For a couple of years, our family went through a major storm. My wife struggled with mental illness which, at it’s worst, had her teetering on the edge between life and suicide. Our kids had to live in another area, and we could only visit them every now and then, which was heartbreaking. I was working crazy hours to make ends meet. I was in a constant haze of confusion. I was juggling ten different things and constantly dropping balls.
I never felt so inadequate. A constant thought I had was that I was giving 100% – everything I had in me. But what was needed was 120%. We couldn’t be the family I wanted us to be. I couldn’t be the dad my children needed nor the husband my wife needed nor the teacher my students needed. I was failing on all fronts – or at least that’s how it felt. For awhile, especially after we weathered most of that and found some stability, I didn’t want to think about it. I felt bitter. I tucked it away in a closet somewhere in my heart, locked the door, and threw away the key.
But about a year ago, I went on a spiritual retreat with a group from my parish and neighboring parishes in the Sacramento area. The priest leading it spoke about a lot of things, but mostly he centered on the Beatitudes – this set of short “blessings” Jesus proclaims over those who experience what the world would more likely call curses.
“Blessed are they who mourn,” Jesus says, “for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are they who are persecuted…. for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”
It seems backward, doesn’t it? When I mourn, I don’t feel blessed. When I hear of Coptic Christians being killed by ISIS, I don’t think, “How fortunate for them!” Though, I don’t think that’s the point Jesus is trying to make. He’s not saying, “Be perfectly fine with injustice in the world.” That’s a backdoor to cowardice.
So what is He saying?
The priest had us go out into the woods and spend time praying. My mind wandered to that difficult time in our lives. I opened the closet door, and all those wretched memories poured out. I felt my failure again. My lack. My poverty. My inability to meet the needs of those around me. But I heard one of Jesus’ blessings again, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” And all those bitter moments, all that pain, got transfigured. And I realized that this bracketed time I had wished to forget was actually the most spiritually powerful time in my life. God wasn’t trying to pound me into the ground. He was trying to pry me open to pour in as much blessing as He possibly could. He was bringing me to my knees more often than I had ever done before. He was giving me more love and appreciation for my wife and children than I had ever had. But I wonder if, even more so, through all the prayers and tears, something was going on in the spiritual realm that I won’t find out about until I’m standing before Him in Heaven.
It’s at our moment of deepest poverty that God meets us. Heaven bends down and snatches us up. We come with our poverty of wisdom: “I don’t know what to do.” We come with our poverty of strength: “I’m so tired. I don’t know if I can go on.” We come with our poverty of inadequacy: “Even my best isn’t enough.” We come with our poverty of character: “I commit this sin over and over again.” That’s when the world says we’re cursed, but that is when God says we are blessed. We come to the end of ourselves and it brings us to our knees before God who is more than ready and willing to pick up where we leave off, to fill us where we are empty, to strengthen us where we are weak.
Jesus was a powerful preacher. He could woo the crowds like no one else. The masses followed after Him. He healed everywhere He went. There was so much He could do for people. If He wanted to, He would have been the best earthly king Israel had ever had.
But what was His crowning achievement? When we think about Christ’s greatest moment of victory, we think of the Cross. It was when He was at His weakest, when He was stripped naked and humiliated. It was when His ministry had all but come to a pitiful end. Everyone had either turned against Him or abandoned Him. Everything He did looked like it had not been enough. Israel was still controlled by the Romans. His message had been rejected. And all He had gained for all His efforts was a criminal’s death.
But that isn’t the end of His story, and it’s not the end of yours either. Come to Jesus in your poverty and be made rich. Come to Jesus in your sadness and be comforted. Come to Jesus in your emptiness and be filled. You can’t know now all the good that will come from running to Him. But one thing you can know:
You will be blessed.
(Pic: Roman Bodnarchuk/Shutterstock.com)