“Don’t worry, the pain is good for you.”
Imagine these words being spoken to terminal cancer patients in a children’s hospital, mourners at a funeral or separated families in a refugee camp.
What would you think of a person who said such a thing? Are they naive? Are they well-meaning but insensitive? Are they crazy? Or are they just plain rude?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” (Matthew 5:4).
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These words were spoken by Jesus Christ, whom Christians worship as God and savior.
Is Jesus crazy? How could mourning be a blessing? How could it bring comfort?
For most of us, “comfort” is about as far from “mourning” as day is from night. As we think of it, comfort is a sense of life being full. It’s the feeling we get from having full cupboards at home, full days at meaningful jobs and full nights and weekends with our family and friends.
Jesus doesn’t disagree that these things give us comfort. In fact, the Bible positively affirms the blessings of food, drink, wealth and work (Ecclesiastes 5:19-20). But he does want us to think deeply about the meaning of comfort. This is why he associates comfort with mourning. He isn’t denying our blessings. He’s challenging our assumptions. He isn’t ignoring the comforts of a full life. He’s asking whether a full life is all there is to comfort.
What if true comfort is more than a full life? What if there’s something more to comfort that we’ve all been missing? What if missing this puts us in more danger than we can possibly imagine?
“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
These words, also spoken by Jesus, make the point. Human beings are more than just an animated body. Each of us also possesses an everlasting soul. If we fail or refuse to care for our souls, it doesn’t matter how full the rest of our lives become. A full life can never lift a sinking soul.
When Jesus blesses those who mourn, he is giving us a warning. We can enjoy life’s fullness. But if we don’t also recognize that something is deeply wrong with ourselves and with the world, we are in grave danger. If we don’t grieve over the cancer wards, the funeral homes and the refugee camps, we are blind to reality. And if we don’t acknowledge that every evil ultimately stems from the selfishness that exists in ourselves and others, we are fools — however full our lives may be.
Caring for our souls begins by acknowledging that they are flawed. Though we have a conscience that tells us that both God and others exist and deserve our respect, we regularly deny God and mistreat people. Most of us, most of the time, tend to live mostly for ourselves. This self-centered impulse is what the Bible calls “sin” and “idolatry.” It means we are living for the wrong god.
Many object to this notion. In fact, a person once challenged me on this very point. “I just go to work, come home, eat supper and watch TV,” she said. “What’s my god?”
It’s a fair question. And at the time, I didn’t know what to say. But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized something pretty terrifying.
Unlike ancient peoples, most of us today don’t worship physical gods of silver or gold in physical temples of wood or stone. Rather, we worship an anonymous god in the secret temple of our dining rooms, our living rooms and our bedrooms.
The name of our modern god is: Comfort.
Comfort is what we worship most in western societies. Comfort is what we are always seeking ... and comfort is what is never satisfied. We are never content. We are always grasping for more ... more money, more power, more relationships, more stuff. There is no “amen” in the worship of comfort. In the hungry halls of the secret temple, the choir only has one song — the never-ending cry for “more!”
The ancients were more honest. They kept their idols in the open.
But that is the point. By exposing this secret idol in each of our hearts, Jesus offers us something better. Instead of leaving our souls to wither in the dark, he offers us light. If we are willing to be honest about our selfishness, if we want to escape the secret temple, he will help. In fact, this is the whole reason he came, lived, died and rose again — to rescue us from false gods.
Are you tired of being caught up in the endless cravings of living for yourself? Do you mourn over the brokenness in your heart and in the world? If so, you have arrived at the place where you can find true comfort.
What is true comfort? The same word Jesus uses here shows up elsewhere in the New Testament to speak of resurrection, encouragement and eternal life. (Luke 16:19-31 and Revelation 21:1-8.) It is the comfort not of those whose lives are full of stuff, but of those who are forgiven, accepted and loved by God.
When we have this security, we can face anything. We can accept good things without making them into little gods. We can even face hard things without them grinding us into little bits. When we know the true God, every comfort is safer — and yes, every pain is good for us.
True comfort is not found in a full life. True comfort is the movement of eternal joys into ordinary life. How do we get there? Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” (John 10:10). Jesus is the door — the door out of the secret temple and into the theater of the eternal. Ask, and he will lead you through.
The Rev. Jeremiah Montgomery is pastor of Resurrection Orthodox Presbyterian Church in State College. Visit Resurrection online at resurrectionopc.org. He quotes the English Standard Version of the Bible.