The gift of joy is a paradox. The Greek word literally means “for the heart, in its deepest place of passion and feelings, to be well.” Joy often brings a deep sense of delight. Yet, whenever you are around people who are very joyful, you will likely see tears. These are tears of joy, wonder, gratitude, satisfaction that come from a deep place in a person’s soul, when someone has experienced a kind of greatness so amazing, almost too great to behold. The soul simply bursts with a release of ecstasy streaming down their face. Of all the things that can be planned in life, tears of joy and gladness cannot and do not need to be choreographed. They simply happen. And it is the same for the tears of sorrow, and tears of pain or loss, burning the eyes like the salt of the sea, and coming from a place as deep and endless as the ocean. Tears of sorrow expose a person’s deepest vulnerabilities, longings, and losses. The paradox of joy is delight so deep it brings tears from the same place as sorrow.
To see someone crying out of joy, or weeping out of grief may sound the well of our own tears. Somehow, we identify with them, being uncontrollably happy for them, which gives us our own joy. Or we may find ourselves suffering with them, which evokes our own compassion, sometimes the memory of our own grief. Saint Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” and in the face of tears – someone’s tears of gladness or tears of sadness – our own tears simply flow.[i]
Tears on the face of an infant may be the first, most revealing sign of how abjectly needy we all are, how small we all are in the face of life, which is so big. We need not be taught how to cry. Crying is how most of us began life. Tears flow through life. Tears transcend. Tears cross all divisions of class, socio-economic background, race, religion, education, age, or stature. Some of us may have been taught not to cry, certainly not publicly, because our tears are too revealing. As adults, we may need to re-learn that crying is okay, even necessary, and certainly nothing to apologize for.
The Gospel according to John includes one of the shortest sentences in the entire Bible: “Jesus began to weep.”[ii] Just several days earlier, Jesus had been told that his dear friend, Lazarus, was gravely ill. On hearing this, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry. He says his friend Lazarus has just “fallen asleep”; his illness will not “lead to death, rather it is to God’s glory.” Jesus stays behind for two more days before setting off. Why does Jesus stall? We don‘t know for sure, but I imagine he stalls for the same reason that I have when given news of some great tragedy that is before me. Many-a-time, when I was a hospital chaplain, I had to pause in a hospital corridor before I walked into a room of tragedy and sorrow. It’s the same kind of pausing I have done when faced with terrible news about a family member or one of my own friends. A pause, just to “get it together,” to be re-centered and grounded before I plunged into a well of grief awaiting me. You may know about this in your own life, of needing to pause before you faced a tragedy.
I think this is what Jesus is doing when he pauses on hearing the tragic news about his beloved friend, Lazarus. When Jesus does arrive on the scene and sees his friend Lazarus very much dead, Jesus spontaneously weeps. He loses it. He has lost his friend. Has he also lost his bearings, or lost his certainty, or lost his courage, or lost his sense of power, or maybe lost his theology? We don’t know. He has certainly lost his composure. Jesus weeps.
We don’t really know what’s behind Jesus’ tears, any more than we can know with full certainly why anyperson weeps. But I find that oh-so-brief moment of Jesus’ weeping – where he is doing nothing and saying nothing – one of the most helpful scenes in the entire Gospel. Jesus’ tears flow so spontaneously, flowing like a river connecting earth and heaven. If we only had the story when Jesus hears of his friend Lazarus’ grave illness, when Jesus arrives on the scene, when Jesus resolves the crisis, when Jesus brings “glory” to God in raising Lazarus, we would have so much less help as we try to make sense out of the endless griefs that fill our own day and our own lives. But instead we read that Jesus weeps.
In our world there are so many people who are not brought back to life: an abandoned infant, a murdered child, an executed prisoner, a soldier or bystander shot, a family washed away in a mudslide, a homeless person who has starved to death, a lifeless loved one who was ravaged by disease or pandemic…. These are not being brought back to life. Not on this earth. Not according to the news. We as Christians do believe in what we call “the resurrection,” that life on this earth is not the end, but that our end is in God where, as we read in the last book of the Bible, “there shall be weeping no more,” and where God will finally “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”[iii] But in the meantime – and sometimes it is a very mean time – there may well be many tears of enormous, unspeakable grief and loss. This picture of Jesus’ weeping may be a real comfort, a real grace, to us as we watch, and wait, and weep with in the world.
When was the last time you wept? You may have un-learned this most natural response to the world’s wonders and its terrors, perhaps even very early on. One of life’s early lessons is how to act in life. We are taught what to do and say, and how to appear and speak as we navigate our way through life. This socialization can train us to keep our tears at bay, most of the time. And yet there are these moments in life when we lose our script and lose our makeup, when we are in the presence of greatness – sometimes the greatest of joys and sometimes the greatest of losses – and we find ourselves uncontrollably moved, or unavoidably stopped, and our watering eyes tell the truth.
Spiritually speaking, such moments are very grace-filled, though they may not feel it at the time. It’s like a dam has been broken within us, something which we have held dearly, or held back, or held up is broken, and what gushes forth out of the dregs of our heart is something utterly real about who we are and what we feel and need. It is not our glittering image but our authentic self. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called “the gift of tears.”[iv] It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [God’s] Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighing too deep for words.”[v] God’s Spirit sighing within us. Not solving, but sighing. This is the “gift of tears,” sometimes a costly gift but an incredibly cleansing gift. Whatever you know about tears – your own or others’ – tears are part of the flow of life. Tears may be our best prayers when we witness beauty too great to behold, or a loss so vast we can barely even see ahead. Let the tears come. Use those tears. Learn from those tears.
We don’t need to go looking for tears. Tears have a way of finding us in the best of times and in the worst of times. Those moments in life when we well up with tears, what has broken forth is evidence of a greatness bigger than who we are. Tears give us pause. Tears also give us presence: God’s real presence among us in the face and form of Jesus who weeps. Jesus weeps for us and Jesus weeps with us. God is with us, meeting us in both the sweetest and sorriest of times through the gift of tears. We read in the psalms, “For with you, O Lord, is the well of life.”[vi] Tears come from a deep well within our own soul. Tears are an estuary from God and to God, something which Jesus himself knew. Jesus weeps. He weeps for himself. Jesus weeps for Lazarus. Jesus weeps for Jerusalem. He weeps for you and for the whole world. Don’t run from tears; let the tears run when they come. Our tears do not come out of emptiness; they come out of a very deep well of life, the one from which Jesus himself draws, and his tears flow into joy.
Yes, joy. Remember joy, “the gift of joy,” where we began? You may be surprised that we’ve spent so much of our time on joy speaking about tears – but that is where the paradox of joy comes in. Tears can arise from joy – that’s one paradox. Tears can also lead to joy – and that’s another paradox.
For some of us, at some moments in our life, the gift of joy presents itself with such immediacy in our experience of the beauty and wonder of life. These spontaneous experiences of joy need little cultivation. The joy simply floods our heart and splashes upon our countenance. How thrilling!
We may also reclaim the gift of joy from our memories. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “remember” literally means to re-member, that is to re-attach something from our past to our experience of the present. Re-member. Re-membering your experiences of joy in your past is a gateway to enjoying life in the present. To enjoy is quite literally “allowing the joy in.” Remembering joy often opens the door for more joy.
There is also the gift of joy that comes from the alchemy of tears and suffering. You will only know this in retrospect. When you are suffering, you are often inundated in a flood of sorrow and tears which may even be bitter. Suffering is not joyful. Remembering occasions of suffering in your past which have amazingly blossomed into joy will help awaken in sorrow the hope that joy will return. We don’t hope for what we see or experience in the present; we draw hope from our past. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn… and have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”[vii] Joy is a mysterious yet wonderful fruit of the Spirit. The height of our joy will often mirror the depth of our suffering. Joy will dawn.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- If joy is an active word in your soul’s vocabulary, how do you define joy? What opens the door of joy and enjoyment?
- In your lifetime, who or what has occasioned the experience of joy – both one-time occurrences and ongoing experiences? (If you can remember the experience, it is still alive within your soul. Reclaim it!)
- Where in your lifetime might you have unredeemed joy, that is, occasions which at the time were very difficult, even bad, but through which have come the undeniable experience of joy? Don’t leave that joy behind. Uncover it, bring it into the light, and let its light shine onto your present.
In the great Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky gives voice to the experience of joy through the words of a dying monk, Father Zosima:
“My Life is ending, but every day that is left me I feel in touch with a new infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my heart quivering with rapture, my mind glowing, and my heart weeping with joy. …Kiss the earth and love it. Love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love everyone, love everything…. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one.”
[i] Romans 12:15.
[iii] Revelation 7:17; 21:4.
[iv] The psalms make reference to an ancient practice of saving the gift of tears: “You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle”(Psalm 56:8).
[v] Romans 8.26.
[vi] Psalm 36:9.
[vii] John 16:20.