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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology

Tears and glossolalia share some common linguistic characteristics.

Tears in Christian theology place God, humans, and the relationship between the two in the mysterious place of living theology rather than analytical and dogmatic theology. The answer to the problem of God’s tears appears in shared suffering rather than triumphalist dogma that fails to explain human reality. God desires relationship so much that He allows the object of His relational desire to suffer, and He desires to enter the suffering with His creation. Ellington writes, “It is the nature of belief to be constructive, it is the nature of suffering and loss to prevent those constructs from becoming monolithic. And it is through the practice of lament that the fluidity and flexibility of our beliefs are maintained.”[lxxviii] Tears keep theology from becoming an academic science. No matter how objectively the theologian approaches God he or she encounters the subjective reality of pain and loss that drives him or her to shared tears with God. A hermeneutic of tears requires a living theology that stresses encounter. Robby Waddell observes, “A Pentecostal theological hermeneutic has less to do with Greek philosophy than with theophany, a divine encounter, a revelation, an experience with the living God.”[lxxix] Ellington concludes, “When we lift the platonic veil, we find a God who willingly risks relationship, with all its awkwardness and uncertainty.”[lxxx] God lays aside omnipotence for omnipresence in the suffering of humanity. God enters into human suffering and longs for relationship with those He has allowed to rebel. God cries with humanity.

 

Tongues and Tears: A Pentecostal Possibility

Unlike liberation theology, which simply addressed the presence of God alongside human suffering, Pentecostalism both placed God alongside suffering and promised power for alleviating the condition of humanity in the Holy Spirit.

Pentecostalism rose from the margins of society and still finds much of its growth among the suffering and marginalized. Unlike liberation theology, which simply addressed the presence of God alongside human suffering, Pentecostalism both placed God alongside suffering and promised power for alleviating the condition of humanity in the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism firmly addresses the ambiguities of life with the active presence of God. It addresses the ambiguity of human suffering and God’s presence and the mysterious balance between omnipotence and omnipresence. Andrew Davies observes, “Pentecostalism requires a God on the loose, involving himself with the fine details of our earthly existence and actively transforming lives. I think Pentecostal theology, in both its systematic and more popular forms, requires a degree of uncertainty.”[lxxxi] North American Pentecostalism, however, has often embraced Evangelical thought and promoted pragmatic results rather than relational wholeness. The upward mobility of North American Pentecostals may present the greatest danger to a message that balances God’s presence with God’s power to the weeping margins.

Tears and glossolalia share some common linguistic characteristics. Tears are a unique form of linguistics. They communicate complex meaning and can be interpreted. The emotional nature of tears suggests a communication theory that transcends spoken language. Elaine Scarry observes,  “To witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre-language of cries and groans is to witness the destruction of language; but conversely, to be present when a person moves up out of that pre-language and projects the facts of sentience into speech is almost to have been permitted to be present at the birth of language itself.”[lxxxii] John Stratton Hawley observes that tears “communicate precisely because they are not rhetorical strategies.”[lxxxiii] To Medieval Christians tears formed a “para-language…distinguished as a mysterious yet meaningful ‘language’ that transcends words and gestures.”[lxxxiv] Similar to glossolalia in the Early Church or in current Pentecostalism, tears express worship and longing transcending speech. In classical Pentecostalism altar services involved a complex interchange between tears, glossolalia, and celebration. Tears and glossolalia represent longing for something more than currently experienced, and both point to the hope of restored relationship.

Pentecostalism rose from the margins of society and still finds much of its growth among the suffering and marginalized.

The issue of subsequence, a common debate in Spirit baptism, also appears in historical theologies of tears. The Eastern Orthodox tradition generally viewed tears as a “second baptism.” The issue of tears in Eastern Orthodox tradition raises a question similar to the issue of subsequence in Pentecostal doctrine. Bishop Kallistos Ware asks concerning tears in the Eastern Orthodox tradition,  “Does this second baptism of tears confer a new grace, distinct from the grace bestowed through sacramental baptism in the font, or is the grace of the second baptism simply the realization and fulfillment of the grace originally received in sacramental baptism?”[lxxxv] Through the lens of tears the issue for both Eastern Orthodox criers and Pentecostals might be addressed. Tears express a deeper longing for something not currently experienced. On Earth, the longing for completeness remains. The religious seeker looks for wholeness in a deeper encounter with God. In tears and in glossolalia, humans acknowledge frailty and seek God. The crier admits human weakness and summons the transcendent God. Crying and tongues both acknowledge God’s continued work in humans and the need for His presence. Tongues and crying may form from the same human needs and may both lead to the same deepened relationship with God. The question of why a Christian would cry and why a Christian should seek a heavenly language may both come from the same human longing for God and from God’s longing for human relationship.

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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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