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What Makes God Weep?

by Nancy Guthrie

From holiday productions at local churches to big screen presentations like “The Passion of Christ,” I have a hard time accepting dramatic presentations of the story of Jesus. Not because I think they shouldn’t be done—they usually expand my understanding of who he is and what he came to do. My problem is with the portrayal of Jesus in these productions. How can any actor capture the complex personality and passion of Jesus in an authentic way? Sometimes they seem too syrupy sweet, sometimes too casual or flippant, sometimes too serious-all-the-time.
And when I look at the Gospels, I see so many different emotions and attitudes in the person of Jesus. I see him teaching with authority, touching with compassion. I see righteous anger, courageous boldness, exhaustion, and determination.

But I suppose what we all want to see is the aspects of Jesus that meet our own unique needs, answer our deepest questions. And what I have needed to see is the sorrow of Jesus, because in seeing his sorrow, I find comfort and companionship in my own. I find guidance for dealing with my sorrow and acceptance of my tears. My need has been not only to see Jesus as sage, savior and sin-conqueror, but as sorrower.

It was the prophet Isaiah who described the Messiah as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care,” (Isaiah 53:3). Personally it helps me to know that Jesus understands what sorrow feels like. Seeing him as a man of sorrows helps me to draw close to him. But seeing Jesus as my guide in sorrow also shows me what is worthy of great sadness in a way that often challenges my earthbound investment of tears.

What Moves God to Tears?

Perhaps the most familiar picture of the sorrowing Jesus is from the story of the death of Lazarus, found in John 11:33-35:
“When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, he was moved with indignation and was deeply troubled. ‘Where have you put him?’ he asked them. They told him, ‘Lord, come and see.’

Then Jesus wept.”

Have you ever wondered why Jesus cried at the death of Lazarus? After all, he knew he was about to raise him from the dead. It troubled Jesus deeply when he saw Mary’s despair and the wailing mourners with her. Perhaps he could see in her weeping and hear in their wailing the reality of unbelief that robbed them from being able to grieve with hope and left them with only despair. Perhaps his indignation was triggered by intense disappointment that they did not believe or value his words when he told them, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again” (11:25). While believers are not immune from the pain of grief, it is different for the believer than it is for those who do not know Christ—at least it should be. Actually death is the great revealer of what we really believe and how much we value resurrected life after physical death.

But beyond his frustration over their despairing grief, I think Jesus wept because he was personally pained at the hurt that death caused to people he loved. His were tears of compassion for Mary and Martha, and tears of determination, perhaps, to finish the work he came to do, to win a victory, once and for all, over the power of death. It breaks the heart of God that death has so much power to hurt those he loves. Look here and see tears on the face of God, because he feels the hurt and emptiness that death leaves in its wake and longs with us for the day when death is destroyed forever.

Tears Over Tragedy

Later we see tears on the face of Jesus once again, but they come at a time we would expect him to be happy. Luke 19 tells us that as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, a crowd surrounded him shouting out, “Bless the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). While we might think Jesus would rejoice as the people spread out their coats for him and welcomed him, Luke tells us that he began to cry.

Jesus could see beyond that day to the time quickly coming when the shouts of the people would become “Crucify him!” He could see beyond their words and into their hearts. And what he saw was hardness toward God, superficiality in their words of welcome, rejection of the opportunity God was offering to them to replace their religiosity and ritual with a relationship that would be soul-satisfying and spirit-saving.

What is it that moves God to tears? It is not physical death. It is eternal death. He looks over the people he created, and he weeps over their rejection of the opportunity to experience his love and to know him in a life-transforming, death-overcoming way. He weeps because it is not just a tragedy; it is the ultimate definition of tragedy. There is no tragedy in being ushered from this life to the next when that next life is spent in the presence of God. The only real tragedy is a life that ends without that hope. When a person rejects the free gift of eternal life God has offered through a relationship with his Son, that is a tragedy. That brings God to tears.

Tears of Anguish, Agony, and Abandonment

Perhaps the most moving picture of the sorrow of Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemene, where, according to Matthew 26, Jesus was “filled with anguish and deep distress” and said to Peter, James and John, “My soul is crushed with grief to point of death.”

It may sound strange to say this, but I remember feeling relieved when I read this verse. Because I know what it feels like to be crushed with grief. Flattened out by it. Feeling that it is pressing the life out of me, and stealing the air around me. I know what it feels like to wonder if I will ever be out from underneath it.

Whenever I read that Jesus was “crushed with grief,” tears come. I feel a sense of kinship with Jesus’ pain and a sense of relief that he understands what mine feels like. I can’t receive instruction on living with pain from someone who has never hurt. I can’t receive encouragement to hold on to hope for the future from someone who has never wrangled with death. But I can listen to and receive from this Jesus who knows and understands what it feels like to be filled with anguish and deep distress.

As Jesus prepared for the Cross, prepared to drink the cup of the wrath of God, he anticipated the ultimate abandonment that was ahead: when God would turn his face away from his Son. This would be a desperate loneliness that would cause him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The writer to the Hebrews gives us another glimpse at our agonized Savior in the garden in Hebrews 5:7-8 where we read, “While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him out of death. And God heard his prayers because of his reverence for God. So even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.”

One of the hardest parts of trusting God with my own experience of the loss of two of my children has been reckoning with my belief that God had the power to make my children healthy. How can I love him and believe he is sad with me in my sorrow if he had to power to change it but chose not to?

It is these verses from Hebrews that have helped me come to terms with this. I have clung to these verses in the lowest days of grief. In it I see the fully human, fully God Jesus facing the Cross and crying out to his Father who has the power to make another way, enact another plan . . . but chooses not to.

I see the submission of Jesus to the perfect, though painful, plan of God. It helps me to know that Jesus wrestled with God’s plan to redeem the world through his death on the cross even as he submitted to it. It helps because I too have wrestled with God’s plan for my life even as I have sought to submit to it.

The Deepest Sorrow

But even as I am moved by his submission, I look deeper into this picture and I see that the sorrow of Jesus had more to do with separation from the Father and saturation of sin than it did with physical suffering or even physical death. Once again, Jesus has shown me what is worthy of my tears—my sin—the effects of my sin, the extent of my sin, the payment required for my sin. It is sin and its devastating effects on people he loves that moves God to tears.

But the day is coming when we will no longer have to cry over sin. When God reveals glimpses of the culmination of human history, he includes, as a centerpiece, this promise in Isaiah 25:8: “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.” Picture in your mind right now the Lord of the Universe reaching down to gently and lovingly wipe away your tears. Revelation 21:4 tells us that not only will he wipe away tears; he will remove all of the sorrow that caused them.

God’s plan for the future is to destroy forever the evil that has caused so many tears—for him and for us. Then, he will live forever with us in a place he has lovingly prepared where there will be no more tears.

©2006 Nancy Guthrie. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Nancy Guthrie is the author of Holding On to Hope: A Pathway Through Suffering to the Heart of God, as well as The One Year Book of Hope, a year-long scripture-focused daily devotional for those who are hurting. To learn more about Nancy’s ministry of encouragement, see http://nancyguthrie.com/index.html