Godly Sorrow

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 5:4

“Don’t worry, be happy” says a silly little song. Jesus says we can’t really be happy until we have learned how to mourn.

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

Jesus certainly does say some striking things. In the first beatitude, he seems to assert that it’s good to be poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the second beatitude he pronounces a blessing on those who mourn, almost as though he’s saying the unhappy are the ones who are truly happy. That doesn’t seem to make sense. What’s so good about sorrow? Why is it a blessing to be grieving?

It is interesting to observe how differently emotions are exhibited in different cultures. In Jesus’ world, mourning was a very open and public act. Grief was expressed visibly and audibly. And the same thing is still true in Middle Eastern cultures today, as well as in many other places throughout the world. I once spent some time in Africa, in an area where many people had heavy scars on their foreheads. In that culture it was customary that when someone died, the relatives would dance around the grave, wailing and gashing themselves with knives or spears as an expression of sorrow.

That is quite foreign to us. For us westerners, grieving doesn’t come easily. There seems to be something about geography that affects the expression of emotion; the farther north people live and the colder their climate, the less demonstrative they are. (Someone should research that some time; maybe someone already has!) I come from a long line of northerners, and I live in a very cold place. My culture tends to repress the emotions rather than express them. For us, mourning is not a comfortable activity. When someone is weeping, our natural tendency is not to feel sympathy but embarrassment and discomfort, especially if that someone happens to be us.


Nevertheless, if Jesus says that God’s blessing is upon those who mourn, then I want to know what he means. More than that, I want to experience what he means for myself. I want to become a mourner – even if it isn’t natural or comfortable or easy for me to do that.

So what exactly is Jesus talking about when he speaks of the mourning that is blessed by God? What kind of sorrow is “happy sorrow”? What sort of grief is godly grief? In one sense, we could say any sorrow, for Jesus does not qualify his statement or narrow it down to one particular type of mourning. He says simply, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We mourn when we lose what is dear to us, whether that is a person, like a family member or a friend, or a thing, like love or health or youth. All sorrow can be traced back finally to the loss of something we have loved, even if it’s only a pet. If one never cared about anyone or anything outside of oneself, one would never feel grief. So in one sense sorrow, just any sorrow, is good, because it testifies to love.

And there is something wonderful about the mere fact that God’s blessing rests upon the sorrowing. God’s comfor – the joy and strength derived from his presence – is here romised not to the happy but to the unhappy. God takes special care to be with the suffering and the sorrowing, not the carefree – with life’s failures, not the successful. The Lord is much more likely to be found in the intensive care unit or the mortuary than at the country club. As David the shepherd-king knew, it is when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death that we can say with confidence, “Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

However, having said all this, we must go on to observe that Jesus did have a definite and particular kind of sorrow in mind when he said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” The Beatitudes are primarily concerned with our spiritual condition, not our emotional life. Just as the poverty about which Jesus spoke in the first beatitude, though related to financial poverty, actually referred to the humility of the poor in spirit, so the mourning of which he speaks here is primarily spiritual grief. It is sorrow for sin. “It is plain from the context,” writes one Bible scholar, “that those here promised comfort are not primarily those who mourn the loss of a loved one but those who mourn the loss of their innocence, their righteousness, their self-respect. It is not the sorrow of bereavement to which Christ refers but the sorrow of repentance” (John Stott, Christian Counterculture, p. 40).

This is the same grief the apostle Paul was writing about when he commended to the Corinthians the “godly sorrow which leads to repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10). This is the offering which a penitent King David brings to God in the 51st psalm: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v. 17).

Spiritual mourning is the sorrow that is truly blessed. This is the kind of grieving we all must go through in order to find real happiness. It is a grief that goes beyond sadness for the symptoms (the various kinds of loss we experience) to genuine heartfelt sorrow for the root cause of all our trouble – sin.


The obvious conclusion to draw from this beatitude is that in pronouncing a blessing upon those who mourn, Jesus is encouraging us to practice this behavior. Surely the reason he said this was to cause us to want to feel this godly sorrow. So we must learn to soften our hearts and to allow them to be open to the pain that we should feel as sinful people.

We ought to weep for the brokenness that sin has brought into our world, for all the alienation and the hurt – most of it self inflicted – experienced by a human family in rebellion against God. More than that, we ought to weep for our own sins: mourning over our lost innocence and our spoiled righteousness, sorrowing for our hard hearts, for how little we really care about God and others, grieving for our proneness to indulge our own fallen appetites and to excuse our weaknesses of character and ignore our moral duties.

Several weeks ago, I found myself worshiping in a church that included a very old and traditional prayer in the service. The congregation was invited to kneel together and confess our sin in these beautiful words:

Almighty God,

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

maker of all things, judge of all men:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness

. . . and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;

the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,

The burden of them is intolerable.

As I spoke those moving words, I sensed their truth in my own heart. I felt the grievous remembrance and the intolerable burden of my sins and misdeeds, and I knew, if only briefly and just a little, what it is to mourn.

But we don’t talk much like that any more these days, not even in church. Especially not in church, where so much worship has become relentlessly cheerful and exclusively upbeat. Contemporary Christian worship is likely to include lots of laughter and applause, but not many tears, not much sorrow, not much silence. It seems as though to be a Christian today requires one to be perpetually smiling, always up, never down – an odd opinion for a people whose Bible includes a whole book called Lamentations

Feeling sorrow for sin is not popular. Many people think that the biblical message about sin and the gospel call to mourn for it should be muted, if not silenced altogether. Some say it is both unhealthy and unnecessary. People have enough bad news in their lives without the church heaping more on them, they argue. Folks today are verbally battered enough without preachers joining in, trying to make them feel even more guilty than they already do. But just imagine a doctor who talked something like this: “This patient has lost his strength and his appetite. He’s filled with pain; he’s feeling bad enough already. Let’s not tell him about the cancer.” What is the possibility of curing a disease that isn’t even diagnosed plainly? How likely is it that the spiritually sick will seek healing unless they know and feel their need?

Talk about mourning for sin is also criticized as irrelevant. Modern people tend more and more not to view themselves as sinners at all, but as victims. We are told our behavior is really the product of brain chemistry and genetics and upbringing and education and social environment. If that’s the case, we can hardly be expected to feel bad about things for which we are not personally responsible. Instead of seeing ourselves as guilty before God and answerable to him for our actions (as well as collectively responsible as a human race because of our rebellion against him for the suffering and evil in the world), we blame God for it all. Or we blame nature. According to one sociologist, “Secular people are more conscious today of doubt than guilt” (George Hunter). Modern people, if they think about God at all, are much more likely to struggle with the question of whether they approve of him than whether he approves of them. But according to the Bible, God is our judge; we are not his. We are the accused, with much to answer for. And the sooner we recognize and acknowledge our sin, the better we will be able to find the way God has provided for dealing with it.


For Christians, mourning is not the end. It is only the beginning. Grief and sorrow for sin are not a stopping point; this is not the place God intends us to live permanently. Sorrow, grief and contrition are all part of a process called repentance, which leads ultimately to forgiveness, happiness and joy. In other words (or to use Jesus’ word), it leads to comfort. We must do more than simply feel sorry about our sins, even the sins of the whole world. What we must do ultimately is to turn away from them, to leave them behind, to embrace Christ by faith, and experience the forgiveness that flows from his cross.

But sadness will stay with us throughout our lives. Because we continue to sin and because sin has not yet been finally overcome in the world, we will always need to sorrow and to mourn for our sin. This does not mean we have to be despondent or morose. Mourning, said somebody, is not the same as moping. Sorrow and joy are not incompatible. In fact, each grows best and healthiest in the company of the other. I have a Russian friend named Gennadi who has a beautiful tenor voice. At a meeting once he sang a song for us that was popular among Russian Christians. Although I couldn’t understand the words, the poignant sadness of the melody touched me with melancholy. “You see,” Gennadi explained afterwards with a smile, “We Russian Christians have learned to sing our joy in a minor key.”

That’s how it has to be in this world. Those who know Christ are joyful, cheerful, happy. But our joy is often in a minor key, as we carry in our hearts the godly sorrow that produces repentance – until the day when sorrow and sighing will flee away and be no more.