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Tears: Towards a Biblical Theology


Tears universally exist across cultures and throughout history. The Bible records many examples of tears both from humans and from God. In this paper I will explore tears in culture and in various religious traditions. I will explore tears in theology and describe some possibilities for improving churches based on a theology of tears. This work is not an exhaustive view of tears in the Bible or in theology. It will, however deal with the key ideas and theological conflicts concerning the subject. Specifically, I will provide a biblical hermeneutic of crying to assist the church to minister to those who cry.


Tears in History, Culture and Religion

Humans enter the world with tears, and tears provide a primary means of communication for the early parts of life. Kimberly Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley observe, “Among the very earliest expressions of distress in the infant’s range, tears remain a profound existential signifier at all stages of human life, particularly in the face of fear, loss, or despair. Crying is a response of the parasympathetic nervous system that helps return the stimulated organism to homeostasis.”[i] While some primate infants exhibit behavior similar to human crying to summon parental care, humans are the only animals able to cry as adults.[ii] From an evolutionary viewpoint, adult crying manifests as a means of signaling defenselessness and surrender or of summoning help from others within the crier’s social network.[iii] Adult human tears appear as a uniquely human behavioral phenomenon.

Repression: The repressed tears of those desiring to appear powerful result in the infliction of pain on the weak.

Humans often repress tears. Most cultures view crying as weak behavior and gender crying as female. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observes, “Tears are one of the many ways we release our sadness, one of our many wondrous built-in healing mechanisms. Unfortunately, too often we try to stop this necessary and primal release.”[iv] Repressed tears prevent a person from expressing his or her feelings of helplessness and summoning help from others. The result of repression of tears manifests in unhealed persons and in destructive behaviors including addictions and harming others. Ernest Becker observes the human tendency to deny painful realities and replace the healthy processing of reality with destructive behaviors. He writes, “Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death. His anality may protect him, but all through history it is the ‘normal, average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.”[v] Humans cry as an involuntary behavioral response to inner conflict involving feelings of helplessness and the need for social support. Unfortunately, many persons repress tears due to social mores or gender expectations. Society usually genders tears as feminine, and subsequently views tears as a sign of weakness in males. Crying seems to signal the surrender of the crier, or crying appears childish. Unfortunately, the repressed tears of those desiring to appear powerful result in the infliction of pain on the weak.

God gives the church the gift of tears.

Human adults experiencing inner pain and conflict normally cry. Repression of tears results in deeper feelings of pain. Kübler-Ross writes,  “Unexpressed tears do not go away; their sadness resides in our bodies and souls.”[vi] Socially, however, many equate tears with weakness, and they remind those observing the tears of their own ambiguities and finitude. Humans in modern society almost universally repress tears. The repression of tears results in a society that refuses to be healed. Society transfers its inner hurt onto others, and a cycle of grief begins and the pain increases. The process of grieving and lament as expressed in human crying could intervene. Crying serves as an involuntary response to overwhelming stimuli and ambiguity resulting from overwhelming problems of injustice and death. Crying involves releasing illusions of control and acknowledging ambiguities and denials. Crying subsequently summons and acknowledges powers greater than the crier. These greater powers may be others within a person’s social network, or God. A crier admits powerlessness and calls for power from outside self. Crying recognizes personal finitude and summons the transcendent. Tears require a hermeneutic of interpretation from the crier, the observer, and from society.

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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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