“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
We might almost translate this second Beatitude “Happy are the unhappy” in order to draw attention to the startling paradox it contains. What kind of sorrow can it be which brings the joy of Christ’s blessing to those who feel it? It is plain from the context that those promised comfort here are not primarily those who mourn the loss of a loved one, but those who mourn the loss of their innocence, their self-righteousness, their self-respect. It is not the sorrow of bereavement to which Christ refers, but the sorrow of repentance.
This is the second stage of spiritual blessing. It is one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it; it is another to grieve and to mourn over it. Some Christians seem to imagine that they must wear a perpetual grin on their face and be continuously boisterous and bubbly. No. In Luke’s version of the Sermon, Jesus added to this Beatitude a solemn woe: “Woe to you who laugh now” (Luke 6:25). The truth is that there are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them.
Jesus wept over the sins of others, over their bitter consequences in judgment and death, and over the unrepentant city which would not receive Him. We too should weep more over the evil in the world, as did God-centered people in biblical times. “My eyes shed streams of tears,” the psalmist could say to God, “because people do not keep Your law” (Psalm 119:136). Ezekiel heard God’s faithful people described as those “who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in [Jerusalem]” (Ezekiel 9:4). And Paul wrote of the false teachers troubling the churches of his day: “many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18).
It is not only the sins of others which should cause us tears, for we have our own sins to weep over as well. Have they never caused us any grief? Was Ezra mistaken to pray and make confession, “weeping and casting himself down before the house of God” (Ezra 10:1)? Was Paul wrong to groan, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24), and to write to the sinful church of Corinth: “Ought you not rather to mourn?” (1 Corinthians 5:2). I think not. I fear that Christians who make much of grace sometimes thereby make light of sin. We should experience more of the “godly grief” of Christian penitence (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Such mourners, who bewail their own sinfulness, will be comforted by the only comfort which can relieve their distress, namely the free forgiveness of God. According to the Old Testament prophets, consolation was to be one of the roles of the Messiah. He was to be the Comforter who would “bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1). That is why godly people like Simeon were said to be looking and longing “for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). And Christ does speak peace to our sore, scarred consciences. Yet we still mourn over the havoc of suffering and death which sin spreads throughout the world. Only in the final state of glory will Christ’s comfort be complete, for only then sin will be no more and “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
—Condensed from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount by John Stott