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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology

Universal Views of Tears

Humans communicate through tears. Communication requires a hermeneutic. Throughout history humans have primarily interpreted tears as transcendent longing in which humans acknowledge frailty and summon the transcendent. Apostolos-Cappadona observes,

Our interpretive as well as our communicative skills are critical here, as the exteriority of tears connotes one message to the viewers of the tearful individual while the interiority denotes a different message to the person engaged in shedding tears. Therefore a hermeneutic of tears becomes necessary, as distinctive messages are sent when one views another person’s tears and when one sheds one’s own tears. What may prove to be most significant is that the visible arousal of fluid from the human eye accompanies an internal feeling or emotion to which the viewer of another’s tears responds with empathy, embarrassment, helplessness, or disdain. The reality of tears for the weeper is a transcending experience, as her attention is shifted away from the intellect to the fused external and internal reality of her body while the multiplicity of emotions, feelings, and ideas is embodied within the metaphor of tears; most significantly, that is, within the visual metaphor of tears.[xxx]

Many current hermeneutics of tears in North American Evangelicalism interpret tears more like modern secular humanism than biblical or other world religions would interpret them. In failing to live within the ambiguity of faith that looks to God while hoping for eschatological fullness, the Church has often substituted triumphalism and pretending for authentic faith. The North American Church seems to value human autonomy over summoning the help of God through tears. Culture increasingly acknowledges ambiguity in Postmodernism, but the Church clings to triumphalism and Modernism that suppresses tears. Logic and humanism replace emotion and faith. Most cultures and religions acknowledge human frailty. Tears summon the gods in most cultures.


Human Tears in the Bible

The tears of humans appear throughout the Bible. Human tears generally represent humility (Ps. 80:5, Acts 20:19), frustration (Jer. 9:1), and disappointment (Lam. 1:16).[xxxi] The primary Hebrew terms used to express tears are “bakah” meaning weeping or bemoaning and “dim’ah” meaning the physical act of crying.[xxxii] The word “dim’ah” specifically means tears already shed or actively being shed.[xxxiii] The Hebrew terms reflect the concept of weeping as an uncontrollable act of emotion and crying as a more controllable or even conscious choice for the crier. The New Testament primarily uses the term “dakruo” for tears. The term encompasses both the idea of weeping and physical tears.[xxxiv]

The Bible first mentions human crying in Genesis 4:10. The concept of human suffering, however, appears in some form throughout creation. The Fall in Eden resulted in much human suffering, but the primary elements of suffering and tears appear in Eden prior to the Fall. Douglas John Hall points out that suffering existed in a limited form prior to the Fall as the loneliness of Adam before Eve, the limits of creation, the temptation represented by the fruit, and the anxiety of the possibility of transgressing God’s limits.[xxxv] The essence of the emotion expressed by tears manifests in Hall’s observations, and it seems reasonable to assume the original humans expressed anxiety and loneliness through tears. Humans exist as limited creatures dependent on God, and tears express the human condition from the start. Life involves suffering. Hall observes, “Life without any kind of suffering would be no life at all; it would be a form of death. Life—the life of the spirit like the life of the body—depends in some mysterious way upon the struggle to be.”[xxxvi] The “struggle to be” forms the essence of the emotion expressed in tears.

The Bible first mentions human tears specifically with the tears of the blood of the slain Abel crying out to God. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10).[xxxvii] The blood of Abel calls to God from injustice and brings God’s intervention with the murderous Cain. Patrick Miller observes, “So at the very beginning of the human story and of the biblical story—and they really are one and the same story—the voice of the suffering one, the brother, who cries out for help, is what brings God on the scene, what initiates a divine response.”[xxxviii] In Genesis 4 crying expresses hopelessness and summons God to work for the hopeless. Miller describes the voice of the already dead Abel as a voice “that warns us against assuming that the only laments that matter are those where there is still possibility of help, that once the suffering has destroyed the human creature it is too late, nothing can be done, God cannot and will not help.”[xxxix] The Bible first mentions tears as a clear human expression of powerlessness and of longing for God’s intervention.

Tears express and call forth the promise of abundant life.

The poetry of the Book of Job expresses the concept of human suffering and longing for God’s righteous intervention. Job cries out from the ash heap of ruin in the clear context of undeserved suffering. To some extent the suffering results from God’s work in his life, and the suffering in human perspective seems the ultimate of injustice at the hand of God. Job’s friends attempt to explain the suffering and stop Job’s lament, but Job cries out nonetheless. Kathleen O’Conner observes, “The real subject of the Book of Job and the crux of the human problem for Israel is not human suffering, but human relationship with God in the midst of suffering.”[xl] Tears to Job express his relatedness with a God he does not comprehend. The tears themselves express the righteousness of Job in the face of an overwhelming and incomprehensible situation. Ultimately, “Lament grants Job admission to a dialogue with God.”[xli] Provisional dualism exists within the story of Job that permits “the negating dimension an independent role in the service of the positive.”[xlii] Provisional dualism expressed as good and evil exists from the Gardens of Eden and Gethsemane. Provisional dualism provides the tension driving human tears. Job’s story expresses the biblical concept of eschatological longing expressed in tears. Hall writes, “Like Satan in the poem of Job, that which threatens and negates life is intended, in the wisdom of the Creator, for the service of a more abundant life.”[xliii] Tears express and call forth the promise of abundant life. Job’s tears eventually call forth God’s response and restoration. Ellington observes, “While Job’s friends tried to insulate and distance God (and themselves) from Job’s pain by speaking correctly about God, Job spoke what was right to God, with the result that he received not an answer to his questions, but a fresh encounter with his creator.”[xliv] Tears in the religious practice of Job form righteous speech before God expressing longing for God’s presence and justice. Job’s friends express longing for answers and control while Job longs for God in cries of lament.

Human cries find fuller expression in the Psalms. Lament Psalms express human discontent as they cry out for God’s intervention. Nancy J. Duff observes the primary characteristics of Psalms of lament as they commonly “challenge our inability to acknowledge the intense emotions that grief entails, free us to make a bold expression of grief before God and in the presence of others, and allow us to rely on God and the community to carry forth hope on our behalf when we ourselves have no hope with us.”[xlv] Like Job’s laments the Psalms express human longing and finitude that calls God alongside suffering. The act of crying in lament calls forth God. The biblical record provides many examples of crying patriarchs, kings, and common people expressing the tension between reality and life as God promises.

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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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