(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Brian-Micheloe-Doss)
I think I cry more easily than I used to.
I am not certain of why that is.
Perhaps the accumulation of years has deepened my emotional bandwidth. Or perhaps my experiences of grief and loss have ushered me into the kind of sorrow that never quite leaves, so that the act of crying feels more like a companion than a stranger.
Whatever the reason, my tears flow more easily now than they did when I was in my twenties and thirties. A few months ago, while looking at photos from an old family album, I began to cry. It was spontaneous and unexpected—an honest emotional response to treasured memories and ongoing grief. It felt authentic, even prayerful. It also felt healthy.
About a week after that experience, an acquaintance told me that he did not feel like going to church these days. When I asked why, his response caught me completely off guard.
I am embarrassed by my own emotion…I lost my mom, my dad, and my brother over the last year-and-a-half. Tears come out of nowhere these days. Music makes me cry. Prayer makes me cry. Stories make me cry. Communion makes me cry…I’m afraid that I would just sit there in a church service and wipe away tears. I think it’s off-putting to people. Who wants a weeping mess to be sitting beside them in a pew?
The conversation left me both heartbroken and enlightened. It made me wonder how many people, like this man, see the church, not as a safe and appropriate place for the messiness of human emotion, but as a sanitized environment in which emotions are carefully guarded, images are managed, and the rhythms of tidy politeness are protected. In sanctuaries where a tearful Savior is regularly worshiped and where the brokenness of the human pilgrimage is regularly named, could it be that a portion of the church’s people are so utterly intimidated by the emotional intensity of wordless weeping that they are unintentionally creating barriers against those who feel unpresentable in the rawness of their grief and pain?
In a recent article entitled “Crying In Worship” (which appeared in the June 20 issue of “The Christian Century”), Heidi Haverkamp offers these insights:
Most of us have something to cry about, no matter what time of year it is. So I find myself wishing that people cried in church more often. Why not? We welcome people to wear jeans, to bring their children, to receive communion, to fill out a visitor’s card—why not also welcome people to cry? Most of us could stand to be reminded that we are not alone in carrying grief, worry, and struggle. If we can’t cry in church, what’s the point?
If tears are not the enemy, then why do some in the church act as if they are? I can only speculate. Perhaps the shedding of tears frustrates the all-too-common “fix it” mentality, since tears are normally devoted to pain that cannot be quickly fixed. Perhaps tears are too often interpreted as an expression of weakness instead of a courageous practice of vulnerability. Or perhaps tears are seen as being inappropriately intimate and honest—an unsettling and unwelcome reminder of the nearness of brokenness.
If such thinking has any grounding in the church, and it might, then the church’s people would do well to spend regular time engaging with these Biblical convictions:
- We follow a Jesus who openly wept over a beloved friend and a beloved city, meaning that Jesus believed that tears were the only appropriate response to some circumstances
- Christocentric community demands nothing less than a willingness to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), so that followers of Jesus might allow their hearts to connect in the intimacy and profundity of authentic emotion
- Tears, at their deepest, are prayers without words—the inarticulate cries of a soul that joins creation in “groaning for redemption” (Romans 8:22)
If this is truth, then weeping is not an an obstacle to relationship but rather an invitation to stand upon the sacred ground of relational vulnerability. Weeping is not a reason to stay away from church but rather a sacred opportunity to allow the divine tears of a tender-hearted God to commingle with those of the worshiper.
As Heidi Haverkamp puts it in the article I referenced earlier, “I wonder if this could be a blessing for others…to sit and cry in church when we need to, to be God’s people all together, with all the joys and sorrows, smiles and tears, of human life, before the One who loves us so much.”
Perhaps a Christ-follower will become most authentically human only when he or she stewards emotions, not with a spirit of shame or withdrawal, but with the kind of vulnerability that gives to weeping the space it needs to gasp and to breathe. Perhaps the church will be at its most sacramental only when it believes that the cup of salvation holds a grace that is substantial enough to accommodate the tears of the broken.