Five Pernicious Lies the Beatitudes Correct
An interview with author Chris Castaldo about The Upside Down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes
In his recent book, The Upside Down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes, author Chris Castaldo examines the counterintuitive promises of Jesus in Matthew 5:2-12. In his introduction, Dr. Castaldo explains that “By excavating the attachments of our soul, the Beatitudes reveal the pernicious lies we have internalized while simultaneously portraying the life God intends for his people.” [i]
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Castaldo about his new book and asked him to identify some of the lies that the Beatitudes reveal and correct. The following is an edited form of our conversation:
Lie #1 God’s Blessing is Found on the Mountain Top of Achievement and Success:
The first lie that occurred to me is that we think God’s blessing is found in our achievement and success. For instance, I describe the town where I serve, Naperville, IL, as the “Achieveatron.” It’s an affluent community where people start preparing their children for the SAT at age six, and every little league practice is to prepare them to make the Cubs roster. Super driven. That’s how our culture measures success and how religious people often define God’s blessing.
Jesus, by contrast, teaches that it comes by walking humbly with him. It’s a relationship, not an accomplishment. That’s the idea of poverty of spirit. Rather than ascending upward in consummate victory (a theology of glory), we follow Jesus’ trajectory of humility described in Philippians 2:5-8, “have this attitude in yourself was also in Christ Jesus, although he existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God, something to be exploited, humbled himself to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
This is particularly applicable to pastors. There are expectations that we put upon ourselves, and sometimes, the church imposes them. And social media doesn’t help because we have an idea of what a successful ministry is. The world’s definition of success is the parody of which Jesus’ counterintuitive kingdom is the reality.
In short, the Beatitudes liberate us from the lie that we have to be “big;” we have to be recognized as significant. Certainly, we want to see people come to Jesus. We want to see the tangible development of righteousness in our communities. We want people to grow. We want to see our communities enriched, as with salt and light. All of that matters. We’re not disinterested, but the center of gravity can’t be on the outcome. It must be on the calling. Are we faithful to Christ? Indeed, we labor and strive to see the gospel advance. That’s our hope, our prayer, our burden; but we seldom have control over outcomes. The Beatitudes provide the proper measurement of our faithfulness in ministry.
Lie #2 Power takes control of life
The second lie we believe, even as Christians, is that power takes control of life. Every Marvel movie is predicated on this assumption. We assert ourselves, we’re aggressive, we dominate, and that’s what power looks like.
Kingdom power, however, teaches what some have called a “dominion of dependence,” relinquishing control in reliance upon divine power. And the supreme example of this is, of course, the Cross, where Jesus gave his life, but in so doing, he won the ultimate victory, disarming principalities and powers. This is the essence of meekness.
As a pastor, this comes to mind when I see congregants saying yes to sin and no to righteousness. This is what happens when we’re captivated by worldliness. Worldliness, said David Wells, is “anything in culture that makes sin look normal and righteousness looks strange.” I think of a particular couple. He had a pornography addiction, abused alcohol, and then the wife, out of frustration, made poor decisions that further endangered their marriage. Bad decisions went from bad to worse. They have beautiful kids. It’s a tragic mess.
My temptation is to step into a meeting with them and hit them between the eyes. Now, this is where meekness is needed, what the Bible describes elsewhere describes as “grace and truth” (John 1:14). It can’t be one or the other. It’s not a zero-sum game. It is righteousness, so I need to tell them you have sinned, but the way I say it needs to be full of mercy and tender compassion. Practically, I’m asking questions, and I’m helping that person to recognize the mercy of God within the truth. You’ve blown it. It’s tragic. There is wreckage everywhere now, but there’s still hope. There’s still the steadfast love of the Lord. Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones can be enlivened today. It’s noteworthy that the fifth Beatitude (mercy) comes directly after Jesus’ statement on justice. They mutually enforce one another. Our calling is to honestly express what is just and true, and do so full or mercy and redemptive hope.
Lie #3 God wants us perennially happy
You can almost hear the Lego theme song, “Everything is Awesome,” playing in the background in contemporary church life. The desire for positivity, I’m afraid, has thoroughly infiltrated the church.
To be sure, joy is a precious gift, as Paul describes in Philippians. But Jesus also teaches that those who mourn are blessed. In other words, those who are honest about the fact that life is hard and painful and circumstances are often beyond our control. That statement should lead us to be honest about our suffering, to be realists. Instead of binge-watching Netflix to distract ourselves or numb the pain, we embrace God’s promises and look heavenward in faith. Jesus is saying, bring your pain to me. Blessed are those who mourn; they will be comforted.
We tend to view flourishing as an experience of happiness, joy, and freedom from suffering. You’re walking above the water. We love that image of Jesus walking above the water. That’s what we want, and in this entertainment-driven culture, it’s just natural for us to think that way and then add to it the positive thinking impulse of popular Christianity. The legacy of Norman Vincent Peale has influenced so much of the church today. We listen to positive, encouraging Christian radio. Conversely, the Beatitudes remind us that “Jesus wept.” We encounter Christ together in those places where we enter into one another’s suffering. I had dinner last night with a friend. I learned that his daughter has had a hard marriage. Her husband hasn’t been faithful. I knew this girl when she was 11 years old. Now she’s a married woman. My heart broke. We cry together. Those are the places where we find Christ, but it’s not just sorrow. Amid our sorrow, we also find something of Christ’s resurrection power and hope at the same time.
Lie #4 We manifest the kingdom by aggressively asserting truth
That’s what we sometimes believe. Like Constantine who defeated Maxentius with an outstretched sword, it is a muscular Christianity. Over against that aggressive and domineering approach, however, Jesus teaches that we are to display his kingdom by faithfully taking up our Cross. This is the central idea of peacemaking. It’s born of sacrifice. Jesus made peace between God and man by giving himself. And he established peace between Jew and Gentile in the same way.
Likewise, if we are to realize peace, it will require sacrifice. We must present ourselves to God in the same manner—as a living sacrifice—taking to heart what Paul says: “I’ve been crucified with Christ.” That’s the only way this world is going to see Shalom. So yes, let’s speak the truth. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. We must care about justice. This is important to say. We’re not to retreat from the issues of the day that cry out for attention, but we do it in a distinctively Christian way, in a way that embodies the Prince of Peace.
Lie #5 The Beatitudinal blessings are strictly in the future.
And then the fifth error that occurred to me is that beatitudinal blessings are strictly in the future. We sometimes think this way because most of the Beatitudes are cast in the future tense. “Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted.” “Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the earth.” But of course, the first and the last of these statements are in the present tense. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom. Blessed are those who are persecuted, theirs is the kingdom.” So, we see the already/not yet. The day is coming when these gifts will be fully imparted to us—on that great day. We look forward to it in hope. In the meantime, the Lord has given his Spirit who mediates these truths right now in the present. Of course, it doesn’t emerge from the resources of our own strength and creativity. It comes from above. Not just in the future, but here and now. On earth as it is in heaven.
The calibrating effect of the Beatitudes:
Pastoral ministry has been described as the art of disappointing people at a rate they can absorb. And over these last few years, the absorption rate has been thin. Many have been kicked in the proverbial teeth. The Beatitudes remind us that our calling is to be faithful. It’s not the size of our church, it’s not the popularity of our platform, it’s not the affirmation we might receive in the narthex shaking hands with people after our sermon. We appreciate all that. But it is a relationship with the living God, according to this counterintuitive movement. So, if we as church leaders can take this truth to heart—that blessing is found in poverty of spirit, in meekness, in mourning, and in persecution—we will have the requisite vision and the moral clarity we need. We will avoid many of the distractions and temptations that pull us away from a gospel-centered ministry. In this way, the Beatitudes have a calibrating effect upon us.
Ultimately, all the Beatitudes are fulfilled in Jesus. Therefore, if we want to understand what our calling and our identity is to look like, we must look to the person of Jesus. He is the telos, the end, the goal of the Beatitudes. They take us by the hand, lead us to Jesus, and remind us of life’s purpose. It’s where you experience joy because when you’re meek, you’re walking with Christ. When you’re poor in spirit, you’re poor with Christ. When you’re suffering, you’re crucified with Christ. When you’re persecuted—in the cruciform places—it’s in Christ. And in that sense, the Beatitudes lead toward a deeper realization of Jesus, which is their ultimate purpose.
Finally, I’d say is that it’s not simply in the life of Jesus that we find the fulfillment of the Beatitudes, but also in his death. For example, on the cross, there was no mercy for Jesus. As Philip Bliss put it, “In our place condemned his stood.” While hanging between heaven and earth, Jesus cried out, “I thirst.” And even though he beheld God with perfect clarity (remember the pure in heart will see God) Jesus exclaimed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So, even in his death, deprived of these various blessings, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Beatitudes. Hallelujah! What a Savior.
I want to thank Dr. Castaldo for taking the time to discuss his book The Upside Down Kingdom published by Crossway and would encourage all readers to get a copy of this book to be reminded of our identity and calling in Christ, and to experience the joyful vision the Beatitudes.
[i] Chris Castaldo, The Upside down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes (Crossway, 2023), 3.