In Praise of Tears

When Jesus said that we must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven, my tendency has always been to think about the positive qualities of childhood. I am sure you have heard more than one sermon on that passage. We mention their care free attitude, their dependence on parents, the implicit trust in them, their innocence before the world (taking all things at face value), the honesty with which they interact with that world (no hypocrisy, no posturing). And all of those are true. Furthermore, we know Jesus can’t be commending them for their tantrums, the moments of selfishness (unwillingness to share a toy), or their inability to fully understand consequences. But there is something else that is part and parcel of a toddler’s daily life that almost never makes it into the topic of these sermons: crying.

The life of a toddler is a full-time learning marathon about the world. The lessons come each day, inexorably. Most are met with delight. But when things go wrong, often the result is inconsolable weeping. I am not talking about tantrums but rather their natural reaction to sudden disappointment: it could be at being hurt when everything they were doing up to a moment ago was pure fun; it could be at realizing that their most fervent wish is not going to be granted right now; it could be at the unfairness of the world (and parents) for making them face the consequences of their own actions; it could even be at realizing that something they thought was right and great is actually wrong.

Crying is their only mechanism to cope with being faced with the reality of their limited power.

Is this aspect of being a child included in Jesus’ admonition? Is this an essential quality of little children, that we have forgotten?

Dealing with disappointment, as a child

photo of child crying

Have you ever dropped off a little one at the Sunday School classroom at Church? Or what about the first day of Kindergarten? Do you remember the tears? There are few things more traumatic than being abandoned. Children know this, deeply.

In John, Chapter 14, Jesus is preparing His disciples for the reality that He will not be with them – in person – much longer.

John 14:15-19 If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will beg the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see him nor know him; but ye know him, for he abides with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you orphans, I am coming to you. Yet a little and the world sees me no longer; but ye see me; because I live ye also shall live.

He is going away. But He is assuring them that He is not abandoning them. He is leaving in His place One who can be with them forever: the Holy Spirit. But how can this be a comfort? Jesus Himself has just acknowledged that the Holy Spirit is invisible to human eyes.

The answer is that seeing is not the only way of believing. Knowing is just as good. Thus, Jesus reminds the disciples that they already know the Holy Spirit. By the choices they have made while sharing His ministry, by the doubts they have surmounted when facing His enemies, by accepting the heavenly provenance of the miracles they have witnessed, something inside them has changed. They have gone from being disciples of a Rabbi to being believers in the Messiah. They have gone from noting facts, to understanding the reality of what they have been experiencing. They know the Kingdom of Heaven is Reality.

And the Spirit of God abides with those that know. I think this is the fundamental definition of faith. As the writer of Hebrews says, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1). Evidence, assurance, terms we associate with seeing proof, do not require “seeing” to know the truth of the proof.

I know the truth of the law of Gravity, not because I have seen gravitational fields but because the evidence is there to be known: I have felt the effects of Gravity, I have read the evidence of the experience of others, I have understood the experiments, maybe performed some myself in school. I have studied the equations, verified that they are self-consistent, free from contradiction, even derived them myself.

Seeing with our physical eyes is not the only way to believe. Ultimately, the only true way to believe is to know. This why in trying to get Nicodemus to understand what being born from above means, Jesus says:

John 3:6-8 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not wonder that I said to thee, It is needful that *ye* should be born anew. The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it comes and where it goes: thus is every one that is born of the Spirit.

You hear the wind and know it exists. But you cannot see which way it is going. Therefore, you don’t know its purpose. It is the same way with those born of the Spirit. What we do, what we believe, what we know, is incomprehensible to the world. But we know.

The faith that comes from knowing the Reality of the Kingdom of God is the bulwark against disappointment because the Spirit that abides with us continues to change us till the day that we ask Him to Live inside us forever. And from that moment on, we know we will never be abandoned.

But even if that child you are dropping off believes that you are not lying, that you will not (willingly) abandon her, that you will return for her, Don’t the tears still flow?

The pain of loss

During Jesus’ early ministry, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law kept hanging around his crowds. For the people believed they were witnessing a move of God, and if it was so, the religious leaders couldn’t possibly allow themselves to be left behind. But Jesus kept doing scandalous things, including eating and drinking with sinners and tax-collectors. That way of living even got to John’s disciples…

Matthew 9:14-15 Then come to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees often fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said to them, Can the sons of the bridechamber mourn so long as the bridegroom is with them? But days will come when the bridegroom will have been taken away from them, and then they will fast.

I used to take Jesus’ ending comment here as being a reference to the day when He would be arrested, tried, condemned to death, and then crucified on a cross. But the sense is plural; the period of fasting alluded to only begins.

Still, what about Resurrection Sunday? Didn’t that end the sorrow; didn’t that make everything all right? Are tears now obsolete?

We get an insight from looking at the two times we have on record that Jesus wept?

Luke 19:41-44 And as he drew near (Jerusalem), seeing the city, he wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, even at least in this thy day, the things that are for thy peace: but now they are hid from thine eyes; for days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall make a palisaded mound about thee, and shall close thee around, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children in thee; and shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou knewest not the season of thy visitation.

This passage occurs at the end of the triumphal procession to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when Jesus declared that if the people and the children had not sung the praises of God on that day, the stones themselves would have shouted. And in the midst of triumph, He weeps. Why?

Because the city He loves, and its people, are going to suffer the consequences of their choices. Having refused to know that this was the day of visitation – so long ago prophesied – they set the stage for themselves to reject God’s plan. They blinded themselves. Within a week, many of those who in that triumphal procession had cried “Hosanna”, would be crying just as loud: “Crucify him!” And many of them would be lost forever.

The other occasion, takes place at Lazarus’ tomb. Martha first comes to Him and says, “If you had been here (like we asked you), our brother would not have died.” She is arguing with Him. And Jesus tries to get her to understand what Eternal Life really means for those who have chosen to believe.

John 11:25-26 Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me, though he have died, shall live; and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die. Believest thou this?

Jesus is telling her that death is no longer the end of the story, after which we have to wait for a resurrection that renders our ultimate verdict. No, Jesus IS the Resurrection AND the Life. For those who believe, He is the verdict. Yes, they will rise on the last day but that’s because they never die… even if they leave this life behind.

Martha goes away and gets Mary:

John 11:32-35 Mary therefore, when she came where Jesus was, seeing him, fell at his feet, saying to him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

 Jesus therefore, when he saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled, and said, Where have ye put him? They say to him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept.

painting by James Tissot: Jesus wept
Painting by James Tissot: “Jesus wept”

Why?

John11:36-39 The Jews therefore said, Behold how he loved him! And some of them said, Could not this [man], who has opened the eyes of the blind [man], have caused that this [man] also should not have died? Jesus therefore, again deeply moved in himself, comes to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus says, Take away the stone…

Even knowing what He was about to do, raising Lazarus back to life, Jesus cries.

Mary’s despair at the loss of her brother comes from the same place of disappointment as Martha’s. They used the same words BUT Mary doesn’t use them to argue with Jesus. She does the only thing a child can do, the only thing we can do when we recognize our powerlessness, she lays those words at the feet of Jesus and weeps.

And Jesus understands that pain, the pain of loss, and, so, He wept with Mary. But He experiences an even deeper pain, as He would soon do before Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the pain of knowing the reality of eternal loss. He heard the unbelief in the heart of the crowd even before they voiced their comments. He knew what would happen after He raised Lazarus from the dead. Some would believe, yes; but others, faced with the same evidence, would run to tell the Pharisees about the miracle and plot with them to assassinate Lazarus as well.

I don’t think we could ever fully understand what Jesus felt in these two occasions. The cardinal mission of the eternal Son of God was to bring salvation to our world: For God so loved the world that He gave His One and Only Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have Eternal Life. This is why He became one of us; this is why He died. And yet so many of those for whom He paid the ultimate price would still, will still, choose to reject that free gift. And being God, He knows each one of them, intimately… He loves each one of them unconditionally. And yet, they will be lost.

Have you ever felt that pain?

The pain of eternal loss will always be here in this world. It will always be with Jesus. It will always be with us, His disciples, as long as we love… as long as there is someone in this world that we love who has chosen to reject the love of the Son of God.

So, what can we do?

Maybe all we can do, when we have tried everything else and failed, when we realize how utterly powerless we are, is precisely to do what Mary did. Weep at His feet.

After all, it worked for Mary.

I think this is why fasting and mourning is always going to be part of our life. There is a day when all tears will be wiped away… but it will never come in my lifetime; not in this world.

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