Beatitudes Lucky are the Unlucky by Philip Yancey
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “The Jesus I Never Knew” published in 1995.
The Sermon on the Mount haunted my adolescence. I would read a book like Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, solemnly vow to act “as Jesus would act,” and turn to Matthew 5—7 for guidance. What to make of such advice! Should I mutilate myself after a wet dream? Offer my body to be pummeled by the motorcycle-riding hoods in school? Tear out my tongue after speaking a harsh word to my brother?
Once, I became so convicted about my addiction to material things that I gave away to a friend my prized collection of 1,100 baseball cards, including an original 1947 Jackie Robinson and a Mickey Mantle rookie card. Anticipating a divine reward for this renunciation, instead I had to endure the monumental injustice of watching my friend auction off the entire collection at a huge profit. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,” I consoled myself.
Now that I am an adult, the crisis of the Sermon on the Mount still has not gone away. Though I have tried at times to dismiss it as rhetorical excess, the more I study Jesus, the more I realize that the statements contained here lie at the heart of his message. If I fail to understand this teaching, I fail to understand him.
Jesus delivered the famous sermon at a time when his popularity was soaring. Crowds pursued him wherever he went, obsessed with one question: Has the Messiah come at last? On this unusual occasion Jesus skipped the parables and granted his audience a full-blown “philosophy of life,” somewhat like a candidate unveiling a new political platform. What a platform.
When time came to teach the Beatitudes to my class at LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, I followed my regular routine of previewing the movies about Jesus. Since I drew from fifteen different movies, the task of locating and viewing all the right portions consumed several hours of my time each week, much of it spent waiting for the VCR to fast-forward or reverse to the appropriate scenes. To relieve boredom while the VCR whirred and clicked its way to the right places, I had CNN playing on the TV monitor in the foreground. As the machine sped, say, to the eight-minute-twenty-second mark of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, I caught up on news from around the world. Then I hit the “play” button and was transported back into first- century Palestine.
A lot was happening in the world in 1991 the week I taught the Beatitudes. In a ground campaign that lasted a scant one hundred hours, allied forces had achieved a stunning victory over Iraq in the Gulf War. Like most Americans, I could hardly believe the long- feared war had ended so quickly, with so few American casualties. As my VCR searched through the celluloid frames of Jesus in the back ground, various commentators on-screen were illustrating with charts and maps exactly what had transpired in Kuwait. Then came General Norman Schwarzkopf.
CNN announced an interruption in scheduled programming: they would shift to live coverage of the morning-after press conference by the commander of allied forces. For a time I tried to continue preparing for my class. I watched five minutes of Pasolini’s version of Jesus delivering the Beatitudes, then several minutes of General Schwarzkopf’s version of allied troops bearing down on Kuwait City. Soon I abandoned the VCR altogether–—Storming Norman proved entirely too engaging. He told of the “end run” around Iraq’s elite Republican Guard, of a decoy invasion by sea, of the allied capability of marching all the way to Baghdad unopposed. He credited the Kuwaitis, the British, the Saudis, and every other participant in the multinational force. A general confident in his mission and immensely proud of the soldiers who had carried it out, Schwarzkopf gave a bravura performance. I remember thinking, That’s exactly the person you want to lead a war.
The briefing ended, CNN switched to commercials, and I returned to the VCR tapes. Max von Sydow, a blond, pasty Jesus, was giving an improbable rendition of the Sermon on the Mount in The Greatest Story Ever Told. “Blessed … are . . . the .. . poor .. . in spirit,” he intoned in a slow, thick Scandinavian accent, “for. . . theirs . . . is . .the . . . kingdom . . . of.. . heaven.” I had to adjust to the languid pace of the movie compared to General Schwarzkopf’s briefing, and it took a few seconds for the irony to sink in: I had just been watching the Beatitudes in reverse!
Blessed are the strong, was the general’s message. Blessed are the triumphant. Blessed are the armies wealthy enough to possess smart bombs and Patriot missiles. Blessed are the liberators, the conquering soldiers.
The bizarre juxtaposition of two speeches gave me a feeling for the shock waves the Sermon on the Mount must have caused among its original audience, Jews in first-century Palestine. Instead of General Schwarzkopf, they had Jesus, and to a downtrodden people yearning for emancipation from Roman rule, Jesus gave startling and unwelcome advice. If an enemy soldier slaps you, turn the other cheek. Rejoice in persecution. Be grateful for your poverty.
The Iraqis, chastened on the battlefield, got a nasty measure of revenge by setting fire to Kuwait’s oil fields; Jesus enjoined not revenge but love for one’s enemies. How long would a kingdom founded on such principles survive against Rome?
“Happy are the bombed-out and the homeless,” Jesus might as well have said. “Blessed are the losers and those grieving for fallen comrades. Blessed are the Kurds still suffering under Iraqi rule.” Any Greek scholar will tell you the word “blessed” is far too sedate and beatific to carry the percussive force Jesus intended. The Greek word conveys something like a short cry of joy, “Oh, you lucky person!”
“How lucky are the unlucky!” Jesus said in effect.
A few years after the Gulf War episode, I received an invitation to the White House. President Bill Clinton, alarmed about his low standing among evangelical Christians, summoned twelve of us to a private breakfast in order to hear our concerns. Each of us would have five minutes to say whatever we wanted the president and vice-president to hear. The question, “What would Jesus say in such a setting?” crossed my mind, and I realized with a start that the only time Jesus met with powerful political leaders, his hands were tied and his back was clotted with blood. Church and state have had an uneasy relationship ever since.
I turned to the Beatitudes and found myself startled anew. What if I translated their message into contemporary terms?
Mr. President, first I want to advise you to stop worrying so much about the economy and jobs. A lower Gross National Product is actually good for the country. Don’t you understand that the poor are the fortunate ones? The more poor we have in the U.S., the more blessed we are. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And don’t devote so much time to health care. You see, Mr. President, those who mourn are blessed too, for they’ll be comforted.
I know you’ve heard from the Religious Right about the increasing secularization of our country. Prayer is no longer allowed in schools, and protesters against abortion are subject to arrest. Relax, sir. Government oppression gives Christians an opportunity to be persecuted, and therefore blessed. Thank you for the expanded opportunities.
I did not deliver such a speech to President Clinton, choosing instead to represent the immediate concerns of American Christians, but I did come away from the experience puzzled afresh. What meaning can the Beatitudes have for a society that honors the self-assertive, confident, and rich? Blessed are the happy and the strong, we believe. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a good time, who look out for Number One.
Some psychologists and psychiatrists, following Freud’s lead, point to the Beatitudes as proof of Jesus’ imbalance. Said one distinguished British psychologist, in a speech prepared for the Royal Society of Medicine,
The spirit of self-sacrifice which permeates Christianity, and is so highly prized in the Christian religious life, is masochism moderately indulged. A much stronger expression of it is to be found in Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This blesses the poor, the meek, the persecuted; exhorts us not to resist evil but to offer the second cheek to the smiter; and to do good to them that hate you and forgive men their trespasses. All this breathes masochism.
Which is it, masochism or profound wisdom? Anyone who responds with a quick and easy answer probably has not taken the Beatitudes seriously enough.
To put the issue bluntly, are the Beatitudes true? If so, why doesn’t the church encourage poverty and mourning and meekness and persecution instead of striving against them? What is the real meaning of the Beatitudes, this cryptic ethical core of Jesus’ teaching?
If I had been sitting in the audience when Jesus first delivered the Beatitudes, I believe I would have left the event feeling confused or outraged, not comforted. Nineteen centuries later, I still struggle to make sense of them. Yet now, especially as I think back on my teenage days of frenzied legalism, I can see that my understanding has developed in stages.
I am not, and may never be, ready to declare, “This is what the Beatitudes mean.” But gradually, almost osmotically, I have come to recognize them as important truths. To me, they apply on at least three levels.
In my first stage of understanding, I regarded the Beatitudes as a sop Jesus threw to the unfortunates: “Well, since you aren’t rich, and your health is failing, and your face is wet with tears, I’ll toss out a few nice phrases to make you feel better.” Later, as cynicism faded and my faith strengthened, I came to see them as genuine promises central to Jesus’ message.
Unlike medieval kings who threw coins to the masses (or modern politicians who make promises to the poor just before elections), Jesus had the ability to offer his audience lasting, even eternal rewards. Alone of all people on earth, Jesus had actually lived “on the other side,” and he who came down from heaven knew well that the spoils of the kingdom of heaven can easily counterbalance whatever misery we might encounter in this life. Those who mourn will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth; the hungry will be filled; the pure will see God. Jesus could make such promises with authority, for he had come to establish God’s kingdom that would rule forever.
One summer I met with a group of Wycliffe Bible Translators at their austere headquarters in the Arizona desert. Many lived in mobile homes, and we convened in a concrete-block building with a metal roof. I was impressed with the dedication of these professional linguists who were preparing for a life of poverty and hardship in remote outposts. They loved to sing one song especially: “So send I you, to labor unrewarded, to serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown. . .” Listening to them, the thought occurred to me that the song has it slightly wrong: these missionaries were not planning to labor unrewarded. Rather, they endured certain hardships with the prospect of other rewards in mind. They served God, trusting in turn that God would make it worth their while—–if not here, then in eternity.
In the mornings, before the sun rose too high above the hilltops, I went jogging along dirt roads that coiled among the stalky stands of saguaro cacti. Wary of rattlesnakes and scorpions, I mostly kept my head down looking at the road, but one morning on a new route I glanced up to see a shimmering resort looming before me, almost like a mirage. I jogged closer and discovered two Olympic 5 pools, aerobic workout rooms, a cinder jogging trail, lush gardens, a baseball diamond, soccer fields, and horse stables. The facilities, I learned, belonged to a famous eating disorder clinic that caters to movie stars and athletes. The clinic features the latest twelve-step program techniques, has a staff well stocked with Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s, and charges its clients about $300 per day.
I jogged slowly back to the jumble of houses and buildings at the Wycliffe base, keenly aware of their contrast to the gleaming architecture of the eating disorder clinic. One institution endeavored to save souls, to prepare people to serve God here and in eternity; the other endeavored to save bodies, to prepare people to enjoy this life. It seemed obvious which institution the world honors.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus honored people who may not enjoy many privileges in this life. To the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted, the poor in heart, he offered assurance that their service would not go unrecognized. They would receive ample reward. “Indeed,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
I know that among many Christians an emphasis on future rewards has fallen out of fashion. My former pastor Bill Leslie used to observe, ‘As churches grow wealthier and more successful, their preference in hymns changes from ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through’ to ‘This is my father’s world.’” In the United States, at least, Christians have grown so comfortable that we no longer identify with the humble conditions Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes—–which may explain why they sound so strange to our ears.
Yet, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, we dare not discount the value of future rewards. One need only listen to the songs composed by American slaves to realize this consolation of belief. “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.” “When I get to heaven, goin’ to put on my robe, goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.” “We’ll soon be free, we’ll soon be free, when the Lord will call us home.” If the slave masters had written these songs for the slaves to sing, they would be an obscenity; rather, they come from the mouths of the slaves themselves, people who had little hope in this world but abiding hope in a world to come. For them, all hope centered in Jesus. “Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows but Jesus.” “I’m gonna’ lay all my troubles on Jesus’ shoulder.”
I no longer scorn the eternal rewards mentioned in the Beatitudes as “pie in the sky.” What good does it do to hope for future rewards? What good did it do Terry Waite to believe that he would not spend the rest of his life chained to a door in a filthy Beirut apartment, but that a world of family and friends and mercy and love and music and food and good books awaited him if he could just find the strength to hang on a little longer? What good did it do the slaves to believe that God was not satisfied with a world that included back-breaking labor and masters armed with bullwhips and lynching ropes? To believe in future rewards is to believe that the long arm of the Lord bends toward justice, to believe that one day the proud will be overthrown and the humble raised up and the hungry filled with good things.
The prospect of future rewards in no way cancels out our need to fight for justice now, in this life. Yet it is a plain fact of history that for convicts in the Soviet Gulag and slaves in America and Christians in Roman cages awaiting their turn with the wild beasts, the promise of reward was a source not of shame but of hope. It keeps you alive. It allows you to believe in a just God after all. Like a bell tolling from another world, Jesus’ promise of rewards proclaims that no matter how things appear, there is no future in evil, only in good.
My wife, Janet, worked with senior citizens near a Chicago housing project judged the poorest community in the United States. About half her clients were white, half were black. All of them had lived through harsh times—–two world wars, the Great Depression, social upheavals—–and all of them, in their seventies and eighties, lived in awareness of death. Yet Janet noted a striking difference in the way the whites and the blacks faced death. There were exceptions, of course, but the trend was this: many of the whites became increasingly fearful and anxious. They complained about their lives, their families, and their deteriorating health. The blacks, in contrast, maintained a good humor and triumphant spirit even though they had more apparent reason for bitterness and despair.
What caused the difference in outlooks? Janet concluded the answer was hope, a hope that traced directly to the blacks’ bedrock belief in heaven. If you want to hear contemporary images of heaven, attend a few black funerals. With characteristic eloquence, the preachers paint word pictures of a life so serene and sensuous that everyone in the congregation starts fidgeting to go there. The mourners feel grief, naturally, but in its proper place: as an interruption, a temporary setback in a battle whose end has already been determined.
I am convinced that for these neglected saints, who learned to anticipate and enjoy God in spite of the difficulties of their lives on earth, heaven will seem more like a long-awaited homecoming than a visit to a new place. In their lives, the Beatitudes have become true. To people who are trapped in pain, in broken homes, in economic chaos, in hatred and fear, in violence–—to these, Jesus offers a promise of a time, far longer and more substantial than this time on earth, of health and wholeness and pleasure and peace. A time of reward.
The Great Reversal.
Over time I learned to respect, and even long for, the rewards Jesus promised. Even so, these rewards lay somewhere in the future, and dangled promises do not satisfy immediate needs. Along the way, I have also come to believe that the Beatitudes describe the present as well as the future. They neatly contrast how to succeed in the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of this world.
J. B. Phillips rendered the Beatitudes that apply in the kingdom of this world:
Happy are the “pushers”: for they get on in the world.
Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.
Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.
Happy are the blasé: for they never worry over their sins.
Happy are the slave-drivers: for they get results.
Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around.
Happy are the trouble-makers: for they make people take notice of them.
Modern society lives by the rules of survival of the fittest. “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” reads one bumper sticker. So does the nation with the best weapons and the largest gross national product. The owner of the Chicago Bulls gave a compact summary of the rules governing the visible world on the occasion of Michael Jordan’s (temporary) retirement. “He’s living the American Dream,” said Jerry Reinsdorf. “The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and can do everything that you do want to do.”
That may be the American Dream, but it decidedly is not Jesus’ dream as revealed in the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes express quite plainly that God views this world through a different set of lenses. God seems to prefer the poor and those who mourn to the Fortune 500 and supermodels who frolic on the beach. Oddly, God may prefer South Central L. A. to Malibu Beach, and Rwanda to Monte Carlo. In fact, one could almost subtitle the Sermon on the Mount not “survival of the fittest” but “triumph of the victims.”
Various scenes in the Gospels give a good picture of the kind of people who impressed Jesus. A widow who placed her last two cents in the offering. A dishonest tax collector so riddled with anxiety that he climbed a tree to get a better view of Jesus. A nameless, nondescript child. A woman with a string of five unhappy marriages. A blind beggar. An adulteress. A man with leprosy. Strength, good looks, connections, and the competitive instinct may bring a person success in a society like ours, but those very qualities may block entrance to the kingdom of heaven. Dependence, sorrow, repentance, a longing to change—–these are the gates to God’s kingdom.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said Jesus. One commentary translates that “Blessed are the desperate.” With nowhere else to turn, the desperate just may turn to Jesus, the only one who can offer the deliverance they long for. Jesus really believed that a person who is poor in spirit, or mourning, or persecuted, or hungry and thirsty for righteousness has a peculiar “advantage” over the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, the desperate person will cry out to God for help. If so, that person is truly blessed.
Catholic scholars coined the phrase “God’s preferential option for the poor” to describe a phenomenon they found throughout both the Old and New Testaments: God’s partiality toward the poor and the disadvantaged. Why would God single out the poor for special attention over any other group? I used to wonder. What makes the poor deserving of God’s concern? I received help on this issue from a writer named Monika Hellwig, who lists the following “advantages” to being poor:
1. The poor know they are in urgent need of redemption.
2. The poor know not only their dependence on God and on powerful people but also their interdependence with one another.
3. The poor rest their security not on things but on people.
4. The poor have no exaggerated sense of their own importance, and no exaggerated need of privacy.
5. The poor expect little from competition and much from cooperation.
6. The poor can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
7. The poor can wait, because they have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.
S. The fears of the poor are more realistic and less exaggerated, because they already know that one can survive great suffering and want.
9. When the poor have the Gospel preached to them, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding.
10. The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything.
In summary, through no choice of their own—–they may urgently wish otherwise—–poor people find themselves in a posture that befits the grace of God. In their state of neediness, dependence, and dissatisfaction with life, they may welcome God’s free gift of love.
As an exercise I went back over Monika Heliwig’s list, substituting the word “rich” for “poor,” and changing each sentence to its opposite. “The rich do not know they are in urgent need of redemption. The rich rest their security not on people but on things. . . .“ (Jesus did something similar in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, but that portion gets much less attention: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. . .)
Next, I tried something far more threatening: I substituted the word “I.” Reviewing each of the ten statements, I asked myself if my own attitudes more resembled those of the poor or of the rich. Do I easily acknowledge my needs? Do I readily depend on God and on other people? Where does my security rest? Am I more likely to compete or cooperate? Can I distinguish between necessities and luxuries? Am I patient? Do the Beatitudes sound to me like good news or like a scolding?
As I did this exercise I began to realize why so many saints voluntarily submit to the discipline of poverty. Dependence, humility, simplicity, cooperation, and a sense of abandon are qualities greatly prized in the spiritual life, but extremely elusive for people who live in comfort. There may be other ways to God but, oh, they are hard—–as hard as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle. In the Great Reversal of God’s kingdom, prosperous saints are very rare.
I do not believe the poor to be more virtuous than anyone else (though I have found them more compassionate and often more generous), but they are less likely to pretend to be virtuous. They have not the arrogance of the middle class, who can skillfully disguise their problems under a facade of self-righteousness. They are more naturally dependent, because they have no choice; they must depend on others simply to survive.
I now view the Beatitudes not as patronizing slogans, but as profound insights into the mystery of human existence. God’s kingdom turns the tables upside down. The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed truly are blessed. Not because of their miserable states, of course—–Jesus spent much of his life trying to remedy those miseries. Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient. People who are rich, successful, and beautiful may well go through life relying on their natural gifts. People who lack such natural advantages, hence under-qualified for success in the kingdom of this world, just might turn to God in their time of need.
Human beings do not readily admit desperation. When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.
More recently, I have come to see a third level of truth in the Beatitudes. Not only did Jesus offer an ideal for us to strive toward, with appropriate rewards in view; not only did he turn the tables on our success-addicted society; he also set forth a plain formula of psychological truth, the deepest level of truth that we can know on earth.
The Beatitudes reveal that what succeeds in the kingdom of heaven also benefits us most in this life here and now. It has taken me many years to recognize this fact, and only now am I beginning to understand the Beatitudes. They still jar me every time I read them, but they jar me because I recognize in them a richness that unmasks my own poverty
Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . Blessed are the meek. A book like Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals sets out in convincing detail what all of us know to be true: the people we laud, strive to emulate, and feature on the covers of popular magazines are not the fulfilled, happy, balanced persons we might imagine. Although Johnson’s subjects (Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Bertolt Brecht, et al.) would be judged successful by any modern standard, it would be difficult to assemble a more miserable, egomaniacal, abusive company.
My career as a journalist has afforded me opportunities to interview “stars,” including NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, best-selling authors, politicians, and TV personalities. These are the people who dominate the media. We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the tooth paste they use. Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, I have found Paul Johnson’s principle to hold true: our “idols” are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are incurably dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by self-doubt.
I have also spent time with people I call “servants.” Doctors and nurses who work among the ultimate outcasts, leprosy patients in rural India. A Princeton graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago. Health workers who have left high-paying jobs to serve in a backwater town of Mississippi. Relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and other repositories of human suffering. The Ph.D.s I met in Arizona, who are now scattered throughout jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.
I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not prepared to envy them. Yet as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. Without question, I would rather spend time among the servants than among the stars: they possess qualities of depth and richness and even joy that I have not found elsewhere. Servants work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them.
The poor in spirit and the meek are indeed blessed, I now believe. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and it is they who will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the pure in heart. During a period of my life when I was battling sexual temptation, I came across an article that referred me to a thin book, What I Believe, by the French Catholic writer François Mauriac. It surprised me that Mauriac, an old man, devoted considerable space to a discussion of his own lust. He explained, “Old age risks being a period of redoubled testing because the imagination in an old man is substituted in a horrible way for what nature refuses him”
I knew that Mauriac understood lust. Viper’s Tangle and A Kiss for the Leper, novels which helped win him the Nobel prize in literature, portray lust, repression, and sexual anger as well as anything I have ever read. For Mauriac, sexual temptation was a familiar battleground.
Mauriac dismissed most of the arguments in favor of sexual purity that he had been taught in his Catholic upbringing. “Marriage will cure lust”: it did not for Mauriac, as it has not for so many others, because lust involves the attraction of unknown creatures and the taste for adventure and chance meetings. “With self-discipline you can master lust”: Mauriac found that sexual desire is like a tidal wave powerful enough to bear away all the best intentions. “True fulfillment can only be found in monogamy”: this may be true, but it certainly does not seem true to someone who finds no slackening of sexual urges even in monogamy. Thus he weighed the traditional arguments for purity and found them wanting.
Mauriac concluded that self-discipline, repression, and rational argument are inadequate weapons to use in fighting the impulse toward impurity. In the end, he could find only one reason to be pure, and that is what Jesus presented in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart,for they will see God.” In Mauriac’s words, “Impurity separates us from God. The spiritual life obeys laws as verifiable as those of the physical world. . . Purity is the condition for a higher love—–for a possession superior to all possessions: that of God. Yes, this is what is at stake, and nothing less.”
Reading François Mauriac’s words did not end my struggle with lust. But I must say beyond all doubt that I have found his analysis to be true. The love God holds out to us requires that our faculties be cleansed and purified before we can receive a higher love, one attainable in no other way. That is the motive to stay pure. By harboring lust, I limit my own intimacy with God.
The pure in heart are truly blessed, for they will see God. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that.
Blessed are the merciful. I learned the truth of this Beatitude from Henri Nouwen, a priest who used to teach at Harvard University. At the height of his career, Nouwen moved from Harvard to a community called Daybreak, near Toronto, in order to take on the demanding chores required by his friendship with a man named Adam. Nouwen now ministers not to intellectuals but to a young man who is considered by many a useless person who should have been aborted.
Nouwen describes his friend:
Adam is a 25-year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Some times, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.
It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him into his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of the day with therapeutic exercises.
On a visit to Nouwen in Toronto, I watched him perform that routine with Adam, and I must admit I had a fleeting doubt as to whether this was the best use of his time. I have heard Henri Nouwen speak, and have read many of his books. He has much to offer. Could not someone else take over the menial task of caring for Adam? When I cautiously broached the subject with Nouwen himself he informed me that I had completely misinterpreted what was going on. “I am not giving up anything,” he insisted. “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”
Then Nouwen began listing for me all the benefits he has gained. The hours spent with Adam, he said, have given him an inner peace so fulfilling that it makes most of his other, more high-minded tasks seem boring and superficial by contrast. Early on, as he sat beside that helpless child-man, he realized how marked with rivalry and competition, how obsessive, was his drive for success in academia and Christian ministry. Adam taught him that “what makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love. From Adam’s simple nature, he had glimpsed the “emptiness” necessary before one can be filled by God—–the kind of emptiness that desert monks achieved only after much searching and discipline.
All during the rest of our interview, Henri Nouwen circled back to my question, as if he could not believe I could ask such a thing. He kept thinking of other ways he had benefited from his relationship with Adam. Truly, he was enjoying a new kind of spiritual peace, acquired not within the stately quadrangles of Harvard, but by the bedside of incontinent Adam. I left Daybreak convicted of my own spiritual poverty; I who so carefully arrange my writer’s life to make it efficient and single-focused. The merciful are indeed blessed, I learned, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers. . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. This truth came to me in a roundabout way. The great novelist Leo Tolstoy tried to follow it, but his irascible temper kept getting in the way of peacemaking. Tolstoy did write eloquently about the Sermon on the Mount, however, and half a century later a Hindu ascetic named Mohandas Gandhi read The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Tolstoy and decided to live by the literal principles of the Sermon on the Mount.
The movie Gandhi contains a fine scene in which Gandhi tries to explain his philosophy to the Presbyterian missionary Charlie Andrews. Walking together in a South African city; the two suddenly find their way blocked by young thugs. The Reverend Andrews takes one look at the menacing gangsters and decides to run for it. Gandhi stops him. “Doesn’t the New Testament say if an enemy strikes you on the right cheek you should offer him the left?” Andrews mumbles that he thought the phrase was used metaphorically. “I’m not so sure,” Gandhi replies. “I suspect he meant you must show courage—–be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that and I have seen it work.”
Years later an American minister, Martin Luther King Jr., studied Gandhi’s tactics and decided to put them into practice in the United States. Many blacks abandoned King over the issue of nonviolence and drifted toward “black power” rhetoric. After you’ve been hit on the head with a policeman’s nightstick for the dozenth time and received yet another jolt from a jailer’s cattle prod, you begin to question the effectiveness of nonviolence. But King himself never wavered.
As riots broke out in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Harlem, King traveled from city to city trying to cool tempers, forcefully reminding demonstrators that moral change is not accomplished through immoral means. He had learned that principle from the Sermon on the Mount and from Gandhi, and almost all his speeches reiterated the message. “Christianity,” he said, “has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.”
Martin Luther King Jr. had some weaknesses, but one thing he got right. Against all odds, against all instincts of self-preservation, he stayed true to the principle of peacemaking. He did not strike back. Where others called for revenge, he called for love. The civil rights marchers put their bodies on the line before sheriffs with nightsticks and fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. That, in fact, was what brought them the victory they had been seeking so long. Historians point to one event as the single moment in which the movement attained a critical mass of public support for its cause. It occurred on a bridge outside Selma, Alabama, when Sheriff Jim Clark turned his policemen loose on unarmed black demonstrators. The American public, horrified by the scene of violent injustice, at last gave assent to passage of a civil rights bill.
I grew up in Atlanta, across town from Martin Luther King Jr., and I confess with some shame that while he was leading marches in places like Selma and Montgomery and Memphis, I was on the side of the white sheriffs with the nightsticks and German shepherds. I was quick to pounce on his moral flaws and slow to recognize my own blind sin. But because he stayed faithful, by offering his body as a target but never as a weapon, he broke through my moral calluses.
The real goal, King used to say, was not to defeat the white man, but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. . . . The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” And that is what Martin Luther King Jr. finally set into motion, even in racists like me.
King, like Gandhi before him, died a martyr. After his death, more and more people began adopting the principle of nonviolent protest as a way to demand justice. In the Philippines, after Benigno Aquino’s martyrdom, ordinary people brought down a government by gathering in the streets to pray; army tanks rolled to a stop before the kneeling Filipinos as if blocked by an invisible force. Later, in the remarkable year of 1989, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Mongolia, Albania, the Soviet Union, Nepal, and Chile, more than half a billion people threw off the yoke of oppression through nonviolent means. In many of these places, especially the nations of Eastern Europe, the Christian church led the way. Protesters marched through the streets carrying candles, singing hymns, and praying. As in Joshua’s day, the walls came tumbling down.
Peacemakers will be called sons and daughters of God. Blessed also are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn. Because I have written books with titles like Where Is God When It Hurts? andDisappointment with God, I have spent time among mourners. They intimidated me at first. I had few answers for the questions they were asking, and I felt awkward in the presence of their grief. I remember especially one year when, at the invitation of a neighbor, I joined a therapy group at a nearby hospital. This group, called Make Today Count, consisted of people who were dying, and I accompanied my neighbor to their meetings for a year.
Certainly I cannot say that I “enjoyed” the gatherings; that would be the wrong word. Yet the meetings became for me one of the most meaningful events of each month. In contrast to a party, where participants try to impress each other with signs of status and power, in this group no one was trying to impress. Clothes, fashions, apartment furnishings, job titles, new cars—–what do these things mean to people who are preparing to die? More than any other people I had met, the Make Today Count group members concentrated on ultimate issues. I found myself wishing that some of my shallow, hedonistic friends would attend a meeting.
Later, when I wrote about what I had learned from grieving and suffering people, I began hearing from strangers. I have three folders, each one several inches thick, filled with these letters. They are among my most precious possessions. One letter, twenty-six pages long, was written on blue-lined note paper by a mother sitting in a lounge outside a room where surgeons were operating on her four-year-old daughter’s brain tumor. Another came from a quadriplegic who “wrote” by making puffs of air into a tube, which a computer translated into letters on a printer.
Many of the people who have written me have no happy endings to their stories. Some still feel abandoned by God. Few have found answers to the “Why?” questions. But I have seen enough grief that I have gained faith in Jesus’ promise that those who mourn will be comforted.
I know two small-scale ministries; run from private homes, that have developed out of grief. The first came into being when a woman in California discovered that her son, the apple of her eye, was dying of AIDS. She got little sympathy and support from her church and community because of the young man’s homosexuality. She felt so alone and needy that she decided to start a newsletter that now brings together a network of parents of gay people. Although she offers little professional help and promises no magic cures, now hundreds of other parents view this courageous woman as a lifesaver.
Another woman, in Wisconsin, lost her only son in a Marine Corps helicopter crash. For years she could not escape the dark cloud of grief. She kept her son’s room intact just as he had left it. Eventually, she began to notice how frequently helicopter crashes were reported on the news. She kept thinking of other families facing tragedies like hers, and wondering whether she could do something to help. Now, whenever a military helicopter crashes, she sends a packet of letters and helpful materials to an officer in the Defense Department who forwards the packet on to the affected family. About half of them strike up a regular correspondence, and in her retirement this Wisconsin woman directs her own “community of suffering.” The activity has not solved the grief for her son, of course, but it has given her a sense of meaning, and she no longer feels helpless against that grief.
There is no more effective healer, I have found, than what Henri Nouwen calls “a wounded healer.” Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In a sense, everyone I have mentioned in this litany of the Beatitudes manifests this final promise of Jesus. The “servants” who invest their lives among the poor and needy, François Mauriac striving to stay pure, Henri Nouwen bathing and dressing Adam, Martin Luther King Jr. and the disciples of nonviolence, mothers of gay men and Marine pilots who reach out beyond their grief—–all these are responding to pangs of hunger and thirst for righteousness. All of them have received a reward, not only in the life to come, but in this life as well.
An Albanian nun spent sixteen years in an exclusive convent teaching geography to the wealthiest Bengali and British daughters of Calcutta. One day, on a railway trip to the Himalayas, she heard a voice calling her to change paths and minister to the poorest of the poor. Can anyone really doubt that Mother Teresa has found more personal fulfillment in her latter occupation than in her former? I have seen this principle borne out in saints and in ordinary people so often that I now easily understand why the Gospels repeat the one saying of Jesus more than any other: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus came, he told us, not to destroy life but that we may have it more abundantly, “life.. to the full.” Paradoxically, we get this abundant life in ways we may not have counted on. We get it by investing in others, by taking courageous stands for justice, by ministering to the weak and needy, by pursuing God and not self. I would not dare feel pity for any of the people I have just mentioned, though all have lived with hardship. For all their “sacrifices,” they seem to me more fully alive, not less. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness get filled.
In the Beatitudes, strange sayings that at first glance seem absurd, Jesus offers a paradoxical key to abundant life. The kingdom of heaven, he said elsewhere, is like a treasure of such value that any shrewd investor would “in his joy” sell all he has in order to buy it. It represents value far more real and permanent than anything the world has to offer, for this treasure will pay dividends both here on earth and also in the life to come. Jesus places the emphasis not on what we give up but on what we receive. Is it not in our own self-interest to pursue such a treasure?
When I first heard the Beatitudes, they sounded to me like impossible ideals given by some dreamy mystic. Now, though, I see them as truths proclaimed by a realist every bit as pragmatic as General Norman Schwarzkopf. Jesus knew how life works, in the kingdom of heaven as well as the kingdom of this world. In a life characterized by poverty, mourning, meekness, a hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity, peacemaking, and persecution, Jesus himself embodied the Beatitudes. Perhaps he even conceived the Beatitudes as a sermon to himself as well as to the rest of us, for he would have much opportunity to practice these hard truths.(105-126)