The Meaning of Jesus’ Tears and Our Own
First, we might be surprised to read that the sinless Son of God, the One by whom and for whom all things were created, actually cried when He walked this earth as the perfect man. We might be able to easily imagine Jesus laughing with joy. Or even getting angry with righteous indignation. But crying? Like ugly crying where the tears pour out and our nose gets snotty! For many of us, this might be hard to picture. There are few human acts like crying that make us feel so weak, so vulnerable, so frail and fragile. Many of us have been taught by our own families or through our surrounding culture to reject the inherent weakness of grief. “Big girls don’t cry,” we’re told. Or maybe some of us heard the abusive words growing up, “Stop that crying or I’m going to give you something to cry out.” Even when we lose loved ones or go to funerals, we often hear messages like, “Don’t cry for her…she’s not sad anymore because she’s in heaven.” It seems that we collectively have a difficult time believing in the goodness of grief and the necessity of doing something as human as crying. Many of us have associated shame with any feelings of weakness, including the emotion of grief, so that we work very hard to quickly dismiss and ignore this feeling. Men especially are given false versions of masculinity that encourage stoicism and unfeeling, a posture that involves being less human than Jesus Himself. It has taken me years to see this, but the older I get the more certain I am that it’s true. Men who reject emotions like grief don’t do so because they are strong, but because they are too weak to face and tell the truth about the reality of their own pain.
But Jesus’ tears in the Lazarus story give us a very different message about grief. If Jesus was and is the perfect human, God made flesh in a human body like ours, then His tears teach us that grief is a very good and necessary part of being human. Jesus teaches us that the weakness of grief is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it’s an important part of our humanity that must be embraced while living in a fallen world. Our grief is an important way that we tell the truth about life, that things really are broken, that we long for God to come and make all things new, that this current world is not our home. Grief is a vital human process of making sense out of a chaotic and shattered world. When we reject grief, we are lying to ourselves and attempting to live in an illusionary world, a world that is perfect and where nothing has gone wrong. This is akin to a man trying to lie down in his bed, close his eyes and drift off into sleep while the house he lives in is on fire. Some of us have had terrible, traumatic things happen in our past that we have never really faced, things we still have never really made sense of. And the best way to begin to make sense of these events is for us to tell the story in the presence of an empathetic, Christ-like ear and ask for God’s help to tell the truth by grieving our pain. For some of us, the experience of depression can be our heart and mind’s way of telling us that there is remaining pain in our lives that God wants us to continue to grieve.1
The second thing that amazes me about Jesus’ tears in the Lazarus story is the fact that He weeps just moments before He raises his good friend from the dead. At first glance, this again may look rather counter-intuitive to us. I mean why would Jesus cry about something that He is going to fix just a few minutes later? If many of us were at the scene of Lazarus’ tomb and saw the sad sight of a group of grieving people, we likely would respond by saying (or at the very least thinking), “Everyone just calm down here, there’s no real reason to cry, you all can just stop with all the tears. You see I’m about to raise Lazarus from the dead so there’s no real reason to cry.” As absurd and jarring as this might sound, we often communicate the same sentiment whenever we throw out theological truths during people’s grief in order to shorten or limit the grieving process. Too often in our Christian circles, we unwittingly pit reason and truth against good, God-given emotions that God wants us to feel. We often throw out good truths to hurting people because we are so uncomfortable being with others while they suffer, and we want to escape the awkward feeling of someone else’s pain as quickly as possible. Grief also makes us feel powerless, again an experience that we often work hard to avoid. Grief makes us face the fact that many of the things that feel the most broken are things we have no power to immediately change. Grief makes us face our very real limitations and will drive us either to despair or to a deeper faith that looks to God to be the Savior and Healer of His world. Christians sometimes tell crying people, “You know God works all things together for good.” And of course, this promise is gloriously true, but again, Jesus’ tears teach us that grief is a necessary and good part of God’s working all things together for good. Jesus’ tears teach us that we don’t have to choose between faith in God’s work and grieving a significant loss; not only can we do both, but Jesus shows us that we should do both. He teaches us that faith and grief sometimes go hand-in-hand.
I also love the Lazarus story because it portrays to us in dramatic form our greatest hope in the midst of our grief. It gives us a glimpse of the Christian’s glorious hope that we hold onto in the face of our grief. If we live long enough, all of us at some point will endure experiences so painful that the grief we feel when recalling or retelling those events will still linger, even many years after the initial event. Some wounds cut so deep that there will always be some feeling of grief that arises from the remaining scar. It is important to have a long-view of our experience of grief, to understand that some aspects of grief will remain throughout our entire lives here on earth. And that isn’t a sign of a lack of faith or progress, but a sign that we are committed to telling the truth and being honest about the pain of having to live outside of heaven, east of Eden. But it’s also important to see that our grief has an expiration date, that grieving is an important part of how we make sense of life this side of heaven but that the day is coming when our grief will finally come to an end. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead gives us a glimpse of what this coming future day might look like. We can imagine the sheer, unadulterated joy the friends and family of Lazarus felt who were present when Lazarus emerged from his tomb, still wrapped in the burial clothes that he received after his death. Tears instantly turned to cries of ineffable laughter. For those present who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, it must have seemed like some fairy tale that was just too good to be true. But the glory of this scene is that the fairy tale became reality, and something happened that was just too good to not be true. All the witnesses that day had their grief stripped away in front of their very eyes as Jesus undid all the misery and heartache of death. And that is exactly what we as Christians believe God will one day do for all His people. Because Jesus has defeated death in His own resurrection, He has forever secured a coming future for us that will be devoid of grief. What sustains us and enables us to persevere in the emotional marathon of grief is the very real hope that grief is an important part of our present but that it is not a part of our eternal future. Grief is not our destiny as children of God. The Bible ends with the most stunning, moving description we could ever possibly imagine, when God comes to our world and remakes it into a place where all our suffering and sorrow will be put away forever. John describes this scene for us in Revelation twenty-one where we are told that God Himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Between now and that day we will cry; we will grieve as we follow Jesus as He teaches us what it means to be a human who trusts God while living in a fallen world. But as children of God, we can do all of these things in hope knowing that eternal comfort and joy awaits us on the other side of our present grief. We grieve now knowing that a day is coming when Jesus will come again and to quote J.R.R. Tolkien, “everything sad is going to come untrue.”2
1. This of course isn’t the only cause for depression but just one of a variety of possible causes.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King