Introduction to the Beatitudes

In this life, who is truly happy and why?
The answer to the first question is obvious. In this life, the healthy, wealthy, and wise are happy, as are the winners, the well known, and the well connected. Why? Isn’t the answer self-evident? Who, after all, wants to be sick, poor, and foolish, or an unknown, socially alienated failure? Such people simply cannot be happy. Right?
Not exactly.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with nine beatitudes in which Jesus pronounces a blessing on the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the insulted (Matt. 5.3–12). It is, all in all, an absurdly counterintuitive list of happy losers. How can such people possibly be happy?
The answer most certainly does not lie in their present circumstances, for in each beatitude, the circumstances describe people in dire need. The circumstances of a poor person are defined by what he lacks, whether that lack be of things or “in spirit.” Mourners are, by definition, unhappy. The meek too often live at the mercy of the arrogant. The hungry and thirsty for righteousness do not have what they desire; they are unrighteous sinners. The merciful have been sinned against and must decide whether to extend grace to the ungrateful. If, as Soren Kierkegaard says, “purity of heart is to will one thing,” then none of us can be happy because, as Paul says, “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7.16). Peacemakers live in a world of war, and the persecuted and insulted are victims of religious intolerance and persecution. Present circumstances do not—cannot!—explain the happiness of the people Jesus blesses.
But God can.
In Greek, the word makarios (“blessed”) has both a subjective and objective connotation. Subjectively, the word describes the inner life of a person, his emotions—his happiness. Objectively, the word describes the positive totality of a person’s circumstances—his fortune. It is possible to be blessed in the latter sense without feeling blessed in the former. Americans, for example, have the good fortune to live in what is arguably the healthiest, wealthiest, and best-educated country the world has ever produced. But far too many Americans are unhappy because they compare their circumstances to those of other Americans, rather than to those of people around the world.
According to Jesus, the poor, the mourning, the meek, etc. are fortunate because God is even now beginning to pour blessings into their lives: the kingdom of heaven, comfort, an inheritance, righteousness, mercy, a face-to-face vision of God, and adoption into his family. The total circumstances of such people produce real happiness in their lives because God generously compensates—now and eternally—for the deficiencies they are presently experiencing.
So we return to our opening question: Who is truly happy and why? In the words of David Garland, “Happy are the unhappy for God will make them happy.”

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