This article was created in partnership with InterVarsity Press.
I exhale in deep sighs more often than not anymore.
My son asks what’s wrong and, trying to spare him the fullness of feelings made evident, I mumble something something I’m tired. Seven-year-olds make surprisingly skillful philosophers and, after a particularly mournful respiration, he noted, “It’s life that’s making you tired.”
Crises—plural—ranks among the leading candidates for 2020’s word of the year. We trip through the wires of personal and social adversities all day, every day. Countless anxieties churn within as we feel particular pressures around parenting, work performance, or learning to homeschool on-the-job. The specific aches of loneliness and isolation creep around too-quiet corners. We face an awful set of choices around relating to other people, the simple words who, what, when, where, why, and how weighed down with impossibility.
If we manage to wrap our hearts and heads around these concerns, even for just a moment, they shift shape upon collision with the woes attending disease, racism, and West Coast wildfires.
Once upon a time, we counted on at least one area of life to buoy us. When politics troubled us, we could feel good about our families; when personal matters broke our hearts, we could point to an accomplishment at work. Now it feels like we fail to do a single thing well. Now one set of crises inflames the other.Turning our expectations and environment upside down, the Beatitudes initiate the reversal of our moral and spiritual fortunes.
This year keeps revealing deep fissures in the foundations where we once built assurance. The communion of saints, interrupted by conspiracy theories fellow Christians promote online. Our cloud of witnesses turn their faces from us. Even our textbook teachings on democracy have been ripped to confetti.
By the time I finish typing this sentence, a new crisis will assert itself. We are, as author Jonathan Dodson writes, living in a “state of existential vertigo”; as the late, great Tom Petty put it, we’re free, free fallin’.
Where do we set our feet when the floor in every room of the house crumbles away? Merely reacting to each new crisis leaves us panting for breath. And 2020 proves the thinness of our proactive strategies. To live through this moment of crisis, and brace for the next, requires holding tight to realities we could never dream up, given an infinite supply of monkeys and typewriters. Outlasting and outpacing crises means going backward.
“I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age,” G. K. Chesterton wrote in all his cockeyed wisdom. “Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.”
In his book Our Good Crisis, Dodson clings to the Beatitudes as eternal wisdom, commending Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 as our best chance at survival—and our only hope for flourishing in a world sinking beneath its own weight.
The Beatitudes uniquely recognize that “we are the moral crisis,” as Dodson writes. Before we can participate in remaking a single square foot of the world beyond our front door, we must be remade inside-out. We must find the Beatitudes like baptismal waters, swimming and splashing around in their currents, then stepping out into newness of life.
At first, the Beatitudes don’t look like much—on paper, or in practice. They read like the worst self-help text of all-time, a sure bet to staying in the margins while others prance around in the spotlight.
Except no one’s basking in the light these days. And no one ever really does—not without divine intervention. The dimness of our days finally makes that truth unavoidable.
Turning our expectations and environment upside down, the Beatitudes initiate the reversal of our moral and spiritual fortunes. Their rhythms and reminders change the kind of people we want to be—and the kind of company we wish to keep. They do this, primarily, by drawing us up into the life of Jesus—a God who never conforms, a savior who forever calms the storms within and around us.
Dodson casts vision for our spiritual and social overhaul, “not as a paragon of morality, or the fountain of ethical wisdom, but as a redeemed sinner who is learning to so cherish the Lord of the Beatitudes that moral change happens.”
Isn’t this what we should long for—for ourselves and our world? Rather than reaping the locust-chewed crops of our own understanding, we can dirty our hands at harvest next to a God actively renewing the world.
As Jesus rights everything that’s toppled over, our lives bend toward supernatural peace and an earthy moral sensibility. We return to ourselves and to virtue—not for the sake of being right or hoarding personal blessing, but for the sake of God and neighbor. Dodson writes:
Spiritual hunger creates moral clarity. You begin to enjoy righteousness. You’re seized by the richness of Scripture, the urgency of holiness, and the importance of justice. When you change your diet from values to virtues and hunger and thirst for righteousness, you’ll find your tastes awaken to the sublime presence of God. You become more deeply satisfied than you could have imagined.
Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of the Beatitudes, “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world” (Matthew 5:8 MSG).
Embracing our spiritual poverty recalibrates our view of earthly want. Living in, not skipping past, lament liberates us to comfort a world in perpetual grief. Holding loosely to self-image, we open our hands wide enough to exchange true goods with our neighbors. Craving righteousness, pursuing peace, showing mercy tills the soil for more of the same.
This is the best option on the collective table. The other choice, Dodson reminds us, is to follow our own store-brand Beatitudes, to bend our lives into shapes that resemble the Jesus way but never quite deliver. We will gesture toward rightness, but come up short without his help.
“The religious impulse is easier to rebrand than extinguish,” David Zahl reminds us in his book Seculosity. Zahl illustrates that, divorced from the life-giving framework of Jesus’ words, we will pursue “enoughness,” which is its own form of self-made righteousness.
In contrast, the Beatitudes call us to give up every known method—religious or secular—of transformation, and be changed by the radical presence of Jesus, who never fails to show up in our weakness.
The Beatitudes are a sort of creed, but they also exist as a confession: that we will not flourish without a reversal of the social order. Voiced or practiced, they declare that we are drowning and need Jesus to walk across the water to our rescue. They cry out for a present-tense taste of the new creation; and they plead with God to grant us a thirst that will not be quenched this side of his kingdom come, his will be done.
Dodson sees boundless opportunity in our moment, though not like the ne’er-do-wells who hoarded hand sanitizer. Rather, he provokes crucial questions. How will we be different people because of—and beyond—this crisis? What will the church be known for?
“We can turn the tide, in small and big ways, by demonstrating the goodness of Jesus’ kingdom,” Dodson writes.
Today I fear reaching some illusory “normal,” then looking back only to see the ruins and roadblocks created by God’s people. If society survives despite the church, shame on us.
Imagine instead, a shared and sacrificial ethic, a collection of lives shaped like the Beatitudes. Let us meet the moment and redefine blessing, restate where we find God, and reassure our neighbors that their best interests and ours are bound together. Giving up our rights to be right, and to define ourselves, and leaning into the everlasting arms of Jesus presents the ultimate apologetic and demonstrates boundless possibility for reconciliation and wholeness.
There are many mountains before us. The Beatitudes feel so incremental, so subtle, so unsexy. To live faithfully in crisis will often come with an unsteady feeling. Are we doing this right?
But consider the end of every sentence Jesus utters in Matthew 5. We often stop at “blessing,” failing to qualify and quantify what those blessings are. Add up all the “for theys” and you have a picture of the promised land that will forever be closer than it appears.
Life is making you and me tired. But rest is coming. And until we rest in full, let’s harness our discontent, seize these days and enjoy every opportunity to be remade in the image of the Lord of the Beatitudes.
Jonathan Dodson’s Our Good Crisis, published by InterVarsity Press, is now available.