Have you felt it? A discomfort in the middle of the day, a creeping restlessness as you lay awake at night?
That feeling may be grief, according to expert David Kessler. Pandemic grief is fed by copious notifications of suffering, like this headline from Italy (“We Take the Dead from Morning till Night”) and this one from New York (“Record 800-Plus Coronavirus Deaths in One Day”). As I write, there have been more than 100,000 deaths in the United States.
But perhaps even more difficult is grieving alone. Pinned in our homes, we can’t look a compassionate friend in the face to receive their knowing look of comfort. Isolation compounds our bereavement. Even in this, however, Jesus promises comfort: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
So how do we obtain this comfort?
Mourning for Comfort
Jesus’s promise of comfort comes with a condition: that we mourn. In this time of isolation, it’s tempting to settle for distraction. I’ve tried a bit of everything—books, games, movies, sleep—but I’ve discovered distractions don’t remove grief; they just relocate it. Something powerful happens, though, when I name my griefs and hand them to the Lord.
When Jesus promised comfort, he didn’t appeal to a vague feeling of inner tranquility; he promised the presence of an actual Comforter. Although Jesus isn’t physically present to slip his arm around us, his Spirit is with us: “But when the Father sends the Comforter [paraklēte] instead of me, he will teach you much” (John 14:26, TLB). The word paraklētos literally means “to come alongside.” Four of its five uses in the New Testament refer to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), and one time to Jesus (1 John 2:1). Isn’t this what we all want—someone to come alongside us?
When Jesus promised comfort, he didn’t appeal to a vague feeling of inner tranquility; he promised the presence of an actual Comforter.
In one season of intense grief, I sat on my couch weeping. “Hey, can I come by?” a friend texted. He entered my home, sat next to me on the couch, put his arm around me, and just let me cry. I don’t remember anything he said, but I do remember his presence. It was an inexplicable comfort.
While our current crisis prevents anyone from breaking away in the middle of the day to come sit on our couch, the Spirit and the Son are always present. Wherever we go, the Spirit goes (see Ps. 139:7‑10). Even your best friend can’t do this. The omnipresent Spirit is a mobile comforter who takes us by the hand, even in the darkest of places. He also awakens us to God’s mercies, custom-fit for every occasion (2 Cor. 1:3–4). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a divine community of comfort for sufferers. The Trinity possesses all comfort all the time for all afflictions. God is never indisposed, and his mercies never run out. He’s an eternal fountain of self-giving solace for sufferers. Nothing can hold a candle to him.
Heaven Works Backward
But what about “the blessing” Jesus promised to those who mourn (Matt. 5:4)?
Some sorrows are so deeply painful, so horrifically awful, it’s hard to associate blessing with them. We’re tempted to conclude, as one character in C. S. Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce blurted out to an angel, “No future bliss can make up for it.”
The Comforter allows for such laments. After all, Jesus himself declared to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). This same Jesus promises the meek will inherit a renewed earth. The comfort we gain in the present will one day grow, enlarging to encompass the whole world. The hands of God will wipe away every tear and refashion the world into a place of never-ending peace and joy. It isn’t so much that future bliss will “make up” for our agony, then, but that it radically reframes it. In response, Lewis’s angel says, “Heaven, once attained, will work backward and turn even that agony into a glory.”
God is never indisposed, and his mercies never run out. He’s an eternal fountain of self-giving solace for sufferers.
How does heaven work backward?
The new creation will put all sorrows in their place, not by diminishing evil, but by revealing how evil is harnessed for good. This was Joseph’s perspective as he looked back on his life marked by betrayal, human trafficking, and unjust incarceration in an Egyptian prison. He said to his brothers, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). In retrospect, Joseph saw God’s plan to spare nations from famine through his trafficking to Egypt. The wisdom and providence of heaven worked through his sufferings for great good.
But Joseph saw even greater good: “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant” (Gen. 45:7). By sending Joseph to Egypt to provide for his brothers, God created an enclave of provision through which nascent Israel would grow and produce the Messiah of the world. As the remnant was narrowed down to one faithful Jew, Jesus was also disrobed, tortured, and trafficked by human hands. But his sufferings achieved an eternal good. Through his own death and resurrection, Jesus turned agony into glory, death into life, sorrow into endless comfort.
Through his own death and resurrection, Jesus turned agony into glory, death into life, sorrow into endless comfort.
The Spirit of glory gives us Joseph’s perspective—the ability to look back on our hardships and trust that, in the complex and inscrutable wisdom of God’s providence, they are ordered for good. The Spirit also comforts us with our suffering Savior’s presence, coaxing us to bring our sufferings to Christ. This invitation draws us into deeper communion with our Savior, while also confronting our temptation to elevate our sufferings above his. Our agony can become a glory when it’s ensconced in Christ. And it’s there, in Christ Jesus our Lord, that heaven can and will work backward.