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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology

In Islamic tradition tears appear as a uniquely human expression of submission to Allah. Human tears on Earth lead to laughter in heaven while laughter on Earth leads to tears in the afterlife.[xviii] Allah in Muslim tradition cannot cry as he exhibits no weakness. To the Muslim, tears express Allah’s greatness and human weakness. William C. Chittick observes, “Nowhere does Islamic literature, so far as I know, suggest that God weeps.”[xix] Tears in Islam function as in other religions as an expression of human finitude and the hope of transcendence.

Tears in the Christian Tradition

Christian history provides several examples of tears as religious speech. The writings of the Patristic Fathers (John Chrysostem, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea) suggest that tears moved in Christian tradition from their original purpose as a response to God’s grace to an expression of human finitude and loss.[xx] The Dessert Fathers viewed tears as a grace from God and a tribute to God.[xxi] Tears joined prayer as a core expression of faith under the Desert Fathers. Bishop Kallistos Ware observes that Paul prayed without ceasing while the Dessert Fathers wept without ceasing.[xxii]

Are tears a gift from God to the church?

Later expressions of Christianity further linked tears with prayer. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona observes the Rule of St. Benedict initiated the concept of gratia lacrimarum in which tears occurred as a gift from God to the church.[xxiii] Under Benedict’s rule, tears must accompany effective prayer. Benedict’s rule evolved into the medieval cult of tears in which tears formed a primary religious expression indicating the piety of the crier. Many, for example, attributed St. Francis’ blindness in old age to excessive crying rather than old age.[xxiv] Tears in Christian tradition expressed human finitude, the fellowship of believers, and the hope of a transcendent God.

Tears in Contemporary North American Evangelicalism

Fellowship among believers has diminished and the missional effectiveness of a church has declined as the church has failed to connect with culture through shared suffering.

Current expressions of faith in North American Evangelical churches frequently deny grief and tears as a legitimate expression of faith. Perhaps secularization and modernity has influenced religious practice and replaced transcendent longing with triumphalism. Douglas John Hall observes much of the Evangelical attitude toward tears. He writes,  “The purveyors of electronic religion urge us to submit to their gods and their formulas, all of which promise slightly differing versions of the same pain-free life.”[xxv] He further observes disconnect between North American Christianity and ancient tradition. He writes,

As Christians in the North American situation we are obligated to consider this issue very carefully; for, being a society whose foundational assumptions are those of modernity—whose fundamental “religion” has been identified with “the religion of progress”—we must face the prospect of there being a radical incompatibility between our cultural presuppositions and the ancient faith-tradition we blithely claim as our own.[xxvi]

Hall observes the tendency to remove emotion from current expressions of Christianity as a move toward religious triumphalism and away from biblical faith. He continues,

Given the biblical testimony to at least a thousand years of such religious longing, now complemented by almost two thousand additional years of Christian triumphalism, we ought to need no further reminder of the basic distinction between religion and faith. It is the propensity of religion to avoid, precisely, suffering: to have light without darkness, vision without trust, and risk, hope without an ongoing dialog with despair—in short, Easter without Good Friday.[xxvii]

Tears as an expression of faith seem lost in most contemporary practice. Tears reveal human weakness and many refuse to acknowledge personal weakness in the current environment of self-empowering religion.

Hall observes several consequences of the tendency to repress expressions of suffering: difficulty in articulating personal suffering, inability to enter into the suffering of others, and a search for an enemy.[xxviii] The issues of weak discipleship, healing, relationships, and evangelism in contemporary churches may relate directly to the repression of authentic emotion. Rather than address human weakness in the midst of the worship service through tears, the church seems more content looking for a political enemy. Blind triumphalism has repressed human authenticity at the cost of healing, discipleship, fellowship, and mission. Tears in North American Evangelicalism seem to be more equated with modernity’s blind faith in human triumphalism than authentic expression of faith in a transcendent God. The church tragically ignores many within the church and community in their suffering. Hall concludes,  “Thus, we have come upon a moment in history in which not suffering as such but the incapacity to suffer—including the incapacity to acknowledge, accept, and articulate suffering—may be the most terrifying social reality, the thing that determines the fate of the earth.”[xxix]

The contemporary church often defines God’s grace as material blessing and the absence of suffering rather than God’s fellowship with suffering believers.

The current practices of singing happy songs and preaching self-help messages seem far away from the traditional practices of lament that signal human frailty in light of God’s transcendence. Triumphalist expressions that deny current reality have replaced genuine connection with a transcendent God in many cases. The contemporary church often defines God’s grace as material blessing and the absence of suffering rather than God’s fellowship with suffering believers. Fellowship among believers has diminished and the missional effectiveness of a church has declined as the church has failed to connect with culture through shared suffering. God gives the church the gift of tears to express fellowship with a transcendent God who is present in suffering, fellowship among believers, and fellowship with a suffering world.

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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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