Should Christians mourn?
The answer to the above question might seem obvious. Of course, Christians should mourn just like everyone else at appropriate occasions. After all, Jesus wept at the funeral of his friend, even though he knew he was about raise him from the dead (John 11:35). Mourning is the suitable response to all kinds of circumstances in this life. We will all encounter suffering, disappointment, pain, and loss. Mourning is the expression of a heart that longs for things to be made right.
But that’s not the way I’m asking the question. If I asked if Christians should read their Bibles, you probably wouldn’t feel the need to respond with an apology on the rightness of reading the Bible. You would instead focus on the practical necessity of cultivating a discipline of Bible reading. Christians should practice reading their Bibles, and that’s how I’m asking the above question. Should Christians practice mourning?
I realize, right off the bat, how counterculturally strange that question must seem. Americans aren’t known for prioritizing negative emotions. In fact, Americans aren’t known for thinking about negative things at all. “Stay positive.” “Don’t worry, be happy.” “I’m just really trying to surround myself with people who affirm me.” These are the slogans that best capture the American approach to life. We don’t even like to talk about death, even though every single one of us daily marches closer to the moment of our terminal end.
Why on earth would anyone want to practice mourning?
This past week, in the course of a jovial family conversation, my wife told my children that their dad is really quite sappy. She drew her analysis of my emotional state from a handful of times when she’s seen me cry during movies and such. My children didn’t believe her. At that moment it dawned on me that I’m really good—probably as good as most American men—at hiding my emotions. In this culture where we are trained to suppress any kind of negative emotion, the practice of mourning seems nonsensical.
I recently read a description of the lifestyle of medieval Franciscan monks who, following Francis of Assisi, would travel into the English countryside preaching Christ. This specific monastic school reserved a high place for the emotions within their spirituality and believed that, in the words of Chris Armstrong, “tears were a gift from God, cleansing and cathartic—a worthy daily discipline for those who ‘keep watch over the perfection of their life.’”
One of Jesus’ famous beatitudes communicates a similar message: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). I’ve always read this verse strictly as a comforting word of future promise for those currently mourning. I’ve never really considered it as recommending mourning as a practice. However, would we read the other beatitudes in the same way? Do we not believe that Jesus, aside from comforting, is also here recommending the practices of poverty of spirit, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking?
This reading is strengthened by a later occurrence in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is asked why his disciples don’t fast. He responds, “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” (9:14-15). Here Jesus connects mourning to the practice of fasting and clearly states that the time between his ascension and return will be an appropriate time to practice both.
What are we supposed to mourn about? That’s a very good question. It helps to know that Jesus’ beatitude about mourning is being drawn from an earlier prophecy in the book of Isaiah where God’s people are mourning because the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, and God’s kingdom has yet to come (61:2). We mourn because we look out at a world where God’s will is not yet done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).
We mourn because children are still being disposed of as medical waste, teenage girls are still being trafficked for the sexual pleasure of powerful men, and whole communities in our world are still being annihilated by racial genocide. We mourn because the world is not yet the way it is supposed to be. We mourn because we’re still burying our loved ones.
Perhaps we need to mourn so that our eyes remain open to the suffering around us. Perhaps we need to mourn so that we don’t grow too comfortable in a world that has made peace with injustice. Perhaps we need to mourn because mourning enables us to see that things aren’t right, and this vision is necessary for action. Should Christians mourn? I think we should.