Everyone loves the mountaintop experience. You know what I mean. It’s that sweet sense of joy that comes with a deep awareness of God’s presence. Those times nurture us and strengthen us. We need them. It is inevitable, however, that those seasons on the mountaintop will be met with seasons of sorrow, seasons in which it is more difficult to perceive the presence of God, seasons of mourning. You don’t have to live long on this earth to learn that life comes with suffering, and suffering comes with sorrow. Knowing that experience is unavoidable. So it’s reassuring to know that Jesus understands this and is attentive to our pain. And it’s good news to hear him say
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).
But is there purpose in our pain? Does our mourning have meaning? Will God bring good from our sorrow? To answer those questions we have to step back and consider the larger context of the beatitudes within the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is not simply a list of rules to be kept or a new law to be followed. The Sermon on the Mount is formative and transformative. It’s about becoming a new kind of person. It’s about becoming the kind of person who brings hope and healing to a broken world. It’s about becoming the kind of person who can pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And it’s about being that kind of person in times of joy and sorrow. Cultivating the character described in the beatitudes makes us into that kind of people. So if righteous sorrow forms us into kingdom people, then we must conclude that
Sorrow for our broken world motivates mission to heal the world.
What sort of sorrow?
There’s more than one kind of sorrow. And we need to be clear on the sort of thing Jesus is talking about. For starters, he’s not talking about sorrow over worldly trouble. Perhaps you are grieving because you’ve been fired from a job. But you were fired because you lied to your employer. That’s not what Jesus has in mind here. There’s a difference between righteous sorrow and being sorry you got caught.
When it comes to righteous morning, there are two kinds of sorrow. The first involves sorrow over our own sin. The second involves sorrow over the world’s brokenness.
Let’s start with the first. When the Holy Spirit begins to convict us of sin, it should produce sorrow. We should mourn our depravity. We should mourn our rebellion against God. We should grieve over the separation our transgression has created between us and God and the negative impact it’s had on the people around us. And that grieving should move us toward Jesus, who comforts us with the knowledge of his love revealed most perfectly in his atoning death and resurrection.
And as we are drawn closer to Jesus, the Holy Spirit will increase our mourning over the brokenness of the world. God’s good world is groaning as it awaits liberation from bondage to the power of sin and death. The evidence of that bondage should be clear to all. The last week brought news of how the British government withdrew life support from twenty-three month old Alfie Evans and deprived him of food, because his life was not deemed worthy of care. My heart grieves to live in a world that cares not for our most vulnerable. I hope yours does, too. Not long ago I traveled to Guatemala and saw first-hand a community of people who survive by digging through the city dump for recyclables to sell. This includes kids who don’t have time for school because they must join their families in the search for trash to sell. My heart grieves for them. I hope yours does, too. I mourn every time I drive by the Planned Parenthood clinic just around the corner. My heart is filled with sorrow to live in a society that sees human life as a throw-away, and my soul aches for the women who feel like walking through those doors is their only option. I hope yours does, too.
From Mourning to Mission
If you look, you’ll discover this second kind of mourning in Jesus.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matthew 23:37).
The rebellion of God’s people was plain to our Lord. And it grieved his heart. But he did not wallow in his sorrow. He did something about it. The brokenness of our world motivated Jesus to heal the world. So he set his tear-stained face toward the cross, and he offered his life in place of ours. And he did it to keep his promise to comfort those who mourn their own sin and the sin of the world.
Now this is tough. Because our first inclination is to run from pain. But Jesus runs toward it. Not because he loves pain, but because he loves people. And if we want to be his followers, then our holy sorrow should motivate us to engage the world with the hope of healing that comes through Christ alone. Christian discipleship means running toward the places where the world is in pain. It means embracing the sorrow of Jesus for the sorrows of this world. It means knowing that he goes ahead of us and that he offers comfort to us on the way. And, more importantly, it means knowing he will offer comfort through us to our neighbors and the nations.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and adjunct professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Houston Baptist University. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.