“This joy that I have, they couldn’t ever take that away in prison.” Even after his long ordeal, Ray Hinton could say this in the radio interview I heard. Through his adversity he experienced a peace which transcended understanding (Philippians 4:7). But this peace didn’t come automatically. Ray acknowledges feeling rage towards those who’d wronged him, and there were also times when he lapsed into despair. In the midst of his storm, Ray had to manage his heart.
As the experts suggest, a first step in developing resilience is learning to value and cultivate positive feelings like gratitude, peace, and hope, while navigating negative ones like bitterness, sadness, and anger. In his Sermon, Jesus gives us tools to do this. He prescribes forgiveness to counter bitterness (Matthew 6:12, 14–15), reconciliation to manage anger (5:21–26), and the basis for developing the empathy we need to relate well (7:12). But perhaps his most significant help in this regard is in combatting despair and worry.
Hope to Counter Despair
Life in the first century could be tough. There was no modern medicine to combat disease or social security to support those too frail to work. Roman authorities used crucifixion on the uncompliant, and inequality ran rampant. It’s into these conditions that Jesus begins his Sermon with these words:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
While the Sermon on the Mount is a speech calling for action (7:24), I believe we misunderstand these opening lines if we turn them into a to-do list. Jesus isn’t saying we must make ourselves poor, sad, submissive, or persecuted to receive the kingdom of heaven. He was showing that, regardless of our circumstances, true wellbeing and happiness can be found in hearts that reflect the values of his kingdom. As he said on another occasion, it’s possible to be blessed despite lacking the material resources or circumstances that may seem necessary for success or happiness (see Luke 6:20–23).
Such teaching would have been unexpected in a religious world that saw material success as a sign of God’s favor. In Jesus’ day you were considered “blessed” for the same reasons you’d be considered blessed today: if you had a good reputation, a model family, if you were popular, pretty, influential, and successful. Those are the kinds of people who get invited to all the parties. But those aren’t the people Jesus blesses.
Jesus begins his Sermon on an astonishing note: his kingdom is open to all, whatever their status—the economically and spiritually impoverished (Matthew 5:3), the grief-stricken and lowly (vv. 4–5), those seeking but denied justice (v. 6), those who’ve shown mercy and lived rightly (vv. 7–8), peacemakers instead of political firebrands (v. 9), those persecuted for doing right and for following Jesus (vv. 10–11). Jesus saw the people rejected by society and offered them his kingdom. Inside that kingdom is comfort, fulfilment, justice, and provision, plus a future share of all he owns.
And this becomes the basis for our hope.
Being mindful, thinking positively, and other techniques might help us nurture hopeful feelings. But true hope needs a reason to believe our future will be different, and that our fortunes will change. This is what the Beatitudes offer. As Ray Hinton said, “There is a man up above who knows.” And that man above has promised that our comfort, justice, and provision is coming.
I once spoke at a conference for Christian aid workers serving in Europe. These missionaries were helping refugees, victims of trafficking, and those left impoverished by economic collapse. “What do the Beatitudes say to those you are serving,” I asked one morning. Their answer came: “That while others have abused, rejected, and exploited them, our God is for them.” I then asked what the Beatitudes said to them as Christian workers. “That there is hope—for those we work with, and also for us.”
Peace to Counter Worry
If the Sermon on the Mount counters despair by offering hope, its next most practical help with emotions is in managing worry. As teenagers we can worry about fitting in. As twenty-somethings we can worry about careers and marriage partners. As adults we can worry about bank loans and our family’s wellbeing. And with advertisers ready to exploit such fears to sell their wares, our sense of worry can be constantly stoked.
In his Sermon Jesus gives two reasons to unlearn the pervasive habit of worry. One is practical: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” he asks (Matthew 6:27). No. So, “Do not worry about tomorrow. . . . Each day has enough trouble of its own” (v. 34). Give up on a strategy that just doesn’t work.
His second reason is theological: to worry is to forget God’s activity in our lives. To make his point, Jesus leads us through a guided meditation on the natural world. Instead of worrying about our needs, he says:
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:25–26, 29–30).
Watch the wrens and the sparrows; see how God “feeds” them. Look how beautifully “dressed” the fields are with their daisies and dandelions. Look—God is active right now, providing for creation. He is active in your life too. He will look after you.
It can be helpful to follow Jesus’ advice literally here. How about setting aside time this week for an unhurried walk in nature? You could set out slowly, feeling each footstep on the path, relaxing your body by breathing slowly and deeply. Then you could intentionally start noticing your surroundings—the sun and its warmth on your skin, the breeze and its gentle touch on your face, the rustling leaves, the birdsongs. Watch creation flourish without you doing a thing. Then bring whatever it is that’s vexing you to God, confident that…
…your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31–33).
Jesus helps us manage the hopes, cries, and worries of the heart. And a healthy heart is our first step towards finding strength.