Pharrell Williams and millions of his fans would say, “No way!”
Many Christians might say, “Well, uh … maybe?”
Jesus and many of His closest followers seem to have said, “Yes!”
So what do we say? Of course, it depends. What does it mean to be “happy?” “Who says so?” “On what basis?” “How can I know?” Christians have thought about such questions for ages and have answered them in different ways.
It matters who says so. Jesus is reported to have said that people who mourn or grieve are happy or blessed or well-satisfied because “comfort is coming” (Matthew 5:4). Followers of Jesus, who know Him to be reliable and faithful will take what He says seriously. That doesn’t mean they always get what Jesus means or that all their questions are answered. Yet, because they have confidence in Jesus, they assume what He says reflects reality, even when they do not easily get why this is so. Jesus does not lie, and Jesus would not lead anyone astray. So, what are we to do with such a strange statement that we would probably just dismiss if it were anyone other than Jesus saying it? Here are some things that I think help us hear what Jesus says to us.
To start, Jesus is beginning some of the most important teaching He ever gave. He is describing how to live in the kingdom of God, which He announced everywhere He went. In fact, a good and short summary of Jesus’ teaching is, “God’s kingdom is present and real! Right now! So, here is how to live as kingdom citizens …
Jesus begins this teaching by pronouncing “blessing.” The word does mean “happiness,” but happiness that comes from living the life we were meant to live, the life God created us to live and then sent Jesus to offer us. But notice what Jesus says about this happiness. He doesn’t exactly promise that grieving people can be or may be blessed or happy. Rather, He calls out to people and declares that they are blessed. It’s not a promise, but a declaration. Of course, this is news to the people He names. People who are mourning a loss — of a loved one, their health, possessions, a friendship, a marriage, a job, a dream — usually do not feel or count themselves to be happy or blessed. Curiously, though, that’s what Jesus announces. Contrary to what seems obvious, you are blessed!
You, the grief-stricken, are blessed because “you will be comforted.” Again, this also comes first as a declaration — your comfort is coming! Two things about the way Jesus puts this help us grasp the truth more fully. First, it was common among Jews of Jesus’ day to describe God using “the passive voice.” Instead of saying, “God will comfort,” you say, “you will be comforted.” It was understood that God is the Actor, the giver of comfort. Second, it was also assumed that God’s word signaled God’s presence and power making it so. In fact, even in uttering the word, God is already making it so.
Therefore, Jesus declares that “life as God intends” is now being offered precisely to the people who need it most and in terms that respond to the way they feel the need. To people devastated by loss, crying out of grief and pain, Jesus declares God’s comfort. The kingdom of God, Jesus insists, brings within reach God’s comfort in the face of the losses we have sustained. In the kingdom of God, the One who is King speaks into being the blessing of God’s comfort. To enter the kingdom, to belong to the kingdom, is to live in the land of comfort, the land where losses are named and addressed by God.
OK, but it still seems a bit odd and fuzzy. Can we clarify more precisely what Jesus declares to be a kingdom reality? Let me try by recalling a bit of the backstory to Jesus’ kingdom teaching. God called Israel to be His people and God planned to make the world right again through them. But the people themselves were not willing. Repeatedly, they refused God’s plan and ended up losing everything —their land, their temple, their king, their homes and their future. They had lost everything at the hands of invaders who took captive those who were not killed and carried them from all they held dear to a place of exile. So deep was their loss, they wondered if God had rejected them entirely.
But in their exile, something unbelievable happened. They had become people defined entirely by their losses — people struggling to cope with the emptiness of rejecting God’s ways and God’s calling. Then, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that God would save them, deliver them from exile, and lead them once again to the life of flourishing and blessing He intended for them. And Isaiah began this proclamation (Isaiah 40) by declaring God’s comfort: “Comfort, comfort to and for my people!”
With that in the background, Jesus declared the coming of just that comfort. It is the good news people are hoping and waiting to hear. The more and deeper they feel the losses of life, the greater and deeper the goodness and joy — the blessing and happiness — of God’s comfort.
What Jesus declares is the end of life defined by losing and the beginning of life that is possible when God the giver of every good and perfect gift is King. Jesus declares this to be life as God intended, life that brings fullness and joy, and life that enjoys the blessings God provides. Jesus declared it, and then Jesus enacts it by calling followers/disciples who join in living the life, demonstrating its reality.
Followers of King Jesus form communities of comfort who bless their world as it now is and model the world that one day will be fully and finally. They model it, not least, by the comfort they offer to one another, the welcome and hospitality they offer to exiles of all sorts, and by sharing freely the forgiveness and love necessary for human thriving. Such “happiness” offers their world a taste of the comforts to come.
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” and the co-author of “The Female Pastor: Is There Room for She in Shepherd?”1