The Counterintuitive Path to Blessing

You Are Invited

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), we sometimes imagine the kingdom to be far away. It is, however, closer than we think. In the crucified and risen King, the two realms now overlap—a holy ground that is simultaneously mundane and heavenly, temporal and eternal.

Jesus’s Beatitudes are concerned with cultivating this kingdom life, though perhaps not in the way we would expect. For many, the Beatitudes are thought to increase our happiness by imparting blessings—at least that’s the impression our Israeli tour guide gave us. Facing the shimmering Sea of Galilee, she portrayed the rabbi from Nazareth on a grassy slope, holding forth in a flowing violet robe, encircled by attentive disciples. “Here, Jesus offered the secrets to living a happy life,” she explained.1

The Upside Down Kingdom

Chris Castaldo

The Upside Down Kingdom examines how living according to Jesus’s Beatitudes can cultivate God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, bringing peace and blessing to our broken world.

Unfortunately, the gently blended lines of this portrait easily obscure the stark, counterintuitive thrust of Christ’s kingdom. Our guide’s pastel-colored depiction may offer comfort, but it’s not where we live. Many of us labor under nagging concern or our children, encroaching loneliness, financial disaster, and creeping old age. We are haunted by the past and afraid of the future. We are troubled over the brokenness in our communities. Scammers prey on the elderly and walk away laughing. Victims of abuse wrestle with heartache and bitterness. In our world, naked with lust and greed, people often grab whatever they can get. And just when we start to feel morally superior to those wretches “out there,” we find uncomfortable traces of this evil in ourselves. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn bluntly observed, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”2

In this familiar cauldron of life and death, of struggle and strain, how does one experience the peace of God’s kingdom? The Hebrew word for peace is of course “shalom.” It describes life as God intended, the long-awaited age in which his manifest glory would set the world right, making crooked places straight and rough places smooth. Weeping would become joy, mountains would drip with fresh wine, and deserts would flourish with life. In the words of Cornelius Plantinga Jr.,

People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder upon wonder; all humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God, and delight in God.3

This is the vision of the Beatitudes—a vision that invites us from the shadows of alienation into the purpose and joy of Christ’s kingdom. But, as we shall see, this blessedness is both counterintuitive and countercultural.4 The Beatitudes pour gasoline on our contemporary ideals—and then light a match. To satisfy our hunger for wealth, Jesus offers poverty. He extols meekness over hostility. Rather than personal pleasure and fame, he proposes patience and a commitment to justice. Instead of lust and greed, he commends purity of heart. For the soul riddled with anxiety and fear, he offers peace. Rather than vanity and pride, he bestows security and inner strength. The Beatitudes dig beneath the surface, exposing what we really need to value and practice. Servais Pinckaers suggests that we can compare the work of the Beatitudes to that of a plow in the fields. “Drawn along with determination,” he writes, “it drives the sharp edge of the plowshare into the earth and carves out, as the poets say, a deep wound, a broad furrow.”5 This blessed furrow uproots the weeds of our pride and perversion, renewing the soil of our souls, a renewal in which the eternal fruit of God’s kingdom burgeons with life.

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. In them Jesus is not, as many suppose, offering a religious ladder that can be climbed all the way up to a smiling Deity who rewards our religious effort. Nor is he giving an ideal moral system reserved for an elite group of chosen disciples, or laying out a penitential program whereby one receives divine blessing by assuming the posture of a doormat.

Rather, Jesus is describing the man or woman who belongs to his Father’s kingdom and therefore lives according to God’s heart. These blessed ones lived in the “shadow of death,” but now “a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:16), a divine illumination that offers a new logic. In this fallen world, it’s the wealthy, the charming, and the strong who are exalted. But Jesus shows us that God’s heart—full of steadfast love and faithfulness—extends to the weak, the vulnerable, and the awkward. Throughout his parables, Jesus makes the marginalized and oppressed the heroes, an ironic and unexpected turn that explodes like fireworks throughout his teaching. He preached:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:3–12)6

Our Counterintuitive Calling

The Greek word rendered “blessed” (makarios) is rich in meaning. There is no single term in English that conveys its complexity, beauty, and nuance.7 Some suggest the word “fortunate” best conveys the idea because it describes a valuable gift that cannot be earned.8 Others have translated makarios as “happy.” Augustine, for example, takes this approach, identifying happiness as the goal and outcome of a righteous life, a gift that one enjoys in communion with Christ.9 But however sure the link between happiness and holiness, this understanding must be supplemented by the full-orbed, biblical conception of blessedness offered to us in the Beatitudes.

The fleeting nature of worldly happiness, after all, is not sturdy enough to sustain the eternal weight of glory to which Jesus points us. “Happiness,” wrote William Bennett, “is like a cat. If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you: it will never come.”10 Nevertheless, it’s still commonplace to hear Christians promoting “Be-Happy Attitudes,” as Robert Schuller used to say.11 In his book by that title, Schuller offers motivational insights to fortify the church with cheerfulness. For instance, he paraphrases the blessing upon mourners with the affirmation, “I’m really hurting—but I’m going to bounce back!”12 The message of positive thinking is clear: the right attitude and sufficient effort will produce the happiness we desire.

The fleeting nature of worldly happiness, after all, is not sturdy enough to sustain the eternal weight of glory to which Jesus points us.

Life in the kingdom, though, is not about striving for happiness or avoiding the ills of human existence. It’s about receiving and finding. It’s about recognizing and living into God’s promises, even amid the pain and suffering of life (Eph. 1:3; James 1:17). “Blessed” is therefore not an achievement, attitude, or a subjective emotion; it is the tangible gift of God’s loving embrace, an identity in Christ that experiences life as it ought to be—“as in heaven.”

God’s blessing, however, goes even further. In addition to saving our own souls, the Beatitudes set forth the clearly demarcated way of righteousness in the world. Thus, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) started a seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, it was modeled on the Sermon on the Mount.13 Fiercely opposed to Hitler,

Bonhoeffer and his colleagues employed the Beatitudes to confront the Nazi’s devilish propaganda and influence. Here is how Craig Slane explains it:

Bonhoeffer believed that it was possible for a community gathered on the basis of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to provide the necessary ground for resistance against tyranny. The practices of dying to one’s self in confession, meditation, and intercession produced openness to others and forged the kind of solidarity required for moral risk-taking.14

Like Bonhoeffer, we must put Jesus’s message into the foreground. We must stress, as he did, that the only place on earth where one finds this beatitudinal life “is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found—on the cross at Golgotha.”15 The wealthy, charming, and strong, as it turns out, may become the greatest tragedies of all because they rely on their natural gifts. But people who lack such advantages, or those who are courageous enough to confess their need for God, are poised to receive his blessing.

The Beatitudes, therefore, answer the essential questions of identity and calling by placing squarely before us a counterintuitive kingdom that inexorably aligns our affections and priorities with the rhythms of heaven. Here we find the “blessed” life that God intends for his people—not just in the future, but here and now.


  1. Throughout this book, I have included quotations from my own experience. Quotations without specific cited sources are in this category.
  2. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 168.
  3. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 10.
  4. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this culture clash is indeed strong, for it distinguishes the kingdom of God from the kingdom of this world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 2018), 108.
  5. Servais Pinckaers, The Pursuit of Happiness—God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes, trans. Mary Thomas Noble (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 36.
  6. This study considers Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes instead of Luke’s abbreviated account largely because Matthew’s is longer and more comprehensive. It also has a particular resonance with this contemporary moment, inasmuch as he stresses the ethical dimension of the kingdom, by presenting a vision of the Christian life that seeks to avoid cheap grace. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 1:172.
  7. Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 41.
  8. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996), 183–84. This gloss is also upheld by Jonathan T. Pennington. According to Leiva-Merikakis, the ancient Greeks considered the gods to be fortunate “since they were immortal and hence free from the sorrow of our mortal life” (184). They were thought to possess a quality of wealth, power, and freedom that many ancients dreamed of. To obtain these advantages was to be considered makarios—blessed and fortunate, reflecting the perceived glory of pagan deities. Christ, however, turns the whole project on its head.
  9. Augustine’s work is titled Of the Morals of the Catholic Church (Savage, MN: Lighthouse, 2017), 21. Following a similar line of thought, Carl Henry helpfully explains how the “ethic of Eden and the ethic of Sinai and the ethic of the Mount of Beatitudes” hang together as one ethic. Carl F. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 290.
  10. Robert Schuller, The Be (Happy) Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your Life(Toronto: Bantam Books, 1987).
  11. Schuller, Be (Happy) Attitudes, 8, 45.
  12. The Confessing Church was a movement of Christians who resisted Hitler’s attempt to unify Protestantism into a single, pro-Nazi church.
  13. Craig J. Slane, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004), 239.
  14. Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 113–14.

This article is adapted from The Upside Down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes by Chris Castaldo.

Related Articles

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at