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Pray for Holy Tears

Responding to Abominations in the Culture

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

We do not know how many holy tears are being shed by the people of God in America in response to “all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezekiel 9:4). Therefore, this article is not a censure, but a plea — a plea for holy tears, along with whatever holy anger we can tearfully feel.

One reason we don’t know how heartbroken Christians are is that Jesus taught us not to virtue signal our fasting. We are supposed to wipe the tears away before we come out of our closets (Matthew 6:17).

Piper: “None of us feels what we ought to feel all the time.”

How seldom do we accurately discern, let alone empathize with, the true motives of a person’s words. This is true when we are face-to-face, or on the Internet. Granted that Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34), nevertheless, it remains difficult to be certain about the brokenness behind strong words.

The presence or absence of tears is not an infallible sign of the heart’s sorrow. Nevertheless, holy tears are precious beyond estimation when, unbidden, they add their truth to our words, or our silence. And, in spite of all the ambiguity, tear-stained words — tear-stained sermons, conversations, articles, Facebook posts, and tweets — taste different from tearless words.

Seven Exhortations on Tears

The aim of this article is to encourage Christians to pray for holy tears. This is on my mind right now mainly because recently I have seen it so clearly in Scripture. The plea for holy tears also seems urgent because the acrimonious spirit of our times threatens to dry them up, or turn them into a performance. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20) — including righteous tears.

Given what I see in the Bible, seven exhortations seem to me to be needed at the present time. At least I need them, and I invite you to listen in.

1. Beware of one-sided emotional responses to evil.

Paul told the Philippians that tears were welling up in his eyes as he wrote chapter 3.

Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18–19)

Paul combines what we seldom see joined — sorrowful tears and scathing indictment.

  • They are enemies of the cross of Christ.
  • Their end is destruction.
  • Their god is their belly.
  • They glory in their shame.
  • Their minds are set on earthly things.

And all that as the tears welled up in his eyes. Can you do that? Both-and. Not either-or.

The tenderness of tears did not keep him from hard words. And being critical did not keep him from crying. He did not separate what Jesus had joined together: tenderness through tears and toughness with the truth.

“Beware of one-sided emotional responses to evil. Beware of an either-or emotional life.”

Jesus heard the heartless silence of the Pharisees when he put a crippled man before them and asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” How did he respond to their silence? Both-and, not either-or: “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:4–5). Grieved and angry. Angry and grieved. He was emotionally whole. We are broken into fragments. Some of us are easily grieved. Some of us are easily angered.

In this wholeness, Jesus was, of course, the image of God the Father. Paul said in Romans 11:22, “Behold the kindness and the severity of God.” Kindness and severity. Severity and kindness. Both-and, not either-or.

Test your anger. Can holy tears over the hardness of the human heart survive in the heat of your anger, or are they consumed? Beware of one-sided emotional responses to evil. Seek to be as complex emotionally as Jesus and Paul. Embrace a both-and emotional life. Seriously, ask God for tears. Don’t say fatalistically, “That’s not my personality.” Ask for the miracle.

2. Beware of performance tears. Beware of planning choke-up moments in your sermons. Beware of announcing on Twitter your compassion for the latest calamity.

Jesus seemed to have a greater distaste for hypocrisy than almost any other sinful way of relating to each other.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. (Matthew 6:1)

When you fast, do not look gloomy [or tearful!] like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces [with tearful looks] that their fasting may be seen by others. . . . But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face [wash away the tears], that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16–18)

But did Paul disobey this wisdom from Jesus when he mentioned his own tears? What’s the difference between the ancient version of virtue signaling that Jesus condemned, and Paul’s open statement that he was weeping as he wrote Philippians 3?

To make the question more difficult, this was not the only time Paul drew attention to his tears:

For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:31)

I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Corinthians 2:4)

My suggestion is that two things saved Paul’s witness to his tears from the indictment of Jesus: his motive and his audience.

Motive: Jesus said not to trumpet your virtues in order to get the reward of people’s praise. Paul was not angling for praise. He was modeling love. He wrote “to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4). “Brothers, join in imitating me” (Philippians 3:17).

Audience: Paul’s audiences were the elders of Ephesus and two of the churches he loved. He was not announcing to the world (as on Twitter) his virtue. He was sharing his heart with his family. There is a seismic difference between saying to a dying wife, “I have prayed for you with tears,” and telling the whole world that you pray for her with tears.

But in our day of social media, the warning is crucial. Beware of performance tears. Beware of signaling how virtuous you are in your public expressions.

3. Don’t equate physical tears with spiritual reality.

Tears by themselves are no more significant spiritually than sweat. They become spiritually precious when their source is Holy-Spirit-given emotion. This is true of all physical manifestations: trembling, falling down, fluttering eyelashes, heated skin, shouting, sighing, singing, weeping, laughing. None of these is a sure sign of anything spiritual. They all become spiritual when they are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in response to true views of God in Christ.

We see this in the case of Esau in Hebrews 12:16–17.

Don’t be sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it with tears.

Esau had devalued the most precious things so often, and so deeply, that his capacity for repentance had died. God had given him over to the hardness of his heart. His tears were not tears of repentance. They were tears of regret that he could not have the gifts of God, though he had no taste for God.

Many people weep at the consequences of sin while still loving the sin. So in ourselves and in our counseling, we should be sure to probe the heart behind the tears.

4. Let it sink in, and go deep, that God’s sovereignty over the evil that grieves us does not make us tearless, but sustains us in our tears.

Many people bring to the Bible the unbiblical assumption that if God wills that an event come to pass, it would be wrong to weep over it. Neither Jesus nor Paul shared that assumption.

Piper: “Beware of performance tears. Beware of signaling how virtuous you are in your public compassion.”

Jesus knew and taught that God had hidden things from the wise and understanding (Luke 10:21), but he still wept over the fact that these things were hidden from many in Jerusalem.

When he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41–42)

Similarly, Paul knew that God had sent a hardening on most of Israel.

He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:18)

Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened. (Romans 11:7)

A partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. (Romans 11:25)

Nevertheless, Paul was in anguish every day over their lostness.

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. . . . My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. (Romans 9:1–3; 10:1)

God’s sovereignty over the evil that grieved them did not make Jesus and Paul tearless. It sustained them through tears. It is the only reason any of us is saved (Ephesians 2:5–8), the only reason any of us is sanctified (Hebrews 13:21), and the only reason any of us perseveres to the end (1 Corinthians 1:8–9). It does not make us uncaring, but undaunted.

5. When sadness makes life heavy with tears, don’t stop doing your work. Take a deep breath, own the sorrow, trust the promises, wash your face, and go to work.

There will never be a time in this life when we should be completely sorrow-free. Because we are told to weep with those who weep (Romans 13:15), and in this world someone is always weeping. We must learn the mystery of “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Always! Including through sorrow. Both-and. Even simultaneously.

Let this be the banner flying above you as you go to work with tears.

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!
     He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
     bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:5–6)

Before you spiritualize this psalm, let the original farming situation have its effect. Suppose you are a farmer on the American frontier 200 years ago. You have cut your homestead out of the wilderness. You live on what you grow. One of your two children has recently died. Your wife is sick. You are weeping. But the seed must be planted. If you would live, you have no choice. So, you sow in tears. You go to work weeping. But not without faith. For you have a promise, and a sovereign God of grace.

6. Pray that God will give you holy tears. They are a work of grace, not a work of nature. Natural tears are sweet. But holy tears are from the Spirit.

Thousands of Christians grew up in homes with little experience of healthy emotions. There was no holy weeping or rejoicing. The homes were dominated by anger. Most of these thousands are emotionally stunted. They do not feel compassion easily, and tears seldom come. This emotional brokenness is true of all of us, more or less. None of us feels what we ought to feel all the time.

“Many people weep at the consequences of sin who still love the sin.”

What should we do? Many are fatalistic. They say, “This is just the way I am,” and do not believe God can, or will, do anything to give them the gift of holy tears. I think that attitude is a dishonor to God, and harmful to the soul.

I spoke to a woman just a few days ago who told me that she could shed no tears in college. Then God stepped into her life, and today she is easily brought to tears by people’s suffering. We do not know what measure of emotional transformation God may be willing to give. But we should pray earnestly for holy tears.

Oh that my head were waters,
     and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night for the slain
     of the daughter of my people! (Jeremiah 9:1)

The Hebrew says literally, “Who will give my head waters and my eyes a spring of tears?” In other words, Jeremiah knew that holy tears must be given. They are a work of grace, not nature. We should plead for them.

7. Rejoice in hope that one day all painful tears will be wiped away from the faces of God’s children.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

I was a pastor for 33 years. In that time, the only men I can remember crying were strong men. Mature men. Healthy men. Some were willing to weep on my shoulder. Others sat quietly as the tears fell to the carpet. Along with the strong women, they were unashamed of tears.

My concern here is not mainly with emotional wholeness. My concern is with how the people of God respond to the abominations of American culture. The very word abominations feels to many like the opposite of tears. This is why some are afraid of tears. Tears, they think, cause people to tone down the wickedness of the world.

I am pleading for both-and. Unflinching naming of evil as evil. And unrestrained sorrow over the dishonoring of Christ’s name, the sin-wracked misery of the world, and the destruction of human souls. I am praying and pleading for holy tears over an unholy world — and a compromised church.

My eyes shed streams of tears,
     because people do not keep your law. (Psalm 119:136)