The Beatitudes Encourages Christians to Grow from Childlike Inclinations
Even those with a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity have heard of the Sermon on the Mount commonly known as the Beatitudes. The lofty encouragement to become holy, is for most, an unattainable goal. How can anybody but a saint achieve the blessedness Jesus calls for? Before throwing in the towel too early, blessedness is a willingness to grow from self-interest alone, to willingly enlarge one’s life by including the real care and concern of our neighbor. To help us better understand the principle, I suggest we tap on a nonreligious source to explain moral growth.
Any person who has the advantage of a liberal education should have been exposed to Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg was a professor for many years at Harvard and became known for his developmental theory proposing people progress in their moral reasoning and ethical behavior through a series of stages. He believed that individuals could only become proficient one stage at a time, from the simple moral motivators to the more complex. That is to say, they could not “jump” from a lower stage to a higher one without becoming proficient in all levels in succession.
Kohlberg’s moral development model was divided into six distinct stages. The first and second, mostly seen with younger children (although some physical adults are still stuck in this phase) is the reward-punishment phase dictated by an authority figure of some kind. Stages 3 and 4 are characterized by an attitude which seeks to do what will gain the approval of others and/or act under the pressure of some perceived obligation. The final two, and most advanced levels, of moral development have to do with the genuine interest and welfare of other persons.
Whether or not you totally agree with Kohlberg’s theory, the common understanding of human maturation means a person becomes less interested in self alone, and expands his horizons to include to some degree, the care for the needs of others. This is of course the foundation behind parenting or a person’s willingness to become the care giver for an aging or sick parent. It proves the growth of the moral life must include the needs of others.
The level of maturation needed for the fullness of human life expressed through the Beatitudes are the focus today. Lots of people find the Beatitudes not only unattainable but also confusing because they are not precisely the “black and white” commands we have been accustomed to follow. In fact, they are not commands at all, rather they are what the upward trajectory of human development in the spiritual life looks like. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. . . . Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
The Beatitudes have often been contrasted with the Ten Commandments. Indeed, there are similarities between the two: First, Moses ascended the mountain to receive the word of God, and to bring the laws of God to his people. So too, did Jesus ascend the mountain, not to receive the word of God, for he himself was the Word, but to deliver words encouraging his disciples to go past only observing the letter of the law but to live the spirit of the law by motivating the heart to love of God and neighbor “just because” they are deserving of our love.
Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes raises the bar, if you will, by indicating that the way of our spiritual journey must progress past the rudimentary level of reward (heaven) and punishment (hell) by acquiring the characteristics of holy people: poor in spirit; meekness; hungering for righteousness; mercy; clean of heart; peacemakers; and, those who are persecuted for the truth. These types are the blessed and very much attainable, if you desire to grow into spiritual adulthood.
“Blessed” is the English translation for a Greek word that originally described the gods, the blessed ones. Jesus is trying to describe for us what it is like to live as God-like. He wants us to imagine what it is to share in the divine life, what it is to be full of grace. If our life reflects the Beatitudes, we live like God, contrary to our childlike natural inclinations of living for ourselves alone. Just like the moral development theory, no one is born with the will to care for others wellbeing, it takes time to mature and change.
The Beatitudes are the fuller expression of human fulfillment by showing those who have transcended themselves to include the care of others are the blessed. The Beatitudes are attainable if only you don’t throw in the towel too quickly. Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes can be summed up by encouraging all of us to finally grow past our childlike ways and wishes and become blessed; to become saints.