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The Blessedness of the Sorrowful

The pleasures of each generation evaporate in air; it is their pains that increase the spiritual momentum of the world.—ILLINGWORTH.

Christianity, from its foundation in Judaism, has throughout been a religion of sacrifice and sorrow. It has been a religion of blood and tears, and yet of profound happiness to its votaries. The apparent paradox is due to its depth, and to the union of these seemingly diverse roots in love.—ROMANES.

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to … comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.”1

It was probably this passage that our Lord had in mind when He spoke of the blessedness of those who mourned. When the Jewish people had been carried into exile in Babylon, many of them settled down in the land of their captivity and were well content to forget their native country. But there was a faithful remnant who could not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. They clung to the dream of the day when the ransomed of the Lord should return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads. They mourned, not with the hopeless sorrow of men who despair, but with the sorrow that waits to be turned into joy. And they mourned, not only because they were in exile, but even more because they recognized in their exile the just punishment of a nation’s sin. The picture of the faithful servant of Jehovah, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, bearing the sin of many that he might make intercession for the transgressors, was probably an idealized picture of the God-fearing remnant whose offering of vicarious penitence saved the religious life of the nation from perishing. For that very reason, the words found their complete fulfilment in Jesus. For He was not only the “new man” whose advent opened a fresh chapter of human history; He was also “the Christ,” in whom the age-long inheritance of sorrow and hope, the entail of which had passed down through generations of Hebrew history, attained its full significance and value. That one life gathered to itself the whole burden of a world’s sin, and in the sanctuary of sorrow offered the vicarious sacrifice of perfect penitence that was the consummation of all the imperfect penitence of the faithful remnant of every age.

The Christian life is meant to be a life of gladness. We entirely misrepresent the character of Jesus when we picture Him as a man habitually depressed and unhappy. He whose greeting to His disciples was so often “Be of good cheer” could not have lacked the note of cheerfulness in His own life. Yet the alienation of the world from His Father cast the shadow of sorrow over His earthly life. He loved men too much to be content that they should go on still in darkness, and as the early enthusiasm of the crowd passed into indifference and then into open hostility, He spoke more often to His disciples of the tragedy that lay before Him.

There is often a note of unreality in the hymns that we sing about being “mourning exiles here,” yet the children of the Kingdom have no right to feel at home in a world where the laws of the Kingdom are set at nought. We cannot cherish high ideals without paying the penalty; we cannot believe in a kingdom of love and righteousness without being saddened by the hatred and injustice that hinders the coming of that kingdom. There is a kind of happiness that can be won by taking the world as we find it. “I have not made the world, and He that made it will guide.” But we cannot take refuge in this easy optimism if we believe that the true purpose of our lives is to forward the coming of the Kingdom. In a daring phrase, St. Paul claims to be filling up that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ for His body’s sake, which is the Church. No doubt he was thinking mainly of the sufferings that he endured in his missionary career, but these sufferings were the outcome of a collision of ideals between the Christian preacher and the world-order that found the Gospel of the Cross a stumbling block and foolishness.

The sorrow of Jesus was the outcome of His passionate love for men. It flamed into anger against the hypocrisy and injustice—the “wrath and wrong that hinders loving”—that were only the more detestable when they masqueraded under the guise of religion. And behind His love for men lay His deeper love for His Father in heaven, whose purpose of good was hindered by the misrepresentation of His character. His ideal of human life was that men should so act that the Father in heaven might be glorified. When He taught His disciples to pray, “Hallowed be Thy name,” He gave them a standard of action as well as a standard of prayer.

We are conscious of “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world” in proportion as we share His love for men and His zeal for the glory of God. But in one respect our sorrow is deeper than His. For however heavily the burden of the world’s sin lay on His mind and heart, no consciousness of personal failure overshadowed Him. While His outer life was lived in a world of men His secret life was lived wholly in the Kingdom of His Father.

We have no such haven of refuge to which to turn from the disillusionments of life. For when we take refuge in the inner shrine of our own personal being, we find the failure of the world reproduced in ourselves. “When I would do good, evil is present with me.” The Christian man knows himself as an exile even in the inner Kingdom of his own personal life. To lose this consciousness of alienation is to lose the hope of achievement. To mourn for the sins of others while we do not mourn for our own is to be caught in the dangerous snare of spiritual pride.

But such mourning is not only the expression of the humility that recognizes its own failure; it is also the expression of the idealism that recognizes its high destiny. “Mourning and sorrow are in reality the acknowledged and felt contradiction of the nature that is in us, to the Divine life which shall be revealed in us.” Low ideals ask for no tears as the price of their achievement.

Sorrow, then, is inevitable in the Christian life, but is it blessed? Not in itself, but in the result that it produces. It is possible to find a kind of morbid satisfaction in mournfulness, as people sometimes seem to “enjoy ill health.” They that mourn are blessed because their sorrow shall be turned into joy. It is a stage in the journey by which the soul enters into deeper fellowship with God.

In the Purgatorio, Dante treats this Beatitude as a warning against the sin of sloth (accidia). “Accidia” is “that low-spirited state of soul which shrinks away sorrowful from the pain and exertion which the struggle to attain spiritual good involves. And the Beatitude is—Blessed are they that mourn over this sadness which makes divine good seem not worthy of the effort to gain it.”1 Bishop Paget describes this particular sin as “the dull refusal of the highest aspiration of the moral life; the acceptance of a view of one’s self and of one’s powers which once would have appeared intolerably poor, unworthy, and faint-hearted; an acquiescence in discouragement which reaches the utmost depth of sadness when it ceases to be regretful; a despondency concerning that goodness to which the love of God has called men, and for which His grace can make them strong.”1

“They shall be comforted.” The word, like the Greek equivalent (παρὰκλησις), has a much stronger and more virile meaning than we have come to associate with it. It conveys the idea, not of the soothing of a sick child to sleep, but of the encouraging of the tired soldier to the final effort that will win the battle. God often comforts us, not by changing the circumstances of our lives, but by changing our attitude towards them. He brings in the promise of the future to redress the balance of the present. Sorrow exercises an enfeebling influence on character unless it is made strong by the tonic of hope. As the blessedness of poverty lies in the fact that a life unencumbered with great possessions is better able to recognize its inheritance in the heavens, so the blessedness of sorrow lies in the fact that the light of hope shines clearer when the present is in shadow. Pessimism is the sickness that “destroyeth in the noonday” a generation that seeks its satisfaction in the present. They that mourn are those who recognize that the present has failed to fulfil its promise of good and are all the more certain that God’s last word has not yet been spoken. Though the sorrow of the present lay heavy on the mind of Jesus, it never for a moment (except perhaps at the darkest moment of the crucifixion) clouded the assurance that the future was bright with the certainty of victory.

The poor man is blessed because he is “rich in faith” (St. James 2:5); the mourner because he is rich in hope (Rom. 8:24).

But on what foundation does this hope rest? No doubt sorrow for the sins of others is one of the strongest motives for social service. Jesus had compassion on the multitude because they were as sheep having no shepherd; he wept over Jerusalem because it did not know the time of its visitation. And this sorrow found expression in the supreme sacrifice when He gave His life a ransom for many. They that mourn are they that serve; there is no blessedness in the sorrow that dare not endure the cross. Yet social service often ends in failure and disappointment. We discover how strongly-entrenched the forces of evil are; how inadequate are our resources for achieving any permanent result. We must look for comfort elsewhere; we find it in the sympathy of God. When we mourn for the sins of the world we are sharing the sorrow of our Father in heaven. And the sorrow of God becomes a great passion for redemption; they that mourn are, by that very fact, ranging themselves on God’s side; His unconquerable patience is their assurance that

good shall fall

At last—far off—at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

In the strength of this consciousness Jesus Christ endured the cross, despising the shame. He endured the cross—He did not evade it. For the heaviness that endures for a night is not less real, even when we know that joy cometh in the morning. Even if we believe that human folly and sin will, in the end, minister to the greater glory of God, we should be less than human, and much less than Christian, if we felt no fellowship with Jesus in His sorrow over a world where truth seems for ever on the scaffold, and wrong for ever on the throne.

But is not this a morbid view of life? Can we not find refuge in the assurance that “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world”? Yes, if all that we mean by the solidarity of the race is a delusion. But if we are one family we cannot dwell contentedly in the Father’s house while our brother is still feeding swine in the far country. Indeed, is not the sorrow that a good man feels as he looks out on a world where cruelty and injustice and selfish indifference to the common good are only slowly giving place to better things the expression of the grief of the Spirit of God that dwells in him?

The mourning that brings blessedness is the mourning that is the expression of the desire for the establishment on earth of the fellowship for which men were made. There is often an element of selfishness in personal grief, yet it draws together in the bond of sympathy those who have drifted apart in days of prosperity. How much more closely men ought to be drawn together by the vicarious penitence that does not shrink from the task of bearing the burden of the sins of the world. The fellowship of the Christian society is the fellowship of a common sorrow and a common hope.

The biographer of St. Martin of Tours tells how on one occasion the Evil One appeared to him in royal robes and crowned with a diadem, claiming to be Christ. But the Saint replied that Christ had not promised to return in such guise; “I will not believe that I see the return of Christ until He comes in the same form in which He suffered, and, above all, bears visibly the wounds which He suffered on the cross.” Commenting on this story, Newman says, “Many spirits are abroad, more are issuing from the pit; the credentials which they display are the precious gifts of mind, beauty, richness, depth, originality. Christian, look hard at them with Martin in silence, and ask them for the print of the nails.”

1 Isaiah 61:1–3

1 Carroll, Prisoners of Hope.

1 The Spirit of Discipline.

Masterman, J. H. B. (1921). Aspects of Christian Character: A Study of the Beatitudes (pp. 43–53). Longmans, Green and Co. (Public Domain)

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