission to the life of blessedness, “Except a man is born anew, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” The power that conquers covetousness and pride, that awakens contrition and mercy and the hunger for righteousness, cometh down from the Father of lights. The Christian ideal must remain for ever unattainable unless we are transformed by the renewal of our minds, that we may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. The Beatitudes of Jesus are a call to high adventure and the faith that dares to live dangerously that it may live nobly.


The Beatitudes are not, and do not profess to be, a complete catalogue of Christian virtues. Jesus did not undervalue such virtues as courage, honesty, chastity and justice. But every ethical system has recognized these as essential, and the purpose of our Lord’s teaching was to bring into prominence aspects of the Christian character that were liable to be undervalued or forgotten. The “natural” virtues of ancient philosophy are superficial compared with the virtues that Jesus commended. Courage without meekness, justice without mercy, temperance without aspiration, are of little ethical value; and, on the other hand, meekness is only real when it is courageous, mercy is only true when it is just, and hunger after righteousness and purity of heart involve all that is included in the idea of temperance. One great difference between the ethical teaching of Jesus and that of the moral teachers of the Greek world was that while they were chiefly occupied with the relation of the individual to the present, He saw the present as a training-school for the future, and taught His disciples to live as the children of a Kingdom that was yet to be revealed.


The Beatitudes have often been regarded as presenting an ideal of life unsuited to the needs of a world where men must struggle and suffer. We seem to hear in them the ripple of a stream flowing gently through quiet meadows. But under the apparent calm there is a force that can overcome. They are the war-cry of a mighty conflict, a challenge to the moral standards of the world. St. Luke recognized this when he set the four Woes against the four Beatitudes. To miss the way to blessedness through love of riches, or low contentment, or careless cheerfulness, or desire for the praises of men is to turn life into a tragedy. Nietzsche only gave expression to a thought vaguely present in the minds of many men when he impeached the slave-morality of Jesus. But he was wrong. It needs more courage to be meek than to be arrogant, it needs more strength to be merciful than to be vindictive; self-sacrifice is nobler than self-assertiveness; it is a manlier thing to serve with Jesus than to conquer with Thor.


It is accepted

The angry defiance,

The challenge of battle!

It is accepted,

But not with the weapons

Of war that thou wieldest!


Cross against corslet,

Love against hatred,

Peace-cry for war-cry!

Patience is powerful;

He that o’ercometh

Hath power o’er the nations


Stronger than steel

Is the sword of the Spirit;

Swifter than arrows

The light of the truth is,

Greater than anger

Is love, and subdueth!1


It is still true that the Kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent man taketh it by force. “The unlit lamp and the ungirt loin” are the secret of failure; for the life of blessedness is attained, not by withdrawing into some quiet haven away from the tumult and temptations of the world, but by flinging ourselves with courage into the battle of life. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation, for when he hath been approved, he shall receive the crown of life.” So the seven-fold picture of the Christian character is followed by an eighth Beatitude. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” The way of blessedness is also the way of danger; a man must be prepared to sell all that he hath if he wants to make the pearl of great price his own.


But first he must be able to recognize that it is a pearl worth the sacrifice. In the Beatitudes, Jesus describes, in different aspects, the type of character that His disciples are to set before themselves. Discipleship involved the acceptance of the moral ideal that He presented to them. No man need be excluded, however imperfect his attainment, if he keeps the ideal before him as the goal of unceasing moral effort. So Christian baptism is the admission of the individual into a society that has a common ethical ideal; only in as far as we make that ideal our own can we be said to be, in any full sense, members of that society. We become inheritors of the Kingdom of heaven from the moment when we accept the Christian character, as Jesus lived and taught it, as the guiding impulse of our lives. We must abide the challenge of Bishop Brougram’s question:—


Like you this Christianity or not?

It may be false, but will you wish it true?

Has it your vote to be so if it can?



1 Might not the Beatitudes sometimes be substituted for the Commandments in the Holy Communion Service?


1 Longfellow, The Saga of King Olaf.


Masterman, J. H. B. (1921). Aspects of Christian Character: A Study of the Beatitudes (pp. 16–28). Longmans, Green and Co. (Public Domain)

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