According to the dictionary, the word blessed means “enjoying happiness,” “enjoying the bliss of heaven,” “bringing pleasure or contentment.” Yet there is an apparent contradiction between the blessings we seek in today’s success-oriented world and the blessings the Savior refers to in the Beatitudes, which open the great Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are the meek? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst? Blessed are those who are persecuted? These are startling, attention-grabbing contradictions.
The Beatitudes are not quiet philosophical stars in a summer night. Rather, they are lightning bolts and thunderclaps of spiritual surprise! Let us review them as a list of Christlike attributes that we should each seek to develop.
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3.) We all agree that being poor economically is not usually a desired blessing, but here the Savior refers to humility and subjecting oneself to the Lord in all things. As the Savior pointed out to the Nephites, it is “the poor in Spirit who come unto me” who receive the kingdom of heaven. (3 Ne. 12:3; italics added.)
One of the most powerful scriptures on this attitude is from Mosiah 3:19, where King Benjamin declares that a person must become “a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”
President Hugh B. Brown remembered a lovely currant bush in his yard that he had carefully trimmed to be attractive and to produce the best fruit.
One day, noticing that it had started to branch out again, he reached for the pruning shears. As he approached the currant bush, he imagined it to say, “Oh, please don’t cut me back. I’m just getting started, and I want to be big like the shade trees.”
He imagined his response to be: “No, my little bush. I am the gardener here. I have planted you to be a source of fruit and an adornment in this part of my garden, and I am going to prune you back to size.”
Many years later, as a colonel in the Canadian forces during World War I, Hugh Brown hoped for an illustrious military career. The next promotion to general should have been his, but when the vacancy occurred, his superiors told him, “We are promoting someone else.”
He retired to his quarters, crushed with disappointment, and knelt in prayer, asking fervently: “Heavenly Father, why couldn’t my prayers have been answered? Haven’t I lived up to my covenants? Haven’t I done everything I was supposed to do? Why? Why?”
And then he seemed to hear a voice, an echo from the past, saying, “I am the gardener here. You were not intended for what you sought to be.” Humbled, Hugh Brown then prayed for patience to endure the pruning and to grow as the Lord would have him grow.
2. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Matt. 5:4.) Of all the Beatitudes, this one appears at first glance to be the most unusual and contradictory. How can it be a blessing to be in mourning? To mourn is to show grief or pain at the death of a loved one. This intense feeling cannot be hidden from the world or from God; it cannot be eased or pacified except with comfort and consolation from God through the Holy Ghost.
So why would the Savior say that it is a blessing to mourn? It may be that pain and suffering at the death of loved ones is an essential part of our mortal experience that obliges us to face the question of the reality of the spirit world and the hope of the Resurrection. It is through suffering that we discover what is eternally important.
It might be that it is a blessing for us to become more fully aware that God’s ways are not always our ways, and that we must trust him when things don’t go as we believe they should. When we can see the Lord’s purposes fulfilled in our sorrowful moments, the Holy Ghost can console us and the Atonement and Resurrection can become the cornerstones of our faith. Again, both the Joseph Smith Translation and the Book of Mormon accounts indicate that the mourner is truly blessed only if he comes unto Christ.
3. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:5.) We don’t usually think of successful executives as meek; nor can we accept the idea of a “meek,” successful quarterback on a winning football team. In fact, to us, success in anything seems to involve quite the opposite. In the minds of many, meek means being submissive, passive, retiring, placid. Their mental image of a meek person is that of a compliant “doormat” who is so timid and unassertive that he accomplishes nothing, seeks nothing, and contributes nothing to the world in which he lives.
Is this really what the Savior had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the meek”? The Spanish language offers another, better interpretation of the word meek.
I was visiting a 100,000-acre ranch in Argentina, where more than a thousand head of beautiful horses were being raised. Some were for the gauchos, or cowboys, to ride; but most were thoroughbred polo ponies, trained and sold to people throughout the world.
I asked the owner of the ranch if we could see a rodeo where the gauchos “broke” wild horses as our Western cowboys do.
He was aghast. “Not on this ranch, you won’t,” was his emphatic answer. “Although a polo pony has to be obedient, lightning fast, fearless, and superbly maneuverable, we would never ‘break’ a horse—we don’t want to break his spirit. We love our horses and work patiently with them until they are meek, or manso. Our manso horses are still full of fire and spirit, but they are obedient and well trained.”
I can see a great spiritual application to the meaning of manso. The Savior didn’t mean for us to be “doormats”—he meant that we should be obedient and well trained. We can be strong, enthusiastic, talented, spirited, zealous, and still be “meek”—able to coexist in the success-oriented world in which we live.
4. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (Matt. 5:6.) The Joseph Smith Translation and the Book of Mormon accounts of this beatitude end with the phrase “with the Holy Ghost.”
How many of us strive for higher spiritual levels as though we hungered and thirsted for them? To hunger and thirst for something involves strife, struggles, work, and sacrifice. As a young man, my father-in-law crossed a sixty-mile strip of desert on horseback with no water. He had planned to meet a wagon train midway to replenish his water supply, but the train was delayed.
His dog died, his horse keeled over, his tongue was swollen, his throat was parched, and he thought he was going to die. He survived, but as he tells his story, I can feel his intense, agonizing desperation for moisture.
The highest blessings of the gospel are not for the fainthearted, coolly rational, theoretical philosopher, nor for the intellectually curious. Those blessings are for those stouthearted souls who hunger and thirst for greater personal righteousness.
One need not have reached spiritual perfection or sainthood to receive the blessings promised in this Beatitude. If we develop a sincere hunger and thirst, the door to higher stairs will be opened, and we can then climb them.
The blessings are immeasurable. Remember the woman of Samaria at the well? The Savior told her—and it applies to all of us—that “whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14.) Jesus also said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35.)
The pathway to perfection is long and narrow, but each step brings rewards and hope of even greater things to come.
5. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Matt. 5:7.) When we think of mercy, we usually think of the relationship between justice and mercy. We all want the Lord to judge us with mercy. The Old Testament is full of references to the mercy we hope God will show toward us, both now and at the day of judgment.
But in the Beatitudes, the Savior talks about our showing mercy in order to obtain mercy from God. The principle here is that we will be judged with the same measure that we apply to others.
The king forgave the head servant who owed him ten thousand talents, but that same servant would not forgive his fellow servant who owed him only one hundred pence. The king, upon finding this out, declared:
“O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
“Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?” (Matt. 18:32–33.)
The quality of mercy tempers the strict, severe sentence with compassion and an understanding of extenuating circumstances. The infinite mercy of God cancels any punishment if the person repents, asks for forgiveness, and promises to follow Christ. God’s mercy comes from his unlimited and unconditional love for us.
Likewise, we should show mercy to others because of our unlimited and unconditional love for them. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, loves us—not because we deserve it, but because we are his brothers and sisters and he has sacrificed for us. Our parents love us—not because we deserve it, but because they have sacrificed for us.
The more we sacrifice for others, the more we love them and forgive them their weaknesses, and the greater our tendency to extend mercy to them. When we don’t love our family members or friends, we may think it is because they have not earned our love. But it is the other way around! If we do not love someone as much as we should, it is because we have not yet sacrificed enough for that person. That is why homes “blessed” with a parent suffering from an incurable disease or with a handicapped child are so full of love.
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” (John 3:16.) Jesus so loved the world that he gave his life for us and suffered for our sins. Oh, what love! Oh, what mercy! Can we not find the way to be merciful to all those about us?
6. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8.) To really understand this Beatitude, we need to know what is meant by “pure in heart” and by “seeing” God.
Limpios, the Spanish term for “pure in heart,” is translated “clean of heart.” It refers to ceremonial cleanliness, such as the emotions felt after baptism or temple ordinances. Other interpretations refer to being clean of guilt, clean of bad habits, and clean of pollution.
The English definition of the word pure has a definite moral and spiritual tone that implies integrity, innocence, and righteousness.
One of the strongest interpretations of being pure in heart has to do with sexual purity. We are told to “let virtue garnish [our] thoughts unceasingly.” (D&C 121:45.)
Sexual impurity is rampant in today’s world. It first attacks thoughts, then words, then actions. For this reason the Lord and his servants warn us often and strenuously against pornographic material. No one can be clean and pure and be involved with such staining, tarnishing, corrosive, degenerating influences.
This Beatitude probably requires more self-examination than any other. To be pure, a person’s heart must be sincere and untainted by ulterior motives, conflicts of interest, or spiritually degrading influences.
The second part of this Beatitude is the statement “for they shall see God.” We are all aware of similar promises in the scriptures, and we believe that each of us can have his own dreams, visions, and manifestations.
It makes little difference whether the “seeing” is physical or spiritual. The important part is that we commit ourselves to a course of purification that will lead us to God, remembering always that, after we have done all we can do, Christ is really the one who, through his atoning sacrifice, makes us clean before our Heavenly Father.
7. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matt. 5:9.) In Spanish, this Beatitude says, “Blessed are they who seek peace” (italics added). The English translation implies more action in the word: the person is making peace in the Church, home, office, classroom, neighborhood, government.
In this Beatitude, those who are blessed are not particularly those who love peace, but rather those who seek peace and who produce peace. The blessed ones are those who are the “doers of the word,” not just passive listeners. (James 1:22.)
Two of my daughters studied in Israel with Brigham Young University’s Study Abroad program. In every letter they wrote, they used the word Shalom. I understood from them that Shalom, or its English translation, peace, has two principal meanings. The first is a greeting in which one wishes that the person addressed may enjoy happiness and tranquility. The second is a term describing friendship and constant goodwill between two people.
The term peace is used almost one hundred times in the New Testament and seems always to be closely identified with Christ as the Prince of Peace. The Savior had no material wealth to give to others, but he frequently gave them blessings of peace.
We long for peace as we look upon this war-torn world with its open strife, terrorism, and tension between nations. We honor statesmen and diplomats who are peacemakers. But the Savior was not talking about peace between nations achieved after a military victory or even bilateral agreements worked out by the leaders of two nations. Rather, he referred to the peace that comes to a person’s heart when he or she lives the commandments; comes unto Christ with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, repenting and exercising faith; enters into the waters of baptism; and receives the peaceful comforting spirit of the Holy Ghost.
Many homes are torn by strife and tension between husband and wife, between parents and rebellious children, between siblings. Blessed is that person who comes to find—through praying, counseling, reading from the best books, changing personally, and sacrificing—the ways that he or she can contribute to peace in the home.
8. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:10.) This Beatitude is often referred to as the blessing of the martyrs. In the days of the New Testament, the words witness and martyr were virtually synonymous. Bearing testimony has always brought persecution. Stephen could have continued preaching, like many pagans did, as a kind of “entertainer” in the central squares. But he looked up into heaven and bore his testimony:
“I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
“Then [the people] cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
“And cast him out of the city, and stoned him.” (Acts 7:56–58.)
Joseph Smith was not murdered primarily for political or economic reasons, but rather for bearing testimony that he had seen the Father and the Son:
“I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17.)
The Savior was not crucified for giving the Sermon on the Mount or for walking on water or healing the sick. Ultimately, he was condemned to death for testifying that he was the Son of God, the Messiah for whom all Israel had been waiting.
“Again the high priest asked him, … Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?
“And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
“Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses?
“Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.” (Mark 14:61–64.)
Why? Because he testified of the truth!
It is inevitable that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints find themselves looked upon with suspicion by many today. The prophets have said that in the last days persecution will come again. But we have the assurance that persecution will not destroy the Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith has reassured us:
“The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” (History of the Church, 4:540.)
The Beatitudes give us the formula for coming unto Christ. We can use them as a foundation as we seek for a Christ-centered life.