Lent: Tears Can Do Double Duty

Post a Comment » Written on March 4th, 2009     
Filed under: News
CHICAGO, IL (March 4, 2009) – John Weborg is Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary and a longtime columnist for The Covenant Companion. Each week during Lent, we are sharing one of his columns that originally appeared in the magazine. Today’s installment first appeared in February 1989.

By Dr. John Weborg

William Blake said that tears are an “intellectual thing.” One might be inclined to take exception and say that tears are an emotional matter, not intellectual. Many can identify immediately with the psalmist who said, “My tears have been my food day and night” (42:3), which, we say, is an emotional reaction. But it is hardly intellectual since no ideas were developed, theses defended, or words and concepts defined.

I think Blake is on to something rather profound: when a Christian weeps at the death of someone dear, the tears are, to be sure, emotional expressions. But they are more. Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ we stand before a grave, helpless but not hopeless. Tears are tied to that paradox. A tear does double duty: it mourns the loss of someone dear and it recalls the promise of new life. As St. Paul said, we grieve but not as those who have no hope. So we grieve and recall a promise. The same tears have two aspects – sorrow and hope, leaving and anticipation.

What I have just described is highly intellectual. In the midst of sorrow the Christian knows loss and promise and the tears shed in recognition are not half and half. They are full of sorrow and fully rely on the promise. So while no ideas are developed, theses defended, or concepts defined, the tears nevertheless are rooted in a deeply intellectual matter: while living in death one lives by promise. One tear both grieves and relies, and to some extent, rejoices in the promise of God.

Our tears express this profound knowing. At one level, it is too deep for words, but it is not beyond knowing. When knowing is involved, so is the intellect.

Lent is upon us. Again Blake comes to our assistance. Because of the death of Jesus Christ, full atonement has been made and God’s salvation is available to all. This means that persons can stand convicted by their sins, but not condemned. St. Paul made great point of the assertion that there is therefore no condemnation on those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Convicted by our sins? We know them only too well. But it is a strange paradox to be convicted absolutely, yet not condemned. And then tears. Again, one tear does double duty: it regrets and repents of sin, yet rejoices in the completeness of God’s grace for all who ask for it.

Granted, tears have no grammatical structure or logical character. When the eyes flood with tears it is not the same as the mouth uttering sentences. But tears remain an intellectual thing. While they might not be conceptual in the formal sense, they do arise in the consciousness of persons – and consciousness means some kind of awareness. In the absence of concepts, what is left? Confession, perhaps. Tears, rooted as they can be in deeply paradoxical experiences – helpless but not hopeless at graves, convicted but not condemned by one’s sins – confess this profound knowing, this sense, this awareness, this consciousness that in the profoundest grief, one is not alone and in the profoundest sense of guilt, one is not forsaken. Tears are indeed an “intellectual thing,” more so than one realizes.

Paul Ricoeur says that a symbol gives rise to thought. That is a reason why tears can be intellectual and not just emotional in character. It is in the midst of crying that one begins to know that one tear is doing double duty. A tear is a symbol that gives rise to thought. In the midst of crying one begins to sense, then to know, that while one grieves it is not as those who have no hope. To know that is to have made a distinction, which is to perform an intellectual task: one grieves, but not hopelessly so.

As for Lent, an old hymn has it, “O mortal man [sic!]/Bewail thy grievous sins.” But when grieved to the point of tears, remember that a tear does double duty. Let the symbol give rise to thought. Convicted but not condemned! The tear is of regret and release.

And so the tears of Lent will embody Easter’s joy and what grieved at death will rejoice in new life. Tears are an intellectual thing, capable of double duty, for God’s glory and our good.

Editor’s note: to read a previously published column as part of this special Lent series, visit the following link:
•    Lent: Standing By Your Word

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Report This Post

Leave a Reply

Report This Blog