When Mourning Moves Mission

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.

Deep Happiness, John Wesley, and the Beatitudes

“Failure to thrive” is a medical diagnosis for children who aren’t growing as they should. If you’ve ever taken a child to the pediatrician, you know about growth standards. Every parent is eager to see which percentile their kids are in. 75th percentile? We may have a ball player on our hands! Every parent gets excited when their kids are above average. Kids who are low on the chart are diagnosed with a condition called  failure to thrive. It’s not a disease. It’s not a disorder. It usually has to do with environment. Maybe a kid isn’t properly nourished. Maybe he’s experienced some deep emotional stress or trauma that’s affecting his development.

As a pastor, I can’t help but think how many Christians might – at one time or another – diagnose their devotional (un)health with failure to thrive. It’s easy to imagine. You’ve experienced the new birth. You’re excited. You’re growing in your newfound faith. Then a little time passes. Maybe you get out of the habits that fueled your experience of grace in the beginning. You don’t read the Bible like you once did. You haven’t gathered to worship with the church in a while. Maybe life has dealt you unexpected  circumstances that left you struggling to hold on. You haven’t given up on following Jesus. But you sure wouldn’t say you’re thriving.

Beatitudes as Growth Chart

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most famous passages of scripture. The Beatitudes are one of the most famous parts of the Sermon. There are two approaches to the Beatitudes. Some say they are ordered steps on the path to Christian maturity. Others say they are each always presents to some extent in every believer. John Wesley saw no reason to pick one approach over the other. He took a both/and approach:

It is undoubtedly true, that both poverty of spirit, and every other temper which is here mentioned, are at all times found, in a greater or less degree, in every real Christian. And it is equally true, that real Christianity always begins in poverty of spirit, and goes on in the order here set down, till the “man of God is made perfect (Sermon XXI).

So if the beatitudes are intended to be taken in order, then perhaps we can think of them as a spiritual growth chart. And as you develop along the growth chart, you grow into a thriving follower of Jesus and a full experience of human life. Want to escape the failure to thrive diagnosis? Spend some time in the beatitudes. Immerse yourself in Jesus’ vision of flourishing.

Absolute Helplessness

If the Beatitudes are all about thriving, then the first one might seem counter-intuitive. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We don’t normally think of poverty as thriving. So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? And how does poverty of spirit lead to a full and thriving human life? Let’s start with the notion of poverty. Poverty means a person doesn’t have the resources to meet their basic needs. It means they are helpless. And it’s not just a matter of finances. There are plenty of people with plenty of money who are impoverished relationally, emotionally, psychologically, or in other ways. This helps us understand poverty of spirit. To be poor in spirit is know we don’t have the resources to meet our spiritual needs. We don’t have the power to atone for our sins. We don’t have the ability to free ourselves from slavery to sin. We come into the world spiritually destitute, and we don’t have what it takes to fix our problem. When Jesus talks about “the poor in spirit,” he’s talking about the people who understand that.  Here’s Wesley again:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and of our guilt and helplessness.

So the first step to thriving is understanding that we can’t thrive on our own. We are absolutely helpless. We need someone to do something we can’t do.

Ultimate Happiness

Now you may be thinking: If the beatitudes are all about blessing, why am I hearing so much about what a mess I’m in? Well, the blessing comes in what Jesus can do for people who are in a mess (and who know they’re in a mess). When our eyes are opened to our desperate state, he meets our poverty with the riches of the kingdom of heaven. He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He forgives our sin. He frees us from slavery. He reconciles us to God. And he graciously begins to reproduce his own character of holy love in us. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about the reality of the reign of God coming to bear on this world. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The will of God is done on earth when human beings surrender their bodies to God’s purposes for them. And as more and more people surrender more and more of themselves, the kingdom spreads. And it will continue to spread until that day when Jesus returns to make the kingdom complete and perfect. Participation in that project is happiness. Not the shallow and fleeting emotion of happiness, but the deep and abiding happiness that comes with the knowledge that we are living into God’s best for us, even if our circumstances are not what we expected or what we may have once preferred. The path to that deep happiness starts with embracing our spiritual poverty. Put differently, ultimate happiness depends on absolute helplessness.

For more on the beatitudes, check out the latest episode of the So What? Podcast.

 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.