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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology

Religious Views

Religion as a social phenomenon emerges from the human tendency to explain the unexplainable and summon power greater than self or a person’s immediate social network. Most world religions view tears as a sign of personal surrender and summoning of power greater than self. For this reason, it seems reasonable to assume secularization under Modernity, which exalts personal power and denies any higher power, drives much repression of tears and mourning rituals. Tears, however, serve as a universal human expression and the benefits of the expression diminish when repressed. Secular humanism in its view of humanity as the highest form of existence leaves society weak through its denial of any power able to transcend its pain. Patton and Hawley observe,  “Often tears seem an expression of surrender before the inexorable, but myth and tradition repeatedly point in the opposite direction, stressing the view that weeping can actually transform what had seemed fixed forever.”[vii] Tears point firmly to the unexplainable and transcendent. They acknowledge ambiguity. Humans desiring to exalt humanity to godlike status would reasonable repress tears. Herbert W. Basser writes, “The mystery of crying is that through tears the outside world and the interior worlds merge deep inside the human spirit. That is why tears are the medium of a theology that must remain unspoken. To explain tears is to explain them away.”[viii] God acknowledges the unexplainable and finite nature of life and gifts humans with tears to express their finitude and anxiety.

Tears in Hebrew Tradition

To the Jewish mind, humans cry as a sacrifice to God.

Hebrew concepts of tears divide into two concepts: weeping as an uncontrollable behavior and crying as a behavior resulting from many causes including controlled response to an external stimulus.[ix] To the Jewish mind, humans cry as a sacrifice to God. God stores a person’s tears in order to resurrect the mourner along with his or her righteous tears.[x] Tears relate to worship. The notes of the shofar used to summon Jews to worship mimic the sounds of weeping.[xi]

Hebrew worship centered on the temple. After the destruction of the temple, tears replaced temple sacrifice as an expression of worship. Jewish pilgrims at the modern Wailing Wall provide an example. Post-temple worship involves God joining the worshipper in tears rather than temple ritual. Basser observes, “While tears signal exile and destruction, they have come to replace that for which they mourn. The substitution of the sacrificial system by tears is a very important theme.”[xii] Unexplainable loss and sorrow form a core concept in Jewish religion that acknowledges the ambiguities of life in light of God’s yet unfulfilled promises. Nancy Van Dyke Platt and Chilton R. Knudsen observe,

In Jewish practices of spirituality, even in the happiest moments of life, there is a reminder of sorrow and pain: “We were slaves in a foreign land.” Rituals such as the crushing of a glass at a wedding remind us of the pain and suffering of life. Christians say the same thing as they hold crucifixion in tension with resurrection, and in the traditional marriage vows with addition of the words, “for better or worse” and “until death do us part.”[xiii]

Expressions of grief and loss appear throughout Jewish practice.

Tears in Other Religious Traditions

In Buddhist practice tears signal spiritual enlightenment. Gary L. Ebersole observes, “Some tears lead to deep religious understanding, some marked the person shedding them as having achieved a specific spiritual state, and still others functioned as signs of spiritual indebtedness to another person or of another karmic connection.”[xiv] To the Buddhist, tears fulfill the core needs of reaching for the transcendent and for social support. Tears themselves indicate transcendental enlightened experience.

In Greek tradition platonic dualism creates sharp distinctions between ideals and experienced reality. Tears function as a bridge between the ideal world of the gods and human life. Gary Ord Pollock Lynch states that tears in Greek tradition  “cross the boundaries between the visible and invisible worlds and make possible the contact between the living and the dead.”[xv] Human emotion, especially grief, transcends the unexplainable and acknowledges that things are not as they should be. Tears acknowledge human weakness and point to the perfect forms in Greek ideology.

Kay Almere Read observes the tribal traditions of the Mexica Indians. They viewed tears as “honorable or good speech” able to call forth good things by moving the deities to assist the crier if crying was done properly.[xvi] Tears provided a powerful expression of worship that summoned the assistance of the gods. The crier sacrificed before the gods and the gods empowered the crier through the sacrificial expression of weakness.

The Gopī Krishna tradition in India provides a view of religious tears in which a person chooses to cry in order to summon the help of the gods.[xvii] Tears in the Gopī tradition occurred as a response to death or the severing of society. Tears marked a call to transcendence. The Gopī tradition did not see tears as a block to communication but an actual means of communication. The crier crafted numerous elaborate expressions of as communication to a crier’s society and to the gods.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2017

About the Author: F. Wesley Shortridge, D.Min. (Evangel University, 2016), M.A. (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2010), B.A. (Central Bible College, 2009), is the founding pastor of Liberty Community Church in Bealeton, Virginia. Facebook LinkedIn

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