When my son was born there was a moment when I thought he was going to die. He had to be continuously monitored throughout labour and when the last stages came the monitor slipped, the midwife pressed a button, and the room was suddenly full of people ready to resuscitate if necessary. In my hazy, crazy state I felt in my heart that everything had gone wrong and they were going to take him away. Then suddenly he was placed on my chest, yelling. I asked the air: “Is he alright?” and the midwife answered, “Does he sound alright?” Sure enough, he was filling his little lungs and belting out his arrival to the world – and I knew he was there, living, active, healthy and strong. Because he was crying.
What does a successful Christian look like? What springs to mind when someone is described as ‘mature’ in their faith? Calm, joyful, fruitful, relationally healthy… probably the first word that came into your thoughts was not: weeping.
But it is a word that Jesus would use.
In his book ‘The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing’ Jonathan Pennington argues that the Beautitudes are, first and foremost, a list that shows what a flourishing human looks like. What is traditionally translated as blessed should be understood more in the sense of #blessed (i.e. my life is good) than with the implication of direct Divine favour. So: flourishing are the mourners for they will be comforted.
In a room full of believers, the one ugly-crying, tears flowing down their face, sniffing for want of a tissue, holding back muffled sobs, that one is not likely to be the one put top of the list of Christian winners. But if I’m honest more often than not over the last few years I’ve been that person. (I never have a tissue.) I haven’t exactly been that person because there are very few Christian environments where I would feel comfortable crying like that, but inside I have often been in mourning.
What is it about crying that makes us feel so uncomfortable, so ashamed?
“You Wouldn’t Cry if You Really Believed”
It seems to me that often we are uncomfortable with what may be seen as ‘extreme’ emotions. Perhaps you’re familiar with the picture that each of us is like a train. The train has two carriages and an engine. They are labelled ‘thoughts’, ‘feelings’ and ‘actions’. The theory goes that we need the engine to be our thoughts (correct thoughts about God, the Bible, life etc.). These in turn should pull along behind them ‘feelings’ and ‘actions’ in merry succession. We should not, I repeat should not, let feelings be the engine. Spiritual CBT. The idea is that if we get our thoughts right then our feelings will follow. To a certain extent this may be true. However, the unwelcome corollary is that we can assume that if someone is crying then maybe they have some incorrect thought in there somewhere. We can feel ashamed to be weeping because we know that some people might be looking at us thinking that we are failing to believe something about God and that if we knew our Bible better we would feel better.
A quick glance at the Bible itself, however, gives a very different picture. Here is a book drenched in tears, from Genesis until (almost) the end. There are many, many examples of godly, faithful people who mourned and wept. Time and again it is coupled with prayer: think of Nehemiah who wept then fasted and prayed for four months (Nehemiah 1:4). The Psalms are filled with examples of mourning and weeping. Psalm 56 even requests that the Lord ‘list my tears on your scroll’ (Psalm 56:8-9). Paul is nakedly honest about his tears (Acts 20: 19, 2 Cor 2:1-4 among others). But the greatest and most poignant example is Jesus Himself. John 11:35: Jesus wept. Jesus is ‘deeply moved’ when he sees the sadness of those who have lost their loved one, and even though He knew exactly what was about to happen, that Lazarus would live again in a matter of minutes, even though he believed perfectly every truth about God, even though he knew he was going to put an end to all of it, still he wept. Mourning is not just permitted, it’s encouraged.
When I think about the four years I spent working in a deprived community in the East End of London, my enduring memory is of tears. After hours of door-to-door visits, I would come home and cry for the lonely old ladies who had been so happy to have someone to talk to, for the singles mums barely coping, for the hard eyed angry young Muslim men, for the complacency of the hipster gentrification, for the bad teeth, the old East Enders remembering the Kray twins with fond nostalgia because ‘at least they looked after their own’, for the all-pervasive smell of weed…I cried for the fact that there was nothing I could do to fix their lives or to help in any immediate way. I cried for their rejection of Jesus and therefore of hope. Faced with the sheer numbers of those in poverty, particularly emotional, relational and spiritual poverty (those poverties that require genuine, sacrificial relationships) I felt my impotence and I wept. I felt my lack of love and empathy and I wept. I prayed, yes, and I wept.
Was that wrong? Was that a lack of trust in the Lord? Did I not know that He is Sovereign, and that one day Jesus will return to right every wrong, and fix what is broken, and judge, and heal? Of course I knew. And maybe I did need to ‘toughen up’ or show more ‘emotional resilience’. Or maybe, just maybe, part of my job, part of my ministry even, was to cry.
“You loved it too much”
I have observed in myself that I can easily imbibe ideas that more closely resemble Buddhism than Biblical faith. We talk as if being unmoved emotionally by the ravages of life is a sign of Great Faith. Thinking of verses like 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them”, we wonder if perhaps mourning the loss of worldly things, is a denial of God’s goodness and a failure to trust in his plans. Perhaps grieving for what we once had is saying to God that we love something more than Him and His plans for us.
Of course, there are unholy tears. I know all too often my tears come because I am angry or spoilt, or my plan in my head for how my day was supposed to turn out is ruined. There is a difference between ‘godly’ and ‘worldly’ sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10). But we have to be careful to avoid a kind of philosophical dualism that says that the physical is bad (i.e. the things we can see and feel, or what we might call ‘the world’) and spiritual things are acceptable. The passage quoted above is very clearly referring to sinful things in the world (1 John 2:16). We are called to enjoy the things that God has given us (e.g. Genesis 1:28-29) and to understand the goodness of the Giver from the goodness of His gifts (Matthew 7:11). We are also called to love, not just our neighbours but our enemies, and the Bible is clear that love hurts (1 John 4); it’ll make you cry. I can’t say it better than CS Lewis (darnit Lewis you’ve done it again).
“Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”C S Lewis
As we walk around this world with hearts and eyes open, we are going to feel sad. There is so much brokenness, so much rejection of Jesus, so much complicated trouble. But let’s not forget that one day, those who mourn will be comforted. One day, Jesus will wipe away every tear (Revelation 21:4) and they will not be wasted.
Tears can seem to be a sign of weakness. We associate crying with babies and children and have an idea that as adults we should behave more professionally. We are used, after all, to equating maturity to adulthood. I imagine there are very few occasions in which it would be appropriate to cry in a business meeting. How likely is your church to appoint someone to the staff who sobs through their interview? No-one wants a cry baby in the office. But let’s not forget that Jesus loves babies and children. In fact, he tells us to be like them, at all costs (Luke 18:17, Mark 10:15). We can get to thinking that we are grown up, that we have something to offer the world and the Lord, but sometimes what He wants most are our wretched, childlike tears poured out to Him. Just like my tiny newborn son’s, our tears may just be evidence that we are, in fact, alright.