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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology

Tears and Church Practice

Tears function as a gift operating within the church. Albert Y. Hsu observes, “In lament our raw emotions are ordered, disciplined, and transformed.”[lxxxvi] Tears express reality within a community. Ellington writes, “Prayers of lament function to adjudicate the tension created between beliefs about God and experiences of God’s silence and abandonment that call those beliefs into question.”[lxxxvii] He continues, “Lament declares boldly that everything is not all right, that God has not delivered, and that he has hidden his face from his people.”[lxxxviii] Tears lead the church to acknowledge the reality of its place between God’s promised future and present reality. The emotionalism of tears presents difficult to explain reality. The subjective breaks through the objective illusion.

Pentecostalism firmly addresses the ambiguities of life with the active presence of God.

Tears secondly function to call out to God. When emotional tears move past fear and hurt they move toward prayers of lament that turn the crier toward the God who joins the crier in his or her tears. Tears summon the gods in most religions, and in Christianity they likewise turn the crier towards God and allow the crier to experience God through shared tears. Hsu writes, “Lament also focuses our grief in the proper direction—it turns us toward God.”[lxxxix] In God’s presence tears become the relational bridge between the crier and God in spite of the fact that God chooses not to address the crier’s petition with His power. He addresses the petition of the crier with His presence before His power. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “My pain over my son’s death is shared by his pain over my son’s death. And, yes, I share in his pain over his son’s death.”[xc] Tears mingle human and divine pain. Wolterstorff continues, “Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.”[xci] Without the tears of loss a person cannot encounter the God who suffers.

Tears finally initiate a change process in the crier. In lamenting a loss, the possibility of newness appears. Ellington writes, “To risk both the loss of the old and the uncertainty of the new requires an act of faith and courage; it requires the act of lament.”[xcii] Ellington calls lament “risky” because it “abandons all pretense of excuse, denial, or cover-ups.”[xciii] Lament therefore leaves the old behind and seeks the new. All change requires lament. Ellington concludes, “The language of lament does that which is impossible for ordinary language; it destroys one world while laying the groundwork for the birth of another.”[xciv]

The Church renews through acknowledging present realities, calling to God for His presence and power in the tension between reality and vision, and managing the change process. Tears form an essential part of each step in renewal for individuals and for the church.


Tears and Worship

Tears call God alongside suffering. As a grace to believers they, like tongues, can function to promote worship in the church community. The church worships when it acknowledges realities and shares God’s suffering. Worshippers must worship in Spirit and truth. Western Christianity, however tends to favor the upbeat expressions of worship that tend to deny the present reality of many struggling somewhere in the faith journey. The practice of shared suffering with humans and God in a worship setting presents many possibilities for renewal. Hall writes, “Suffering is necessary for the body of Christ—and is one indispensable mark of its authenticity—because there is still suffering in God’s beloved world, and God would still be involved in it.”[xcv] Perhaps, the traditional liturgical expressions of confession and acknowledgment that we as humans have failed to live in God’s standards provide an expression of lament that could reenergize worship. The celebration so often sought in North American churches proves incomplete without the process of shared lament as a community and seeking God’s presence alongside congregational tears. Celebration comes after lament. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes,

Sometimes when the cry is intense, there emerges a radiance which elsewhere seldom appears: a glow of courage, of love, of insight, of selflessness, of faith. In that radiance we see best what humanity was meant to be. That the radiance emerges from acquaintance with grief is a blessing to others is familiar, though perplexing: How can we treasure the radiance while struggling against what brought it about?[xcvi]

Tears and Fellowship

Tears function in Psychology as a “social lubricant” that helps to “ensure the smooth functioning of community by helping people communicate.”[xcvii] Tears often communicate much clearer than words, and they tend to draw observers into the grief of the crier. Tears within the church function to draw people into shared humanity and shared searching for God’s presence in the tears. They serve to acknowledge the common journey and common hope felt by all humans. They transcend church programs that help suffering people and simply call people to share the suffering. Stanley Hauerwas observes that Christians have no “solution” to the problem of suffering; they have “a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations.”[xcviii]


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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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