When was the last time you had a good cry? For some, it might be a long time—tears don’t come easy. But crying isn’t so hard for a lot of us.
Our kids cry when their feelings are injured, when Mommy leaves them with the sitter, or when the teacher scolds them for being disruptive in class. We cry during arguments, at the loss of a loved one, when watching a movie, listening to a song, when a passing thought runs across our minds, when we’ve hit the lotto jackpot, when we’re slapped with a lawsuit, when our children do us proud, when the daughter gets married or because the daughter isn’t married. We cry tears of revenge, seduction, escape and empathy; tears of pleasure and pain. The biblical history of tears shows us David crying at the death of Absalom, Abraham over the death of Sarah. Joseph bawled when meeting Benjamin. Even Jesus, according to that famously short verse in John’s gospel, wept.
Some even have the ability to get moist in public on cue. Remember when Jimmy Swaggart wept profusely in an attempt to keep his ministry afloat, or the mother of all weepers, Tammy Faye Baker, who was prone to weeping adventures that alone assured that Estee Lauder a long and bright economic future.
Tears are always a goad to action, observes Tom Lutz in Crying, a ground-breaking book that details the history of tears from the 14th century B.C. to the present day. The tears of public figures can spur people to pity or empathy, and then to action. Although tears were once seen as a sign of emotional instability in men, they are now considered to be proof that a particular man has feelings, and that he’s strong enough to show deep emotion.
So what’s this crying game all about? That’s a good question as we look at the words of the prophet Joel—words that could appropriately be called “lachrymose,” meaning tearful or sorrowful. To start things off, the prophet issues a call for tears, for repentance. Divine judgment is on its way to God’s people, and so God says through the prophet, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). Although the people of Judah are terribly threatened by God’s judgment for their sin, the coming of the day of the Lord (foreshadowed by a recent plague of locusts), God offers them the opportunity to repent with fasting and weeping, and to return to communion with him.
Joel is convinced that these tears must be genuine. His God isn’t interested in crocodile tears, or in any weeping that is designed to manipulate others. The Lord is not looking for the kind of crying that is simply a biological event, a form of bodily elimination that may have the effect of evacuating ulcer-causing chemicals and proteins (that’s what a good cry does, by the way). No, God is interested in the type of weeping that accompanies an authentic change of heart.
In the middle of this cacophony of crying, the prophet Joel calls for a particular kind of weeping: That which is genuine, and which leads to repentance. To repent is to turn your life around and begin to walk in a new direction; it means to turn away from sin and idolatry, and turn toward God’s will and God’s way. “Return to the LORD, your God,” implores the prophet, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 13).
Here’s where the crying gets complex: It is not only a sign of sorrow over sin, but can be an expression of joy over God’s goodness. We are invited to turn toward a gracious and forgiving God, not toward a vengeful and punishing Lord. God is “gracious,” full of goodwill; “merciful,” showing the love of a mother for her child; “slow to anger,” waiting patiently for repentance; and full of “steadfast love,” love which is grounded in God’s promises to his people.
Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In it, the prodigal goes to a distant country, squanders his fortune in dissolute living, and then he “repents” – that is, he decides to turn himself around and return to his father. But Lloyd Ogilvie, the former chaplain of the United States Senate, points out that although this story has become famous as the parable of the Prodigal Son, it really ought to be called “the parable of the Prodigal God!” After all, the father is God, and God is the real prodigal. God is the one who is extravagant, lavish, unrestrained and copious -in other words, “prodigal” – in his love.
God’s forgiveness knows no boundaries. His joy knows no restraint. He runs to meet us, according to the parable. Puts his arms around us. Kisses us. Welcomes us home.
The key thing to remember is that our crying – whether happy or sad – should result in changed behavior. The prophet Joel says, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing” (v. 13); change your insides and not just your outsides; make sure your fasting and weeping and mourning are part of a new walk, not just a new talk.
What Joel really hates is hypocrisy: People who say they are repenting but then fail to turn their lives around. Authentic change means that we have to deal with the depth of our predicament before God and be willing to allow God to change us. God’s judgment is just and righteous and none of us can stand before it without being willing to see ourselves as sinners in need of change.
There’s an old Civil War story about a young Confederate soldier who had committed some infraction and was brought before Robert E. Lee, the commanding general. The lad was visibly shaking and crying as he stood at attention. Lee, looked him over and said, “Why are you shaking, son? You will find justice here.”
“That’s why I’m shaking,” said the soldier.
When we get real about who we are, tears are a natural response. But in those tears we also find new life.
Historically speaking, tears have long been thought to bring the dead to life. Long before scandal-prone politicians and religious leaders turned on the tears in a desperate attempt to save their careers, people were making strong associations between crying and the renewal of life. In the Egyptian story of the death of the god Osiris, the goddess Isis finds her brother Osiris dead and weeps over him. Her tears bring the dead god back to life.
In some cultures, people still collect tears in little vials called “lachrymatories” that can be buried with the dead as a sign of sorrow and hope. Indeed, the Bible itself makes a link between tears and new life:
“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy,” says Psalm 126. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy” (vv. 6).
And the assurance of Jesus in Luke, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (6:21).
Plus the promises of what the Spirit will do in the lives of believers. At the Last Supper, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy” (John 16:20).
Tears and new life – they are inextricably linked in the promises of our faith. We can believe that if we return to our gracious God with all our heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning, then we will discover a fullness of life that we have never known before. If we turn our lives around and work hard for the restoration of our relationships and our community, we’ll know a joy that we never thought possible.
Our tears will lead to resurrection life. That’s something to cry about!
Lutz, Tom. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 225-49.
Ogilvie, Lloyd John. The Heart of God. (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1994), 22-23.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Speaking of Sin. (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), 93-94.