Posted by: duncandrews | August 24, 2012

My eyes a fountain of tears: a theology of weeping (v)

God’s tears revealed

However, given the trinitarian structure of Christian theology, are we able to ascribe Jesus’ tears not only to his humanity, not only to the incarnate second person of the trinity, but to the eternal triune God? In other words, when Jesus weeps, does God weep? While focusing on Jesus’ humanity, Donne hints at divine tears: ‘In Iob there is a question ask’d of God, Hast thou eyes of flesh, and doest thou see, as man sees? Let this question be directed to God manifested in Christ, and Christ will weepe out an answer to that question, I have eyes of flesh, and I do weep as man weeps.’[1]

There is, however, a serious concern in claims relating to the divinity of Jesus’ tears. According to classical theology’s doctrine of impassibility, God as wholly other cannot be manipulated, forced, or touched by suffering—if he were it would imply a force external to God exerting power over God.[2] In other words, God would not be God. The most we could say would be that God in Christ wept, not that in Christ God wept.

In this connection, the prophetic witness to Yahweh’s tears is worth exploring. Isaiah 15-16, the Oracle against Moab, is a distinct unit at the end of which the entire oracle is ascribed to Yahweh (6:13). In it Yahweh says ‘My heart cries over Moab’ (15:5). ‘I join with Jazer to weep, … I drench Heshbon and Elealeh with my tears’ (16:9). However, the most striking prophetic example of divine tears comes in Jeremiah, the ‘weeping prophet’[3]. Jeremiah was powerfully identified with Yahweh; in Jer. 1 we read of the prophet’s calling, in which the Word of Yahweh commissioned him, itself the generative power behind Jeremiah’s own words. He speaks as an expression of God’s commissioning word. Moreover, Jeremiah ‘not only speaks the Word of God; he embodies it’,[4] and so is ‘torn apart not merely because of his own affliction, nor only because of Israel’s affliction, but because of the affliction of God, which God allows him to share’.[5]

Throughout Jeremiah, this identification between prophet and Yahweh manifests itself through an ambiguity regarding speaker, the ‘voice of the prophet [being] replaced by the voice of God’.[6] In relation to Yahweh’s tears, Jer. 8-9 are striking. In grief Jeremiah/Yahweh says ‘I am broken by the brokenness of my dear people. […] If my head were water, my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night over the slain of my dear people’ (Jer. 8:21-9:1).

With Jeremiah’s divine tears in place, we return to Jesus in John 11. From the start of John’s gospel, Jesus is identified with God in a more dramatic way even than Jeremiah: he is the exegete of the Father, making the Father known (1:18). In John 10, just before our passage, Jesus confronts the religious leaders of Israel, claiming equality with the Father: ‘I and the Father are one!’ (10:30). Soon after he weeps over Lazarus, Jesus claims: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (14:9).

Given John’s affirmation that God is Spirit (4:24), God the Father does not weep in a physiological sense. We have earlier defined our interest as not only physiological weeping but the emotional intensity signified by that weeping. In the light of what we’ve seen, this intensity does rightly belong to God. In this sense, it is right to say that when Jesus weeps, the eternal triune God weeps.

However, the concerns of classical theology remain legitimate. If God weeps out of need, or lack, or external compulsion, he is no longer the transcendent, sovereign God and Father of Jesus, who ‘is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else’ (Acts 17:25). Nevertheless, what if God weeps, not because he is acted upon by a force external to himself, but because in his love and self-sufficiency he freely enters into the suffering of his creation? According to Kasper, ‘[i]f God suffers, then he suffers in a divine manner, that is, his suffering is an expression of his freedom; suffering does not befall God, rather he freely allows it to touch him’[7]. Packer similarly writes, ‘[a] totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. […] If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.’[8]

Jesus’ tears then are not only a function of the incarnation, but reveal the very heart of God as love; a God who does not remain distant but in the freedom of his self-sufficiency and sovereignty opens himself up to the suffering of his world. Moreover, the fact that in Christ it is this sovereign God who weeps is not an end in itself, as if the plight of the world could be fixed merely by God sympathizing with us. God’s tears are the means by which he destroys tears; his entering into human suffering the path through which he brought an end to that suffering in his cross and resurrection. God’s tears in Christ therefore tell us not only of his sympathy, but of his power and willingness to save, and are therefore the basis of our eschatological hope.


[1] Donne, The Sermons of John Donne, 328.

[2] C.f. J.I. Packer, ‘God’, in New Dictionary of Theology (ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer; Accordance electronic edition, version 1.1.; Downers Grove: IVP, 1988), 277.

[3] J. R. Soza, ‘Jeremiah’, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner; Accordance Electronic Ed., Version 1.1; Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), para. 2178.

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Overtures to biblical theology; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 156.

[5] John Goldingay, God’s Prophet, God’s Servant: a Study in Jeremiah and Isaiah 40-55 (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1984), 39.

[6] Andrew G. Shead, A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah (Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos, 2012), 116.

[7] Walter Kasper, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, God of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 1984), 195. Italics original.

[8] J.I. Packer, ‘What Do You Mean When You Say God?’, Christianity Today, September 19, 1986, 27.

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