August 13, 2014 Broadcast

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Grief is one of those things we all try to avoid—no one wants to feel the pain and sorrow caused by loss. So then, why did Jesus say, “Blessed are those who mourn?” It runs counter to our thinking on many different levels. Dr. Sproul addresses this topic as he teaches on the Beatitudes from Matthew chapter 5.

From the series: The Beatitudes

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Our Comforter in Life and Death

  2. article

    From Grief to Glory

  3. article

    Mourn with Those Who Mourn

Our Comforter in Life and Death

Larry Edison

In one form or another, I have heard cries of the heart many times over the years. People hurt deeply. We live in a world where, for believer and unbeliever alike, there is pain, heartache, and the experience of tragedy. It is all so very confusing for us as Christians.

“Where is God when I hurt so bad?” “I feel so alone — ultimately I am the only one who can face this illness. Sure, I am glad that my husband and children are close, but I am the one who is sick, and I know I will have to go through this alone.”

I wish God were right here with me. It hurts so bad. How can He make me feel better if He is so distant and far away; “out there?”

The pain causes us to struggle and doubt the promise that Jesus is with us and even in us. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

At first glance, it appears that He is elsewhere. Our theology even teaches that Christ is gone. Our Creeds affirm the biblical truth of the ascension; that Christ “sits at the right hand of the God the Father.”

So where is He when we need Him? Where is He when we feel alone? Is it realistic to think that God wraps us in His arms to keep and encourage even as a parent would for their hurting child? If we are His children, and God is truly our Father, can’t we properly expect God to provide comfort and consolation even as our parents would (especially since parental love is but a taste or reflection of the love of our heavenly Father)?

This last Christmas we celebrated the gift of Emmanuel — “God with us.” Would God come to be with us only such a short time, and then leave us alone and stranded?

Like a “scene 2,” a further unfolding of the promise of Emmanuel is found in words given to Jesus’ disciples: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16).

He warned His confused, and later, frightened disciples, that physically, He would leave. He would ascend from the earth into the heavens. Yet, He would not leave them alone. He would not leave them “God-less.” Even more, this would be a good thing; though, at the time, they could not imagine so. While with us, Christ faced barriers or limits. He could not be everywhere at the same time in his human nature. So, how much greater is it that, once ascended and crowned as King, He sent His Spirit who knows no such boundaries or limitations? He came as “another” of the same (this is the idea behind the wording). He came as another Helper or Counselor. He came as another Emmanuel to be with us and in us forever — so we would not have to be alone.

Notice the words of the Apostle Paul as he reminded the Galatian Christians of what and who we have as a result of God’s Spirit living with us, and more, living in us: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6).

The Holy Spirit is actually the Spirit of Christ Himself. When Christ gave us His Spirit, He was giving Himself. The Spirit is not given as a second round as if this were a tag-team wrestling match and Christ needed a break. The Spirit has come to share with us all the benefits that Christ earned for us. The Son and the Spirit are so closely identified that the Spirit Himself can be called the Spirit of the Son and the “Spirit of Christ”(see Phil. 1:19; 1 Peter 1:11).

We are not left alone. He is a promise that makes a world of difference — God is not just with us, but in us. And even more, He is in us and has wrapped His arms around us in such a way that we can cry with relief, “Daddy, Daddy” (Abba). I can rest knowing I am in the arms of the Spirit of God Himself.

There have been times I simply have not known how to pray. As a pastor, I can feel weak and confused when I am called on to pray for someone who feels desperate. I remember when I was hospitalized for a week going through test after test for my own heart problems. Every day it seemed that the doctor found something else wrong. I remember one nurse coming in saying, “I am sorry, I am so sorry,” as she learned of my unusual heart disease. In the forefront of my own thinking was the death of my Father whose heart failed when he was just 29 years old. By the time I went in for my pacemaker-defibrillator implant, I was not sure how to pray. I found great comfort knowing God’s Spirit who was in me and very much with me, was also interceding for me in ways I could not grasp.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26) .

God’s Spirit in and with us means we are not alone, and whether on the mountain tops or in the valley of the shadow of death, He is there to sustain us and plead our case. We can rest knowing that truth.

From Grief to Glory

James Coffield

My father was slowly relinquishing his fragile life. His once sharp mind was now confused with the bleakness of Alzheimer’s. The cumulative effect of the medication to sustain his heart was destroying his liver, and the drugs needed to save his liver were threatening his heart. It was only a matter of time. He was refusing food — starving to death. I held his stubble-covered face in my hand and tried to entice him to drink a swallow of protein drink. I was doing it more for me than for him. Ten years have past and I sometimes still miss him. Some of my sadness is over the loss of a father, some for the life events we never shared. How one faces loss is what we call grief.

Did I grieve in the proper way? I’m not sure. Yet I am certain that time is not the great healer — it is only a great distancer. God is the great healer, but there are times when His prescription seems harsh. We are to trust in the One who is in charge of the universe and has the power to soften the blow of loss; yet, from our limited perspective, the impact does not feel cushioned. 

The somewhat expected loss of a family member is not equivalent to the unexpected loss of a child or the tragic loss of innocence due to childhood abuse. Although the scenarios and details are different concerning grief, each of our life stories has a common theme of loss. Loss is the great leveler. 

Loss has not always existed. All loss finds its beginning in the historic event that we call the fall. In that moment, the greatest loss occurred — our relationship with God. When sin entered creation, perfection and harmony and peace became tainted. We know that sin creates a loss of relationship with God. No other injury requires the death of our Savior to heal. But we accumulate other wounds that mount up in the shadow of the fall. We lose connection with others — relationships are filled with potential pitfalls. We lose connection with ourselves — not pausing to be still before our Father. Our sin nature blocks us from seeing our own blind spots and clouds our hearts. Sin thwarts our ability to see, understand, and interpret the world around us clearly. The pervasive reality of living in a fallen world requires us to taste loss. 

The theme of loss is pervasive throughout the biblical narrative as a result of sin, but the theme of hope is never far behind as the Gospel breaks through the darkness. The great promise of Revelation — that no tear was wasted — assures us that somehow our good God is using the losses to bring all of creation to display His glory: a glorious display of grace and compassion and redemption and hope. 

Loss Is Inevitable

While we live in this present evil age, loss is inevitable. When Jesus encourages us to build our house on rock and not on sand, He doesn’t say “if” the rains come. Notice His language: “when” the rain comes. The rain — our struggles and losses — cause us to live with a longing for heaven. We can have joy as we build our house upon the rock, but that joy is mixed with struggle. In Romans, we’ve been invited as adopted children of God to participate in the glory of God and share in the struggle. No one is exempt. Although the degree and level of suffering and loss may be dissimilar, we all will experience loss, and we all will have to face the realities of grief. For some it will be the news of the horrific loss of a child delivered by the late-night phone call that every parent dreads. Others will face the long protracted loss created by poverty or a broken family. Some may even face the tragic loss as victims of war, starvation, and abuse. 

What do we do with our pain? What is our good God’s plan in all of this? If we are honest, we will admit that we often try to make a deal with God concerning loss: “I will follow you, but make sure my kids turn out okay. I will follow you, but I want to earn your blessing.” This is a distorted version of old-covenant thinking. It is a turning of the Law on its head by attempting to earn God’s blessings. In the full revelation of the new covenant, God has revealed that we already have all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. Paul tells us that we should live out of this fullness because our greatest loss, our relationship with God, was forever addressed on the cross. We are not alone, and our Father will never leave us.

God Is Aware of Our Losses

Loss is inevitable. That struggle is at the core level of what we think about God: does He care? Scripture is clear that God is intimately aware of the “cries” of His children. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and Lazarus’s tomb. We are told His “heart went out to” His children; He was touched by the faith and the plight of His children. The most obvious display of His concern for the effects of sin and loss in our lives is His coming and His sacrifice for us on the cross. God has not turned His back on His creation, and He is intimately concerned and moved by His children’s plight and the state of His creation. 

How then shall we now grieve?

The answer to that question is a simple yet critical concept: you will either grieve alone and become internally centered, or you will turn to the one who suffered on your behalf and grieve with Him. The question is not if you grieve but when. What will you do? The real decision is how and with whom you will grieve.

Common Strategies

In His great sermon on the hillside, Jesus stated, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Most of us, however, refuse to mourn and grieve. We refuse to mourn because we cannot wrap our finite minds around the despair and hope that live in loss. Since we cannot understand it, we do not face it. God is inviting us to face the significant and debilitating losses of our lives by resting in His arms, the arms of the One who has heard our cry, the arms of the One who is freeing His creation from the consequences of sin. God invites us to trust Him, to depend upon Him. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” 

Do you live that way? Most of us do not, and how we deal with grief and loss often reveals our core belief about God’s nature and our own heart. As sinful people, we taste the devastating losses of sin and have a propensity to respond in sinful ways. Here are four primary categories that provide a foundation for understanding how we creatively push away the pain of loss. We tend to minimize, spiritualize, rationalize or criticize when we encounter loss. Minimization is the process of not living in the truth. We commonly respond, “It’s not so bad.” This will often lead to a wooden faith, a faith that does not foster deep dependence on God. Spiritualization is the act of hiding behind quick religious clichés. We do not really face our doubts or fears. Rationalization is our attempt to explain away the loss by using our reasons and intellect. “God is in control,” we say. The problem is that we never let the loss touch our heart; we are not honest with God about our struggle. We also tend to criticize, looking for someone to blame or place “fault” upon. These common strategies work to shelter us from grieving while moving us away from the pattern of grief we find in, for example, the Psalms. In the Psalter, we see God’s people facing grief honestly without minimizing the pain or hiding behind quick-and-easy spiritual answers. Instead, there is an embrace of the pain as the believer struggles and wrestles with God. 

Giving Birth

In Romans 8, Paul paints a powerful picture of our deep longings. He indicates that all of creation groans as in the pains of childbirth, waiting for the day of redemption. Paul utilizes the same picture when he speaks about his longing and desire for people to experience Christ more fully formed in them. This is similar to the process of birth: the ability to reflect the glory of God as Christ is formed in us is rarely birthed from ease. This vivid picture of a woman in labor illustrates the inevitability of pain as new life is created. 

I would like to suggest the same powerful metaphor for grief. God will birth His glory in us as we allow ourselves to honestly and passionately face our most terrible losses. To live honestly is to admit the pain and sadness of the loss. There is no reason to live in denial — Jesus did not die on the cross so we can pretend. The Gospel allows us to grieve honestly, to admit that we struggle in the midst of confusion and doubt. Remember the words spoken to Thomas as he wrestled with his doubt — Jesus invited him to touch His wounds. But living honestly is not enough. Thomas responds by passionately trusting Jesus: “My Lord and my God.” Honest doubt will be coupled with a desire to know God more deeply, to know what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus by entering into His sufferings. We must embrace God and the mystery of His provision and His sovereignty in the midst of our suffering. Through the pain, God is birthing a child who depends upon Him more and knows that He is good even in the most difficult of times.  

All of us will experience loss. We will either withdraw from our loss with creative repressive strategies, or we will embrace our loss with faith in God. God is continually birthing renewed, revitalized, and dependent believers, but the road to hope often navigates through despair.  

Mourn with Those Who Mourn

Archie Parrish

Yesterday, Helen told me that her husband, Gerry, is now a quadriplegic. In college, Helen was my wife’s roommate, and Gerry and I lived in the same dorm. Helen was maid of honor at our wedding. When we graduated from college, my wife and I went to seminary in the Boston area, and Gerry and Helen became missionaries in Malaysia. For more than forty-five years they ministered in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Recently they moved back to the states and settled in Fort Worth, Texas. 

Last week, Gerry fell and shattered his spine. He cannot move his arms and legs nor can he breathe on his own. I spent the night in prayer. Instinctively I reminded the Lord of Gerry’s long faithful service, and told Him this was not an appropriate final chapter for a warrior like Gerry. Helen has entered the valley of mourning, and my wife and I are seeking to pray with empathy and with kingdom focus for our friend and comrade. 

The previous sentence contains five carefully selected and thought-filled words. Let me unpack them for you. 

Mourning is one of life’s universal experiences. To mourn means to feel deep grief, sorrow, heartache, anguish, angst, pain, misery, unhappiness, and woe. It is the opposite of joy. Mourning comes from loss that is perceived as irreversible, such as death, terminal illness, and devastating accidents. It is not expressed in the same way in every culture, but no matter where you live on the planet, sooner or later you will face “a time to mourn”. In spite of the fact that all human beings mourn, each person’s experience of grief is always unique. 

The little book of Ruth in the Old Testament tells the story of a Moabite widow who became the great grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus Christ. When Elimelech and his two sons died, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, and she urged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. Ruth replied to Naomi with empathy: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For…your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16–17).

The name Ruth means “comrade,” “companion,” or “friend.” The archaic word ruth meant “pity” or “remorse”; it still has this meaning in the word “ruthless.” Ruth is empathy personified. Being empathic with those who mourn means being their “Ruth,” their “comrade,” “companion,” and “friend.” It means identifying with them as they walk through “the valley of the shadow of death”  (Ps. 23:4). 

Christian praying is a believer’s conversational response to God’s self-revelation in the person and work of Christ. Christian prayer must be in harmony with Christ’s teaching on prayer. A great deal of what is called prayer today does not meet this minimum biblical standard.

Central to Christ’s teaching on prayer is the petition, “Your kingdom come.” This kingdom is twofold: it is a kingdom of grace, which is the invisible, internal, present, personally experienced rule of God in each believer (see Rom. 14:17). It is also the future kingdom of glory, God’s future global reign in sovereign power, after Christ has made His enemies “a footstool for his feet” (Heb. 10:13). The kingdom of grace and the kingdom of glory are intimately connected. Only those who are born-again members of the kingdom of grace shall reign with Christ in the kingdom of glory (see John 3:3, 5). 

Most praying is an emotional reaction to crisis, and as such it is usually self-centered and sentimental. Praying with focus proactively prepares for crisis by claiming the promises of God for the people and situations Providence places in our lives; it is God-centered, earnest, confident faith. 

Why should Christians pray with empathy and kingdom-focus for those who mourn? I believe the most significant reason is that Jesus did this during His earthly ministry, He is now doing it, and He desires that we be His coworkers.

Jesus — the ultimate empathizer

Jesus is God, and He laid aside His divine privileges, made Himself nothing, took the form of a servant, and, “being born in the likeness of men,” He humbled Himself and died on the cross (Phil. 2:5–8; see also Heb. 2:14–15; 4:14–15). 

The Example of Jesus

The death of Lazarus is an example of Jesus praying with empathy and kingdom-focus for those who mourn (John 11:1–45). When Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, He said, “This illness…is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). He delayed two days going to Lazarus because God’s glory directed Him rather than urgent desire to ease human suffering. Jesus empathized with Mary and Martha in their grief. “He was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” He “wept.” Those who observed said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33, 35–36). Jesus prayed with confident kingdom-focus. He lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41–42). He audibly prayed for and with the mourning sisters. Lazarus was raised, and Jesus was “glorified through it.” 

We have seen what it means for Christians to pray with empathy and kingdom-focus for those who mourn and why believers should do this; let us now consider how Christians can do this. 

The “how” of prayer must include both human activity and divine empowerment. 

In response to the disciples’ request for the Lord to teach the Twelve to pray, Jesus gave a brief lesson consisting of four parts: first, the Pattern Prayer (Luke 11:1-4); second, the parable of the friend at midnight (Luke 11:5–8); third, the A-S-K principle: Ask, Seek, and Knock (Luke 11:9–10); fourth, the Father’s gift (Luke 11:13).

The first three parts of this lesson indicate that the subject matter of prayer and the manner in which we pray can be improved by understanding how prayer works. This understanding gives insights into prayer’s nature and instructs believers in the methodology of prayer, which helps to eliminate certain roadblocks to improving the life of prayer. Reflecting on the nature and working of prayer should help you become a better pray-er. 

The fourth part of Jesus’ lesson moves us beyond human activity to divine empowerment. Jesus said that the Father gives “the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (Zech. 12:10). He is the enabler of prayer (Rom. 8:26–27). The Holy Spirit dwells in all believers. He knows all things; therefore, He understands both the real needs and the felt needs of those who mourn. When we ask for His help, He provides what is needed. Without the Spirit’s ministry, all prayer will be impotent. 

Let me conclude by suggesting five practical steps for those who desire to pray with empathy for those who mourn. 

1. Ask God to show you the mourners for whom He wants you to pray. Don’t assume you are responsible to minister to every person who mourns. 

2. Read: Every Christian should devote time daily to reading through the Bible. As you do this, ask the Spirit to give you insights to pray for those He has put on your heart. Outside of the Bible one of the most helpful books is C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

3. Meditate: Ponder carefully the insights God gives you through the recommended reading. 

4. Write: Write your insights in a journal. As you write out your thoughts and feelings, be honest. 

5. Pray for those who mourn. Turn your journal notes into earnest prayer. Let them hear your voice lifting them into the presence of the Lord. Usually it will be helpful for you to enlist other Christians to pray with you in this ministry. 

Mourning and empathetic kingdom-focused prayer were made for each other. Because of mourning’s link with irreversible loss, it usually forces serious thought on what comes after the grave. The kingdom on which we focus moves beyond the grave and culminates in the new heaven and new earth. When Christians meaningfully connect with one who mourns by praying for and with that person with kingdom focus, God Himself will give “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (Isa. 61:3).  

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