Joy in Sorrow

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Honored are those who mourn, 

for they shall be comforted. 

(Matt 5:4)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension within ourselves is never more obvious than when we grieve. Grief vanquishes all pretense of our self-sufficiency as we cry out to God from the bottom of our hearts and acknowledge our dependence and loss. This loss and subsequent grief is the most basic form of human suffering (France 2007, 109). Because grief and blessing sit at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum—one feels cursed, not blessed in mourning, it is paradoxical to be honored for mourning.

Mourning and Comfort

Mourning and comfort are brought together in Matthew’s rendering of the Second Beatitude. The Greek word for mourning (πενθέω; “pentheo”) means—“to experience sadness as the result of some condition or circumstance, be sad, grieve, mourn” (BDAG 5773.1). Meanwhile, the word for comfort (παρακαλέω; “parakaleo“) means—“to instill someone with courage or cheer, comfort, encourage, cheer up” (BDAG 5584(4)).

Luke’s rendering of the Beatitude speaks not of mourning and comfort, but of crying and laughter. In the Second Beatitude, Matthew focuses on the inward tension and release of grief (mourning/encouragement) while Luke focuses on its outward expression (crying/laughing). The Apostle Paul sees this inward tension as critically important in our spiritual formation. He writes: “For godly grief (θεὸν λύπη; “theo lupe”) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10). Paul uses an entirely different word for grief in the Greek that means: “pain of mind or spirit, grief, sorrow, affliction” (BDAG 4625). In Paul’s analysis we see grief tinged with guilt and shame—a motivator for repentance.

The Object of Mourning

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the object of mourning, which appears only once before and once after the Second Beatitude. Before the Beatitude, Matthew records the mourning of Jewish mothers after King Herod’s slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem (Matt 2:18). Matthew cites the Prophet Jeremiah:

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. (Jer 31:15)

Rachel died in child-birth when her second son was born. She called him—Ben-omi (son of my sorrow)—but Jacob renamed him: Benjamin (son my right hand; Gen 35:18). In the quote from Jeremiah the Greek word for weep (κλαίω) is the same word as used in Luke’s Second Beatitude and it simply means: weep or cry (BDAG 4251.1).

After the Beatitude, Matthew reports Jesus telling a short parable:

And Jesus said to them, Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matt 9:15)

Because mourning accompanies both Jesus’ incarnation (the slaughter of innocents) and his ascension (Jesus’ parable), for Matthew the object of mourning is always Jesus.  Underscoring this point, note that the stories of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11–16) and Lazarus (John 11–12), which have obvious references to mourning, do not appear in Matthew. A possible exception to this generalization about mourning are the references to hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30).

Why Does God Mourn?

If mourning requires an object, what does Jesus mourn for? Much like God mourned over sin before sending the flood (Gen 6:6), Jesus mourned over the sin of the nation of Israel, borrowing words from the Prophet Isaiah: “to comfort all who mourn” (Isa 61:2). Isaiah 61 connects the Beatitudes and Jesus’ call sermon and draws attention to Jesus’ role as a prophetic messiah. Messiah is the Hebrew word translated as Christ in Greek—both mean anointed one (John 1:41; BDAG 4834). In Jewish tradition, prophets, kings, and priests were anointed which explains the three types of messiahs and points to three offices of Jesus’ messianic ministry.

By contrast, Isaiah’s prophesy announced the release of slaves in Babylon who previously disobeyed God and rebelled twice against the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. Because of their rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, burned the city and the temple, and took many Jewish survivors back to Babylon as slaves (2 Kgs 24 and 25). In this context, Jewish salvation was literal—God would pay their ransom and redeem them from slavery, using King Cyrus of Persia to redeem them (Ezra 1:1-3). Redemption of sinful slaves (rebellious Israelites) is a small step removed from redemption of slaves of sin (us).

Mourning over sin starts in Matthew with John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2) who draws heavily on the prophetic tradition. For example, mourning over sin starts in the Prophet Isaiah’s call story:

And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! (Isa 6:5)

Elsewhere in the prophets we read: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” (Mal 4:1) Facing an eternity in hell (a burning oven) for our inadequacy, brokenness, and sin (evil deeds), scripture suggests that appropriate responses include repentance, mourning, and reconciliation.

Prophet Voice

Another word for mourning—woe (οὐαὶ)— is the classic expression of prophet voice and Luke uses it as a contrast immediately following μακάριος in his Beatitudes. For example, we read:

Honored (μακάριος) are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . But woe (οὐαὶ) to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6:20, 24)

In Greek, woe is an: “interjection denoting pain or displeasure, woe, alas” (BDAG 542.1). Matthew uses the word, woe, eleven times, but not in the context of his Beatitudes, like Luke.

Mourning is also a form of anxiety that Jesus suggests may focus on food, clothing, and the future (Matt 6:15–34). Jesus continues:“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33) Jesus’ brother James completes this thought:

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you . . . Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (Jas 4:8–10)

Here James links mourning to humbling ourselves before God. 

Triad of Humility

The link in James between mourning and humbling suggests a subtle reading of the first three Beatitudes as a emphatic triad of humility. In fact, early manuscripts reverse the Second and Third Beatitudes (meek becomes mourn and mourn becomes meek), suggesting textual support for this interpretation (Nestle-Aland 2012, 9). Remember that poor in spirit and meek can be expressed in the same Hebrew word (עָנָו; Num 12:3). In the current ordering (that is, poor in spirit, mourn, meek) mourning is bracketed by two expressions for humility that suggests that it is a synonym for humility.


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing

Joy in Sorrow

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Prayer for a Friend

God of all Mercy and Compassion:

You are the alpha and omega; the beginning and the end; the one who is, who was, and who is to come (Revelation 1:9). For you created heaven and earth for your glory and we praise you for their beauty and our creation (Psalm 19).

Make your presence especially known among us for our eyes are heavy with tears and our ears barely hear. With heavy hearts we, your people, stand before you today confessing our sins and our doubts but confident of the love of Christ.

We thank you for sharing this friend with us during his season of life. We praise you for his compassion, his quiet dignity and devotion to family, his constant smile and companionship, and his daily presence in our lives.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, grant us a season of grief with his passing. Open our hearts; let us cry; help us feel and express our loss.

Place your hedge of protection around us as we grieve. Protect our persons and our spirits; protect our relationships; protect our jobs. Let us not have to choose between expressing our grief and other things.

May our grief be godly grief until salvation, not worldly grief that leads to sin and death (2 Corinthians 7:10). In our grieving, let us be like Job who did not sin in spite of many afflictions (Job 1:13-22). But let us turn to you in our lament, great giver of life, to empty our hearts of the pain, the shame, the guilt, and the grief so that we might once again enter your gates with praise. For we know that you grieved over Lazarus and the widow’s son, and raised them both from the dead even though no words of faith were spoken (John 11:1-46; Luke 7:11-17).

And we know that through Jesus Christ death is not the final answer. And we like Him will one day be raised from death to new life. Remind us daily that: “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us strength to turn to you in our grief, following the example of Christ at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:3), to live life in view of the resurrection and the eternal life that is ours in Jesus Christ (John 3:16).

In the strong name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.


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Blessed are Those Who Mourn

New Life
New Life

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia, May 20, 2015 (translated from Spanish)


Welcome to Luncheon for the Soul this afternoon at Trinity Presbyterian Church. My name is Stephen.  I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church.

Today’s message focuses on the need to take a new attitude about grief.  When we are in pain, do we turn to God or lean into the pain? (2X)


Let’s pray.

Heavenly father.  Thank you for your presence among us this morning.  We especially give thanks for life, our health, and the riches of fellowship that we have in your church.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears that hear.  In the precious name of your son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

New Testament Reading

Today’s text comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:4.  This is the second beatitude and a part of the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hear the word of God::

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)[1]

The Word of the Lord.  Praise be to God.


Who do you mourn for? (2X)

I remember in my case the death of my sister, Diane, in 2007.  I am the oldest in the family so she was 2 year younger than I.  For this reason the loss of my sister was especially difficult, but also because we were friends our whole lives.  My father was a student during much of my youth and we moved around a lot during those years.  Consequently, Diane was my only real friend until I was 8 years old. We learned about life together. Now, Diane was in heaven and I was alone with my memories.  The following year, 2008, I began my seminary studies.  Were those 2 events related?  Maybe yes; maybe no.  At this point, I believe they were.

What have you learned during your experiences of loss? (2X)

Old Testament Reading

The second beatitude comes directly from Isaiah 61:1-3 where it reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, 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. 61:1-3 ESV)

We remember this passage well because Jesus read it during his call sermon in Luke 4.

Who receives consolation in these verses?  Two groups stand out:

  • “all who mourn” and
  • “those who mourn in Zion”.

The context of these verses is the Babylonian captivity which came in response to the sins of the Judeans.

But, why does God mourn? (2X) God mourns for our sins because our sins come between us and a Holy God (Gen 6:5-6)[2].  Our sins separate us from God.  Therefore, when we mourn our own sins God promises to offer us consolation.  Jesus Christ says:

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)


There is a second reason why the second beatitude offers God’s consolation.  Grief is a kind of lamentation. A lament is a song (or prayer) of mourning and there are many laments in the Book of Psalms.

A lament has a important form consisting of 2 parts [3].

In the first part of a lament one tells God everything that burdens your heart.  All the pain, all the fears, all the anger.  It is important to be very honest with God.  It is good to be even angry with God because God is great and your anger makes it obvious that you take God really seriously. This part of the lament is finished when all the pain has been emptied.  At this point, the soul is quiet.

The second part of a lament arises exactly because the soul is quiet.  At this point, it is possible to recall the blessings of God in your journey of faith. This part of a lament consists primarily of praise. So it is ironic that a lament is for many people, many times the path to salvation. Here we see the consolation of the second beatitude:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Who do you mourn for? (2X)

In my case, I was in the process of lament when I started by studies in seminary.  But, up to this point, I never put those two things together in my thoughts.  Did God use my pain to draw me closer to himself?

More Analysis

When we grieve it is true that we experience real loss. We need here to make a decision:  will we turn to God or lean into our pain? (2X)

This decision is important because pain is a powerful emotion which has the capacity to cause changes in our identity.  It is a Garden-in-Gethsemane moment in our lives (Mateo 26:36-43). In a real sense, our identity is a collection of all the decisions about pain in our lives.  Ultimately, is our identity in Christ or in our pain? (2X)

Over what do you grieve? (2X) Jesus reminds us:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty God, beloved Son, ever present Spirit, we praise you for your gracious love and consolation in times of pain and loss.  Cleanse our hearts of these losses, the fears, the shame, and the evil passions that cause us to sin.  In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.


[1] “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21 ESV)

[2] “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5-6 ESV)

[3] Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

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