Dr. Chris White Jan 19, 2014
I’m about to give you the essentials of what was a five-minute scan of headlines of four news sites on Friday morning. The New York Times relayed the “preventable” tragedy in Benghazi with our diplomatic corps, the ongoing conflict in Syria, the new catastrophe in South Sudan, and local conflict in northern Florida over a civil war monument. The Wall Street Journal explored the U.N. panel’s grilling of the Vatican on sex abuse by priests, and the 61 million Chinese children who have not seen one or both parents for three months at a time because of job opportunities far from home. Fox News was reporting these stories as well as a N.C. couple accused of handcuffing an adopted child to the porch with a dead chicken around his neck. CNN was issuing a drought emergency issued in California worse than any on record, Mexican vigilante violence, and the 29 people busted in an on-line sex-ring probe. And ESPN was covering a story of academic fraud at UNC that allowed athletes to take no-show classes.
Behind all of these stories are people whose lives are stunted, altered, and often ended. A great deal of mourning goes with these histories and present grief. No one in the mess and mix of these stories feels blessed; in fact, they may very well feel cursed. No matter what we may learn through mourning, we feel blessed when we avoid the events that bring grief. We feel happiest when we’ve been spared the troubles we see around us. In fact, we often feel like we’ve done things right, maybe even earned it, when we enjoy a life without grief. Mourning is hard to reconcile with happiness.
And yet Jesus makes just this argument. In Matthew 5:4 we read, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” As we saw last week, the Beatitudes require us to put words together that do not seem to fit in the same sentence, and it is hard to put mourning and sorrow in the same box with blessed or happy. And indeed we shouldn’t. Sorrow is a serious issue. The word for mourn here is a word for deepest grief, the same Greek word used of Jacob’s grief when the brothers brought the robe of Joseph to him covered in blood. There is no need to project a happiness that is beyond reach when mourning is upon us. And it is especially important that we not make light of all that does bring sorrow to this world and its people. No, we’re not to be happy because we mourn. And we’re not to make light of the sin and sinners and conditions that bring us grief.
No, we’re to be happy and find blessing because comfort is coming. The promise from Jesus is this: mourners find comfort, the grieving find comfort, and the wronged find comfort. It is not a promise that we will all magically escape grief because we love God. If you haven’t yet faced sorrow, you will. And if you have, you will most likely face it again. If you dare go through life with faith, hope, and love, you are going to face sorrow because life’s losses sabotage faith, hope, and love. But you will also find comfort in this pain.
The practical question is How? How does God comfort in mourning?
First, God Himself is comfort in mourning. The better part of mourning is usually due to loss and to absence—of people, of plans, of expectations. We mourn when have lost what or who was in our understanding of life’s order and happiness. We mourn because we are alone like we’ve never been alone, whether we’ve lost a parent, a spouse, a child, or a friend. We are even alone when we’ve lost the stabilizing hope of a life plan that was long the plan of life. God’s comfort to us in our mourning is Himself. As David writes in the 23rd psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” Faith in God does not erase the valley, the shadows that descend on them, and the evil that lurks in them, but by faith we confess that God is with us in these valleys.
As he’ll say in Psalm 139:7-12, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” There is nowhere we can go to escape God, and if there is no way to escape God, then we must presume that in our suffering we have not escaped Him.
God Himself is comfort because He is a companion, a presence, a power and promise in just being Himself and being close by. Paul will write in Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, that transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” We are never alone. No matter who leaves, or if all leave, we are never alone. That is our comfort.
There is also a second piece of our comfort. It is the comfort God unpacks in His work of redemption. Even as we mourn, God is bringing comfort.
He brings us comfort through forgiveness. Let’s be honest, some better part of grief in this world is caused by sin and the sinners that sin those sins. We have sinned against God, sinned against others, and erased possibilities by these sins. And we mourn these losses. Others have sinned against God, sinned against us, and erased possibilities by those sins. This is why the small line in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, is such a large possibility for comfort. Yes, we sin, but there is comfort in finding forgiveness from God and others. Yes, people sin against us, but there is comfort in forgiving others. Forgiveness cannot replace what was lost, but forgiveness takes losses seriously. And comforts us.
As God unpacks redemption, He also comforts us in the promise of judgment. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:10. Justice may escape us in this world, but it does not escape our lives. Paul is writing to Christians here and reminding them of the confidence that should be theirs as they live. We will stand before Christ, and he knows the cost of faithfulness. Rewards will come. But we also know from parable after parable that the unrepentant also face the judgment seat of Christ. Matthew 25 illustrates through three parables that the unprepared, the unfaithful, and the uncaring face a bitter judgment. Sin is never hidden.
As God unpacks redemption, he also comforts us with a promise of awakening one day to a new heaven and a new earth. As 1 Corinthians 15:54 tells us, a day will come when this earthly experience of the perishable and the mortal is replaced by the imperishable and the immortal. There is much to mourn between perishable and imperishable, but the ending is clear. This promise we know and value so highly is never better explained than in Revelation 21:3 as John described the new heaven: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The final comfort for us is that as we live in this old order, a new order is coming.