The following is a lightly edited transcript of the audio. These seven exhortations were published previously in the article “Pray for Holy Tears.”
My wife and some friends of ours recently immersed ourselves for two days in Abraham Lincoln lore in Springfield, Illinois, and New Salem. There’s a new Abraham Lincoln museum, which I highly recommend. It’s the most remarkable museum I’ve ever visited because of the two theaters that are in it. And there’s a wall, not very large — twenty feet across maybe — covered with vile opprobrium dumped on Abraham Lincoln in the press.
For example, “Lincoln speeches consist of condensed lumps of imbecility, buffoonery, and vulgar malignity” (Richmond Examiner; March 4, 1861). There were dozens of them all over the wall from lots of papers across the country, which was very good for me to see because we do not live in a unique time.
If you’re young and you’re not aware of Abraham Lincoln and the controversies over him along the way, you would think the hostilities and the polarization of our political environment right now is just as bad as it has ever been. But it’s actually been worse in times past.
The question for all the TCT churches and pastors and lay people is: How do we orient ourselves? How do we talk? How do we think? How do we feel in that milieu? What effect does it have?
“Seek to be as complex emotionally as Jesus and Paul.”
I heard Tim Keller say last week down at TGC that the polarization of our culture makes its way into every single institution in the West. That means your church feels more tense over disagreements probably than it used to. Disagreements have always been there, but today people feel more vulnerable, more easily angered. So the question is, What do we do? That’s one river flowing into this little talk.
Another is watching the social-media sphere and how people are doing it, and not liking a lot of what I see. I read blogs that make me think, “That’s not the way I want to do it.” I don’t want Bethlehem to be that way. I don’t want Bethlehem College & Seminary to sound like that. I don’t want Desiring God to sound like that. I don’t want the TCT churches to sound like that. I don’t want to sound like that.
So that’s the second river that’s flowing into this. We all can do blogs if we want to. How should they sound? What should they taste like?
Stare at Scripture
The third is I do this little thing called Look at the Book, which is an online teaching ministry where I put a text on the screen and draw on it and try to get meaning out of it. And I’m working my way through Philippians 3, and I just arrived at verse 18, and that’s what I want to linger on. Paul introduces the section by saying,
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:2–3)
And then he gives his pedigree of the flesh, and all his incredible boastworthy achievements as a Pharisee — and then he says it’s all garbage. And then he says it’s all,
that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For 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 3:10–19)
And I just stopped and thought: I want to do a lesson on this verse or this paragraph. And I just could not get away from I tell you now with tears. And so, I want to give you seven exhortations about holy tears.
Seven Exhortations to Tears
The first thing that struck me is that Paul is writing, or perhaps dictating, and he says that he’s crying. That’s what he says. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears” — so as he’s writing, he’s crying.
What is he writing? They’re enemies of the cross. They’re going to hell. They make their appetite their god. They boast in what they should be ashamed of and they’re ashamed of what they should be proud of, and their minds gravitate toward worldliness like a magnet.
Now, those are hard, negative, offensive things to say to people.
- Your end is destruction.
- Your god is your belly.
- You glory in your shame.
- You hate the cross.
- You love the world.
And he’s crying. John Piper can say those things relatively easily and seldom cry. So that’s what struck me. I love the apostle Paul. I wrote a book about it called Why I Love the Apostle Paul. This is one of the reasons: because he’s saying the things that have to be said. We’ve got to say things like that. If you’re not willing to say things like that because you’re a teary-eyed person, you have split apart what God means to be held together.
1. Beware of lopsided emotional responses to evil.
Beware of the either-or emotional life. That’s the negative way to put it. Here’s a positive way to put it: Seek to be as complex emotionally as Jesus and Paul. Embrace the both-and life, meaning both tears and tough words. The world has never seen such a thing. They know anger. Oh, they know evangelical anger, and they know spineless, wimpy, emotionally-driven people who have no moral backbone. They know that.
“The movement of a muscle has no spiritual meaning unless it is prompted by a deeper work of the Holy Spirit.”
They don’t know Paul. They’ve never seen anything like this. Paul really did have the spirit of Jesus. You may remember this scene. Jesus is in the synagogue and there’s a man with a crippled hand and the Pharisees were watching him to see if he’s going to heal on the Sabbath.
And Jesus said, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). Why would you put it like that? Is it right to do good or to do evil? And the Pharisees won’t even answer. I mean, how easy is that question? Kill? They won’t answer. Jesus is furious at that silence. But here’s what Mark says: “And [Jesus] looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5).
That’s the complexity I’m pleading for in TCT churches: anger, grieved; anger, grieved. Most of us — speaking for myself at least — experience anger as an omnivore of emotional destruction; meaning, it eats everything. If anger starts to take you over, no other emotions survive. They don’t survive. And many of your people grew up in homes where that’s all they knew. That’s the only emotion. Was there a rich emotional life in your family growing up?
Some people might say, “My dad was angry all the time,” and that just kills everything. They can’t feel tenderness. They can’t feel sweetness. They can’t feel authentic remorse. They can’t feel joy. They can’t feel hope. Anger has eaten everything. Jesus could feel these two amazing emotions at once: anger at this horrible silence — “you won’t even say killing is wrong” — and grief — “These are my people. I came for them.” Both-and.
2. Beware of performance tears.
Preachers, beware. Beware of planning the choke-up moment in your sermon. People can smell it. Beware of announcing your compassion for the latest calamity on Twitter, like grieving for the people in New Zealand. Why is that a problem? Because Jesus said,
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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)
Now, what does that mean? It means if you’ve been crying alone as you pray for your kids and skipped a meal on Friday and poured out your heart, you wash your face before you walk out of that room. You don’t put it on Twitter. In essence, Jesus said, “Don’t virtue signal.” “I’m virtuous, folks. I cry when there’s a calamity. When there’s a tornado in Oklahoma, I cry.”
And Jesus said, Don’t do that. But Paul just did it in verse 18. He said, “I’m crying.” He didn’t have to say that. He could’ve said, “Oh, Jesus said not to say that. So I won’t say it. I won’t say that I’m crying as I’m writing this letter.” And he said it. What are we to make of that? Is it ever right for a pastor to say, “I have shed tears for this church”? Do you have a right to say that? I think so.
So, what’s the difference? Why is it okay for Paul to broadcast his tears when Jesus says, “Wash your face after you’ve been crying and fasting so only your Father knows about it”? I spend most of my time trying to see unity in the Bible. And it’s beautiful when you can see it. I think the answer is motive and audience. Jesus said, “Don’t practice your righteousness in order to be seen.” That’s a motive.
If Paul’s being driven by wanting some praise from the Philippians as a tenderhearted pastor, that’s wicked. Paul did this more than once, right? In Acts 20:31 he says to the elders,
Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
“Three years I cried over you elders.” Wow. He didn’t have to say that. Or 2 Corinthians 2:4:
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.
So my first answer is when Paul wrote about his tears, he wasn’t trying to get praise. He was trying to tell them how much he loved them, how much he loved people, how much he wanted them to be that kind of tenderhearted person.
And the other is audience. Broadcasting your tears to the world is different than looking at a child and saying, “I’ve wept for you, son,” or a church that you want to get your hands around and you just have to say what you feel because they’re your family. That’s different. So, those are my two efforts to make sense out of Paul’s saying that he was crying when he wrote this letter and Jesus saying, “Wash your face so that you will be seen by God and not by man.”
So, my exhortation is be discerning and beware of performance tears. People can tell when you’re planning them.
3. Don’t equate physical tears with spiritual reality.
All pastors know this. A person comes into your office and everything is painful in their lives because they’ve so messed up. And they’re crying. They’re crying with everything they say. And as you talk and query and empathize, you can tell they’re crying because of pain. They’re not crying because they’re sorry for any sin they’ve committed; it’s the consequence of their crime that they’re painfully feeling, not the ugliness of their crime.
“Weeping is part of the proper divine response to the ordained sorrow.”
And you have to be a discerning person to know when tears are tears that are holy and spiritual because they’re given by the Holy Spirit for empathy or for joy or for pain over your own failures or a longing for a loved one — a lot of good and holy reasons that tears might well up. And there are very worldly, carnal, merely human reasons that you might cry that have no spiritual value at all. I’ll give you one example from the Scriptures.
See to it . . . that no one is 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 chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:15–17)
Those were tears that were unholy. Esau had become so hardened in his heart against the preciousness of his inheritance that when he realized that he couldn’t bring himself to actually repent, he wept. And it counted for nothing. It was too late for Esau.
We’ve been through this at Bethlehem over the years as we’ve tried to discern the nature of spiritual reality in the charismatic dimensions, like is trembling, is warmth on the shoulder when somebody’s praying for your healing, is the fluttering of an eyelash, is the wobbling of knees, is the falling down, is the laughing out loud, is the shouting, is the praying — are all these manifestations holy? They might be, and they might not be.
There’s nothing peculiarly spiritual or holy about anything physical. The movement of a muscle has no spiritual meaning unless it is prompted by a deeper work of the Holy Spirit giving evidence of something within. That’s crucial to realize when it comes to tears. Don’t equate physical tears with spiritual reality.
4. Hold dearly that God’s sovereignty over evil does not make us tearless, but sustains us in our tears.
This is heavy and complex. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and he knew that the blindness of Jerusalem was decreed by God.
And 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)
Now that passive verb hidden recalls Luke 10:21:
In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
He is weeping over the blindness of people who are blinded by God. Pastors have the impossible task not just of contextualizing the gospel into the categories that humans bring to church, but of creating categories — and this is one of them. Nobody comes to your church with this category. “If God decrees something, you might want to weep about it.” Nobody comes with that category. You’ve got to help them see that category biblically.
Paul does the same thing in Romans, which appears so counterintuitive on the surface.
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that 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. (Romans 9:1–3)
He is every day in sorrow and anguish for lost Jews. Sixteen verses later, he’s going to say, “So then he [God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18) And then he will say, “A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). This is the same as what Jesus said.
So, the point is that when our Affirmation of Faith that we love teaches the biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God over all things, it does not mean we do not weep over many of them. The weeping is just as appointed as whatever the pain is that has been decreed. The weeping is part of the proper divine response to the ordained sorrow and pain that’s out there.
5. When sadness makes life heavy with tears, don’t stop doing your work.
I’m thinking of pastors mainly, but it applies to all of you. Don’t stop doing your work. Take a deep breath. Own the sorrow. Trust God’s promise. Wash your face. And go to work. Some of us here have been together for 38 years, and so we have memories like: “This is so hard. I don’t think I can go to work. This is so hard. I don’t think I can enter into that controversy. This is too hard.” Psalm 126:5–6 says,
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.
Now, before you do any spiritualizing with that verse, just let it mean for the farmer what it means. It’s sowing time and you’re a farmer on the plains two hundred years ago, and there’s nobody living within ten miles of you. And your wife found a strange lump in her breast and your oldest child died three weeks ago and you can hardly continue. And you know that if you don’t plant, you don’t eat. You don’t have time for a grief break. Go plant your seed. That’s what this verse is about. It’s an illustration of life.
Every one of you will walk into painful situations where the tears are flowing, and you have to get up, wash your face, and — with no denial — own the pain. Believe a promise. Take a step in faith. “He’s going to get me through this day.” That’s the way ministry survives. That’s the way you keep going. And he brings you out. He brings you out in due time. And you get testimonies of people who walked through deep waters, and they’re able to smile and be radiant before us. How can that be? Because God is faithful.
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. So I’m just asking myself here. If you realize you’re a compassion deficient human being and you’re not as tenderhearted as you ought to be, what should you do? I’ve spent most of my pastoral ministry praying to be a different kind of person. I don’t believe in fatalism. Like: “Oh, you’re an introvert. You don’t need to like anybody.” Bologna. Don’t you believe in the Holy Spirit?
“Trust God’s promise. Wash your face. And go to work.”
So if you say, “Well, I never cry. I haven’t cried for fifteen years. I don’t ever feel anything like that,” what should you do? And I’m saying you should ask for tears. All I know to do is ask. Is there a place in the Bible that says that? I don’t want to just infer that that’s the way it should be. I want God to tell me that’s the way it should be. Here’s the verse you should consider:
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)
Is that a prayer? So I went to the Hebrew, and it says this very literally: “Who will give my head waters, who will give my eyes springs of tears?” That is a Hebraic way of saying that somebody else has to because I can’t do it. Somebody’s got to give me this. I can’t make these tears happen. I can’t become another kind of emotional person than I grew up being. No, you can’t, but God can. And so, if you have no holy tears, you should ask 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)
So, into this political milieu of polarization and hostility and outrage, don’t line up with this side or that side. Look to God for a kind of emotional engagement that the world simply will consider extraordinary.