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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology

The tears of Isaiah express both the longing of humanity for God and of God for restored relationship with humanity.

Crying in prophetic literature expresses another dimension of tears. The prophets express the heart of God’s longing through tears. God commands Isaiah to cry as a prophetic act. “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:6-8). Isaiah prophetically stands between God and men and expresses his position as intermediary through tears commanded by God. Men appear weak and fading but God stands eternal. The tears of Isaiah express both the longing of humanity for God and of God for restored relationship with humanity. The tears stand as a common expression of longing for both God and man. Jeremiah likewise expresses his position as prophetic intermediary through tears. He asks for more tears as a further expression to the people that God stands alongside their suffering. “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1). To the biblical prophet tears express prophetically the shared grief between God and humanity.

Image: Tom Pumford

Jesus stands as the great prophetic intermediary between God and humanity. Rachel’s inconsolable tears herald His arrival. Matthew draws from the words of Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18). Human tears herald and complete Jesus’ mission. Jesus questions Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (John 20:15). Kimberly Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley state that Mary Magdalene’s tears express “the central existential challenges of human existence: how to deal with both the presence and absence of God.”[xlvi] Jesus lives life alongside human tears seeking to navigate the presence of God in the human condition.

The Early Church in scripture encounters suffering and expresses the ambiguity of suffering through tears. The Early Christians were called “people of the way.” The temporality and nature of Christianity finds expression as a journey involving tears. Peter, for example, expresses Christianity in terms of certain suffering in both First and Second Peter. Much of the Epistles deal with the tension between the eschatological promises of God and the reality of suffering. Tears serve as a primary expression of the reality of Christian existence in the “now and not yet.” Tears express the longing for eschatological completeness paid for on the Cross and promised in Revelation. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Those who have endured great tribulation will experience newness with God. Saints cry real tears that express longing for complete relational restoration. God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17). Until that day, tears express the longing of sincere persons of faith for completeness as they live in the reality of the present. Patrick D. Miller observes, “Theologically the cry to God and the response of God are the fundamental theme of the whole of scripture.”[xlvii] Miller continues, “It is only in that eschatological transformation that the Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth that the pain and tears of suffering are wiped away and death is no more. Until then, human beings will cry out and God will hear. This is indeed the primary mode of conversation between God and the human creature.”[xlviii] God gracefully gives humans tears to express the longing common to humanity and call forth His presence in the midst of current suffering.

The Tears of God

World religions almost universally view human tears as an acknowledgment of human suffering and longing for transcendent power in suffering. The Judeo-Christian tradition however demonstrates a unique view of God as sharing in suffering and expressing the shared suffering through tears. Nicholas Wolterstorff states, “The tears of God are the meaning of history.”[xlix] He continues, “Every act of evil extracts a tear form God, every plunge into anguish extracts a sob from God. But also the history of our world is the history of our deliverance together.”[l] Human tears universally express finitude and longing. The idea that an infinite and omnipotent God could cry raises several interesting theological challenges.


God’s Grief and Judgment in the Bible

The reality of Christian existence involves numerous tensions. God’s omnipresence conflicts with His hiddenness. God’s omnipotence conflicts with the reality that suffering exists even among the righteous. God’s transcendence and immanence conflict in human reason. Tears express the mystery of the conflicting tensions of God as He exists and as He appears to humans in the present. The Bible reveals part of the mystery of God’s complete existence and as He exists as a God involved in His creation. “God is revealed to us as the involved one already in Genesis 1:2 with his spirit brooding over the face of the waters.”[li] The tension between formlessness and creation evokes brooding in God. As in human longing, God’s longing appears from the start in God’s creative work.

God expresses grief over creation early in the biblical narrative. “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6) God appears in the narrative as a God who “is disappointed and angry at the beings whom He has created but still is actually pained at their condition and possibility of the idea of hurting them.”[lii] God does not appear as a wrathful God but as a God who longs for relationship with humans who have rejected Him. Judgment of humans grieves God. The nature of human free will presents the possibility of a God who suffers in the face of rejection by His creation. God’s involvement with humans provides the possibility of divine suffering. The tears of God present a central theme in the ontology of creation. Jürgen Moltman states, “A God who cannot suffer is poorer than any human. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved.”[liii] The tension between God’s involvement with creation and His hiddenness from creation drives the suffering tears of God. Ellington writes, “For God to be both present and active in history would be to destroy the wicked without hope of repentance and to eliminate free will.”[liv] God painfully maintains some separation from rebellious humanity because His complete presence would destroy the object of His love. The tragedy of creation evokes the tears of God. His hiddenness causes His pain. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa. 45:15).

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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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