Part 4 of series: God Will Wipe Away Our Tears: Grief and the Christian Life
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So far in this series I have been reflecting on some implications of the fact that, in the new creation, God will wipe away our tears. I have been asking and seeking to answer three questions:
1. What does this reveal about life?
2. What does this reveal about how we’re to live in the meanwhile?
3. What does this reveal about God?
In answer to question #1, the fact that God will someday wipe away our tears reveals that life on this side of the new creation will contain tears. Suffering, loss, and pain will be normal for us, even as they will be mixed with pleasure, gain, and joy.
My answer to question #2 has contained two parts so far. The fact of future tear-wiping reveals that:
a. We recognize the reality of pain and suffering.
b. We grieve differently.
As Christians, we are not surprised by the tragedies and tears of this life, though we do grieve them. Yet we grieve differently because our grief is awash in hope.
Today I want to continue to address the question, “What does this reveal about how we’re to live in the meanwhile?” by focusing on how we should relate to others when they are grieving.
c. We weep with those who weep.
I grew up in a family system that didn’t have much room for tears. My mother, who was prone to cry when her emotions were stirred, even if it was by a Kodak commercial on television, was the brunt of consistent family ridicule. Even tears of joy made us uncomfortable as a family.
But tears of sadness didn’t have much place either. My mother’s mother was surely one of the dominant influences in our family system. Her emotional motto was simple: “Make somebody happy and you’ll be happy too.” I expect I heard this from her mouth probably a thousand times while growing up, literally. (That’s about once a week during my childhood, a conservative guess.) If one of my sisters, for example, was sad in my grandmother’s presence, my job was to “Cheer her up!” This meant, not empathizing or sitting quietly with her, but rather acting silly and funny in her presence. Or it meant reminding her in a scolding tone to “Count your blessings.” (Photo: my grandparents with a younger and hairier me)
For the most part, my church environment seemed to reiterate what I had learned at home. Sadness was something to be avoided. If we were with someone who was grieving, our job was to help them stop grieving. (In actuality, because we were uncomfortable with the whole experience of grief, we often left sad people alone.) There were exceptions to this “Cheer them up or ignore them” mentality in my church experience, however. Once, when my mother was crying in the presence of Lloyd Ogilvie, our Senior Pastor at church, she apologized for her tears. “Martha,” he said in his sonorous baritone, “tears are the lubrication of the Holy Spirit.” Yet, even with Pastor Ogilvie weighing in on the benefit of tears, we still didn’t stop teasing my mother for being over-lubricated by the Spirit.
As I think back on my childhood and my early church experience, I can’t quite figure out why we managed to ignore one of the clearest, simplest imperatives in the whole Bible. It comes in Romans 12, in a list of instructions for how we’re to live with each other in the body of Christ. There we read, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:15). The answer to the question of how we’re to relate to those who grieve couldn’t be any plainer. We’re to weep with those who weep.
This passage of Scripture, in harmony with many others, calls us to sympathize with those who are grieving. Sympathy, as you may know, comes from the Greek word sympatheia, which means “feeling with” someone. Sympathy with those who hurt is what Scripture calls us to in Romans 12:15.
Notice, however, that this verse goes beyond mere sympathy. We’ not just to feel bad with people, but also to share in their expression of pain. We’re to weep alongside those who weep. This suggests sympathy pervaded empathy, which is feeling what others are feeling. (For some odd reason, sympathy lost favor some years ago. I heard sympathy derided as superficial. Empathy, “being able to feel what others are feeling” became the summum bonum of caring relationships. I think empathy is just great. But so is genuine sympathy.)
I don’t think Romans 12:15 requires some new rule that compels us to cry with the crying. This, after all, might push us in the direction of superficial or even sham sympathy. There will be times when we actually weep with the weeping, and times when we don’t. Some people, like my mother, and like me if I must be honest, seem to shed tears more easily than others. This has to do with our emotional wiring, not our biblical literalism.
So, whether you actually weep with the weeping or not, you can choose to put yourself in place where such is possible. And this, I think, would be the main point of Romans 12:15. To weep with those who weep means getting close to them in their pain. It means feeling sympathy. It means opening our own hearts to the possibility of empathy, thus feeling the pain of a brother or sister. This might very well lead us to shed tears. But the tears are not the point. A deep, genuine “being with in pain” is the point.
“Is this all?” you might wonder. Are we merely to feel the pain of a sister or brother who is suffering? I’ll answer this question in my next post.