Those Who Mourn

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

The Beatitudes. The series of blessings that Jesus declares as the reward for certain characteristics in a person’s life.

It is my personal belief that, for those who have accepted Jesus into their lives as their personal saviour, and who aim to walk with Him and draw closer to Him every day – for those people all of these characteristics listed in the Beatitudes should be developing in their lives.

So, maybe there is a case for doing some self-examination here to check that this is true for you.

I say examination and not judgement because to judge is something negative. It is one thing to check your progress. It is another thing entirely to judge yourself, because you will begin to see how much and how often you fail. Truly, if it comes down to judgement, then we all fall short of the target in this life. We are all ‘works in progress’ until we are called to the Lord in heaven. There will always be things that we should be doing and things that we should not be doing.

There is another aspect about judgement. This is taking your eyes off Jesus to focus on the negative. Eyes down instead of up, as it were. Giving attention, and by implication ‘glory’, to the negative (and sometimes evil) rather than magnifying and glorifying our Lord.

What gives more motivation? Praise and reward for what you are doing right? Or the stick and the whip for what you are doing wrong?

On the one hand, it is true that the scriptures tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But when you are running the race with the goal of reaching Jesus, who wants to stay at the beginning?

I know that psychology is a much maligned science, even with some claiming that it is not a true science at all. But there have been interesting studies within the area of child behavioural psychology that may have a connection with this. There are parallel studies of school classes where the children were treated in various different ways. They looked at both the overall behaviour and happiness of the class, and also at the progress in learning.

One class was treated relatively impersonally – just straight teaching and marking. No praise or criticism of the work. No praise or criticism of behaviour.

The next class received only criticism – so the behaviour was never ‘good enough’ and the work never praised, only the faults pointed out.

A third class was treated the opposite of this. However poor and failing the work, the child would hear things like, “Well done! Thank you for working hard and completing the task! I can see that you tried! Look at these bits that you did well! Now let’s see how we can do this even better…” And for behaviour, instead of focusing on the bad behaviour, there was a point made of all moments of kindness, of helping each other, of being quiet when needed and talking when required, and so on – with a system of rewards and public praise.

There were 2 other classes. One was the same as the class with criticism only, but that the criticism was only ever done privately and never publicly. And finally there was a class the same as that with praise only, but nothing public and everything said privately.

Which of these classes performed best over time? Which had the greatest improvements in educational progress while having the fewest behaviour problems?

Bear with me, you will see how this is related to our text in a little while…

Out of the 5 classes, it was the class that was almost completely ignored, except for the teaching content, that performed worst in both behaviour and progress. In fact, despite it having been an experiment with primary school children (who are normally eager for school), after as little as 3 months it was being observed that children were beginning not to want to come to school. There was an increase in feeling tired. There were more health problems. It was really surprising!

Better than this by quite a way, but still behind the other 2 classes, are the 2 classes where either criticism or praise was used and always only privately. These children did not have negative feelings about school beginning, but school was only ‘OK’. Behaviour did not improve much in either group, but at least there were slight improvements over a 3 month period. The only difference between these 2 classes was in the educational performance, with the children receiving private praise doing a little better than those receiving private criticism.

Then there was the group with only criticism, and everything open before the other children. On the behaviour side it was very much a mixed bag… Some children developed open rebellion. Some made no progress at all. Some felt that they did not want to go to school any more, because nothing they do is ever good enough. It was noticed that they did not play so much as groups in the playground, but played more as individuals or pairs. There was more aggressiveness to each other, so it was seen that the pairing was a kind of defence mechanism. Again a surprising situation, particularly as this change was happening so quickly. But academically this group performed second best.

The best results, both academically and behaviourally, was the group that received only praise both privately and publicly. They were, as a group, performing at a hugely higher level than the next best group. There was the greatest level of cooperation with the teacher and with each other. The highest level of motivation and desire to be in the school environment. It was noted that, if they understood that they needed to develop a better understanding of anything, they were much more likely to do work at home and ask parents and so on. Parents also reported how the children seemed to become much more confident and nice to be with at home…

So, to come to our text: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the death of loved ones and the deep sense of loss and distress that is felt. And of course such a person deserves comfort – the friends and close ones who come alongside and place a comforting arm around them. But I honestly don’t think that this is what the text here is referring to at all. And not because I have seen many people in that sad situation who have been without any comfort and left to deal with the crippling sadness alone.

We read elsewhere that there are commands to mourn. Ezekiel 24:23 talks about mourning for all the evil you have done. This is not only an Old Testament thing, we can read similar in the letter of James chapter 4 verse 9. And in the same way it is about sins and attitudes that we had or still have. But it is quickly followed by the instruction to humble ourselves before God, and the promise that He will raise us up.

I am reminded here of the first New Testament commandment – twice explained by Jesus and once by a lawyer in the synoptic gospels. That you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. But what happened?

We were in a desperate situation. Our sin left us separated from God and facing judgement. But our wonderful Lord did not want to cast us away or destroy us, but instead to provide for us a way back to Him. So He sent His only Son to die, the cruel death of the cross of crucifixion, so that the punishment we deserve may be on Him instead.

Let this sink into your heart deeply. Because it is my sin, and it is your sin, that nailed Him to the cross to die.

We are told elsewhere in scripture that the wages of sin is death, and in Jesus we see this is true. Our sin caused the suffering and the death of Jesus, who had no sin.

As Christians, we do more than just believe we have a friend in Jesus. We are led into a living relationship with Him. We soon come to realise that He is the best friend that you could ever have. But even more – he is our Big Brother. He is family. Kin. Because we have been adopted into the same family.

So now imagine someone close to you in your own family. Maybe your brother or sister. Or think of the closest person to you if you happen to be an only child. Now imagine that, because of something stupid that you did, you caused the death of this person close to you who you love. Maybe you were driving while drunk with alcohol, and so caused the death in a crash. How would you feel? I think this would be the deepest kind of grief – because not only have you lost a close loved one, but you realise that they died because of something you did. You are to blame for their death. Could you ever forgive yourself?

And this is the point: by our sins we caused the death of Jesus – the best friend we could ever have and our beloved brother. In the example above, the realisation of what you did as a result of being drunk while driving may well, and perhaps should, give you a sense of disgust at the thought of drinking alcohol again. Or at least you would never want to drive a vehicle again if you had a drink. You would be mourning because of your sin and changing your attitude to that sin. And so it is with the sin that caused Jesus to die on the cross. If you truly enter into and understand the meaning of the passion of Jesus on that cross, it will cause you to think again about the way you live your whole life. Not only one area of sin – you will want to see your whole life cleansed and purified.

However we all know what happens when we promise to break a habit. It is hard to just stop drinking or stop smoking or stop whatever it is that holds us back… You may succeed in one area of sin, while in another you are disgusted with yourself about the fact that, maybe 40 years later, you still fall into it. This is common human experience, and it is something we mourn about in ourselves.

At least it is supposed to be mourning… Actually we tend to be very harsh on ourselves. We become very judgemental. And it is not only that we do it to ourselves, but many who have the false gospel of legalism, or who are just plain immature in their faith, are more than ready to point at the sin in you and tell you how you are in danger of hellfire. This is almost never, as the scripture says at one point, ‘telling the truth in love’ and almost always an expression of the sinful nature of the person who criticises and judges.

I will tell you something that I learned is true – and is also the reason for telling you about those classes of children. Bear with me…

When this situation is ignored, you are doing the worst thing for yourself – which is ignoring ongoing sin and so placing a wall, brick by brick, between yourself and God. But if you judge yourself or are judged by others, then you are focusing on the power of sin over you. This is like giving glory to the sin (almost). You try even harder to deal with it, but you are even more likely to fail again.

BUT… if it is recognised before God and man that you are putting effort in. If you are given the steps ahead to improve this – and that these are not a big leap over a giant chasm that is too scary to do… If you are encouraged and given the belief that you will succeed…. Wow! What a difference!

But more than this: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We now understand the mourning. It is a mourning about our own stupidity and sinfulness that caused the death of Jesus. It is a mourning about the fact that sin pops up again and again even in a believer’s life and, as the apostle Paul says at one point, crucifies Jesus yet again…

We mourn the fact that, no matter how hard we try, in our own strength, to deal with sin in our life, yet we fail more often than ever we will publicly admit. BUT we will be comforted. Once we have that attitude of mourning over what we did, what we still do, and what we may still do in future… Once we understand what this truly means in relation to the cross of Jesus, then we are open to receiving the promise of Jesus.

Which promise? Do you remember that Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem after his resurrection? Why? Because He was going to send the Comforter. And I believe that this is the comfort available to us, and that is spoken of in today’s text.

We really are not able, in our own strength, to walk worthy of our Lord through this life. We need help. We need to lift our eyes from the earth and our sin, and to look to heaven and ask for help. And we have that help made available to us – sent by the same person whose death we caused.

He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, to empower us, to begin to live lives worthy of the great Salvation that we received. What better comfort can there be, when with sadness we see our own sin, than to receive the empowerment to make sure that we do not sin again! Amen!

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