“Never let them see you cry.”
Many 21st century women embrace this mantra of secular feminism, particularly in the business world. Yet, some of us within the church have also accepted this tenet, and work hard to stay in control of our emotions to avoid appearing weak or overly feminine.
Having seen some women use their tears to manipulate situations, I’ve had no desire to join them in that ploy. I’ve wanted to appear strong and competent; after all, I have been called to function in a leadership role in the church. I serve in The Salvation Army, and there has seemed little room for tears in its militant life-and-death battle for souls.
By nature or nurture (perhaps both), I am not a weeper. I learned early that crying doesn’t accomplish anything, and it could expose a hope within me that was likely to be dashed. If I made myself vulnerable to another, I could -- and would -- be hurt.
In Inside Out, Larry Crabb described me when he spoke of Eve, “The support and vulnerability through which she'd expressed her womanliness now endangered her. She had to become tough and hard in order to handle the reality that Adam was no longer a perfect partner. She became threatened as a person who finds joy in accepting and embracing others but now feels compelled to defensively control her relationships.”
As a result, I have sat with dry eyes through countless funerals, willing to pass the box of tissues, but seldom needing to use them myself. I have gently traced the path of tears down the cheek of another, while my cheeks remained parched. Yet, as I mature, I have become aware and also ashamed of the ice maiden within that refuses to weep -- or cannot.
I recently read Joseph's story in preparation for a sermon, and I was struck by the image I saw in the pages of Genesis. Contrary to the macho, in-charge picture I'd had of Joseph, here in the pages of Scripture, was the ultimate crybaby. Six times in the narrative he is described as weeping. First, in Genesis 42:24, “He turned away from them [his brothers] and began to weep.”
In Genesis 43:30, we find another snapshot: “Deeply moved at the sight of his brothers, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there. After he had washed his face, he came out…” In Genesis 45:2, Joseph grew bolder in his expression of emotions: “And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him.”
Genesis 45:14 finds the family ties evoking tears again, “Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept,” while in Genesis 46:27, when reunited with his father, Joseph has the same response: “As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.” Finally, upon the death of his father, Genesis 50:1 tells us that, “Joseph threw himself upon his father and wept over him.”
Ah, Joseph, you come alive to me through your tears. You obviously were strong, charismatic and confident. What strength was it that you called on to free yourself from humiliation when you publicly wept?
Obviously, you were aware that there was a time to dry your tears, wash your face and regain control (43:30), but you weren't afraid to let others know the depth of your emotions. Joseph, I believe you have a word for me, and for us today, as does the writer of Ecclesiastes.
Young, old, male, female, “there is a time to weep . . .”
A Time to Weep
Weeping, after all, does have purpose. Aside from the physical release found in the shedding of tears, there are symbolic meanings to our tears.
First, they are a mark of our surrender. As Dan Allender suggests in Bold Purpose, “It is surrendering our emptiness to our Father in the midst of our struggle that opens our heart to the sorrow and unwept tears that we so desperately want him to touch.” When we cry, we give up our need to be in control of our emotions and of what our faces look like. Our yielding to the tears allows us to admit our powerlessness.
Weeping also gives us a physical, tangible way to embrace the sorrow we are feeling. Again, Allender, this time writing with Tremper Longman in The Cry of the Soul, witnesses to this, “I cannot weep without sensing that each tear is caught in the crevice of his wounds, mingled with his sorrow, and saved as a rare perfume to anoint his glory . . . I must sorrow, even despair, in communion with others who live with some awareness of the same cry of dereliction and the same hope of resurrection.” Whether our tears are those of remorse over our own sin, or those of mourning over the loss of one we loved, they are a concrete way to say, “I ache.”
Yet, with the embrace of sorrow also comes the promise of a merciful release. Richard Rohr, writing in Everything Belongs says, “Weeping is a gentle release of water that washes, baptizes and renews.” He continues to teach us that, “when the mourning that Jesus called “blessed” is lost, we move instead into the fixing, blaming and controlling mode.” When life is difficult, we deeply long for that merciful release, but all too often, rush to fix the situation. But when we allow ourselves to weep for a season, we can often sense in our bodies and spirits a release that no longer holds us responsible for the pain, but simply allows us to sit in it in peace.
Perhaps it truly is as simple as Ecclesiastes teaches us: “There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” Finding the balance, ever the challenge for the woman or man who follows Christ, is just as important in expression of our emotions as in the balance of ministry and family. It is in the embracing of our female person, created and nurtured, that we find ways to live authentically in our churches and communities, and that includes the embrace of both our tears and laughter. We need not be ashamed of either.
Learning to Weep
A personal word to conclude: After 26 years of front-line Salvation Army ministry, I am being transferred to a support role, not by choice but as a result of family needs and other circumstances.
My initial reaction to this reassignment has been one of resistance, and I have struggled to make sense of this change of direction. Because I am convinced that God wastes nothing, I have been looking for glimpses of his purpose through these days. He has been incredibly faithful to his daughter in his provision, but the gift from his hand that I am valuing most during this time is the refreshment of the well of my tears.
Old habits are slow to die, and I often find myself attempting to squeeze them back, but they've been persistent, leaking out, ambushing me with ferocity, when I least expect them. I am gradually coming to accept their healing powers, abandoning my Stone Cold Steve Austin mask for a real woman who can both weep and laugh, who can plumb the depths of sorrow but also claim the fullness of joy that Jesus described as “like a river, overflowing its banks” (John 16, The Message). I am becoming, as 2 Corinthians 6:10 puts it, “immersed in tears, but always filled with great joy!” (The Message).
unshed, the clogged dam constricts its salty burden
unflinching eyelids maintain their stubborn barricade
sandbagged mightily against the threatening flood
unbidden, they stagger silently down parched cheeks
narrow rivulets tracing their timeworn trail
as a mist of sorrow enshrouds the calloused heart
unleashed, the deluge surges in a torrent of heat
a ferocious ambush, striking emotion’s jugular without warning
leaving behind shame’s blotched complexion
unbound, they wash as paths of healing waters
a cleansing stream, swelling to kiss the crest of pain
pooling rage, sorrow, fear, joy in a soothing salve