Weeping and Crying: Uncommon Prayer Practices
Everyone experiences loss. Weeping and crying out are two other uncommon practices of prayer that can help you grieve well. You might already be doing them (more often than you would like), but I want you to know what these prayer practices look like in detail so that when you experience them, you are able to acknowledge and embrace them as vital modes of connecting with God.
The reason weeping and crying out are considered practices is that it takes practice to become comfortable with experiencing intense emotions and tears and with using your voice to cry out to God. Engaging in weeping and crying out might feel like you are walking on a waterbed rather than solid ground. It feels chaotic and messy, and for some people, sacrilegious, or at the very least, like it is disappointing to God. These practices are seldom talked about and are considered uncommon, but they are extremely important types of prayer, especially in the midst of grief.
Weeping is an act of crying, sobbing, and mourning while typically experiencing tears. Loss and tragedy typically lie beneath weeping, as does deep pain, sadness, and grief.
Crying out is slightly different, although it can go hand in hand with weeping. Crying out is the act of raising your voice in lament, concern, or demand for justice.
Of course, people can weep or cry out because they are happy and filled with joy, but for the most part, when the Bible speaks of weeping or crying out, it’s usually in the context of loss, or what Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, calls disorientation. He writes, “It constitutes a dismantling of the old, known world and a relinquishment of safe, reliable confidence in God’s good creation. The movement of dismantling includes a rush of negativities, including rage, resentment, guilt, shame, isolation, despair, hatred, and hostility.”
Let’s look at weeping and crying out in more detail.
Weeping is a wonderfully intense physical and emotional process, a gift that God has given to us to deal with our various disorientations. It might not feel like a gift when we are experiencing it. I would much rather experience joy than grief. Nonetheless, weeping allows us to enter into our loss in a profound way, and when given to God, weeping becomes deeply hallowed prayers. That’s right. Weeping and tears are prayers to God. Although weeping is usually done without words, God understands the messages behind them. The psalmist writes, “Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?” (Ps. 56:8). God understands the language of tears. He has a sacred scroll with a record of the details of your tender tears of affliction. God never forgets them.
Chris Ann Waters writes in her book, Seasons of Goodbye, about the importance of tears:
When we have loved someone or something, love is never over, so neither is our sense of loss. The tears of change that flow down our hearts are tears signifying participation in life. Tears reveal our connection to someone or something else. We chose to love. Tears are not a sign of weakness or embarrassment for men or women. Tears are water, a sign of life, an element necessary for growth. When shared, love changes and brings tears to the eyes, they are but symbols of our involvement in life.
Your tears are not a sign of weakness but a powerful symbol that shows you were courageous; you took a risk on the unpredictable nature of love and loved anyway. Those who have ceased to cry have ceased to love and participate fully in life.
Weeping also has a practical function. Tears are a God-given language we have from birth that communicates distress and loss. Tears are designed to communicate to those most important to us that we need them to come close and offer comfort or sustenance. Science backs this up.
Lucy Biven, a psychoanalyst, and Jaak Panksepp, a renowned neurobiologist, believe there are at least seven different emotional systems in the brain that generate distinct emotions and behaviors when activated. When we are grieving, our panic/grief system is activated. Once it is activated, some people yell out in distress or cry. Some move toward others who love them; others move away to soothe themselves. Crying, like other grieving behaviors, is meant to activate in other people the part of the brain Panksepp calls the “CARE system,” a system of tending and befriending. When activated, the CARE system moves people around us to offer compassionate care and comfort.
John Bowlby, a famous English psychiatrist, made researching relationships his life’s work. He noted that the weeping that takes place when an adult loses a loved one correlates with the weeping that takes place when a child misses an absent parent. The child’s tears communicate, “Please, take care of me. Come here. I need you right now.” They signal the need for the mother, father, or primary caretaker to return. They cue the parent to give the child food or hugs and cuddles, which make the child feel safe and secure again.
Though you are not crying out for your mother, your tears, especially if they are due to the loss of a loved one, romantic or otherwise, are an unconscious plea for them to come back to you. Your tears could be saying, “I love you. I need you. I am in so much pain. Please come back. I want to feel safe and secure in your presence again.” I say this with deep compassion. Unfortunately, sometimes no amount of tears will bring him or her back. Thankfully, God sees your tears, hears your weeping, and is always drawn to the inner ache of his beloveds.
David spoke about God’s soft spot for his weeping children.
I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.
Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.
Have you experienced that kind of grief due to loss? Tears that could drench a couch? Crying that leaves your eyes so painful and puffy that you can barely see? David, a warrior and very much a man’s man, surely did. He wrote in another psalm, “When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother” (Ps. 35:13–14). He never allowed fear of being thought weak to keep him from expressing himself authentically to God. When David experienced brokenness, he let God know. And God heard his weeping, saw his tears, and accepted them as heartfelt prayer.
Have you recently raised a fist at God in protest? Have you yelled, complained, gotten angry, doubted, or questioned God in your excruciatingly painful season of heartbreak? Such interactions with God are often called prayers of lament.
Psalm 88 is an example of a prayer of lament, though it is one of the rare laments that do not end with thanksgiving or praise.
I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death. . . .
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief. . . .
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me? . . .
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.
(vv. 3, 9, 14, 18)
Can you feel the pain and inner torment? There is such a holy haunting and beautiful darkness that surrounds this psalm. It is such a powerful portrayal of honesty and depth that epitomizes what it means to engage in the uncommon, prayerful practice of crying out to God.
Psalm 88 is a vulnerable and, some would consider, slightly dark worship song written by a passionate God-lover, which pushes up against the “I always have to have it all together” mentality so pervasive in our culture and churches. When was the last time you heard a congregation sing this type of song? I have never heard a song quite like that in a worship service. As a worship leader, if I ended a song with “darkness is my closest friend” in church, I think some of the older folks out of loving concern would immediately start a secret prayer-chain and others might question my salvation.
Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is that which appears faithless. There are times when singing songs of lament, which appear to hyper-religious folk as faithless, would be far more honest than singing today’s all-too-common, upbeat, pop praise songs. Sadly, if there were a church where songs of lament were sung on a continual basis, there might be many who choose to never return to the church, judging the members as unspiritual or worse, unsaved. That judgment couldn’t be further from the truth.
It is healthy to inquire about any irrational rules or unnecessary culturally formed beliefs you have about emotions so those beliefs do not keep you from grieving well. Some believe, for example, that so-called negative emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, loneliness, and the like are not Christian or godly emotions. Some people believe they are not glorifying God if they’re not constantly showing the “joy of the Lord.” No matter how they feel inside, they believe they have to wear a Sunday smile because “that is how God wants me to deal with emotions.” They believe showing sadness and hurt ruins their witness. Ironically, authenticity is the best witness in this postmodern culture, where everyone is suspicious and weary of the salesperson mentality.
Is crying only for babies—is it a practice we grow out of as we become adults? Do you worry that if you allow yourself to feel something intensely you will get lost in a sea of emotions? Is lamenting before God part of your worship? Is it even allowed in your worship? Are you free to experience the primary, universal emotions of anger, sadness, surprise, shame/disgust, fear, and joy? Do you think some are more godly than others? Continue to reflect on your hidden rules and revise them as necessary.
A Time for Weeping and Mourning
The wisdom writer in Ecclesiastes reminds us that we will all experience different seasons in our lives.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance.
(Eccl. 3:1–4, emphasis mine)
The word mourn comes from a root word meaning “to wail or howl” and has come to mean “to beat the breast or lament.” Mourning encompasses what we mean by crying out. Both weeping and crying out in despair or protest are important practices we should not easily dismiss from our repertoire of prayers. There is a time for both. While you can’t always flick a switch and weep or cry out on the spot, I suggest that when such emotions and impulses do spring up like a fountain you embrace them as precious gifts.
God Hears You
God listens to your screams and cries of pain and shame in this difficult season. Exodus 2:23–24 says,
“The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because oftheir slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (emphasis mine).
And the psalmist confidently declares that God listens, saying,
“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles” (Ps. 34:17, emphasis mine).
God is certainly a God who acts, but rest assured that he is also a God who listens, and you can run into his compassionate arms. This is a time, therefore, for you to raise a fist, yell, weep, question, wail, and howl if you need to. Do whatever is honest, whatever is true within your heart. You don’t have to fake it. God loves honesty.
It is evident throughout the Bible that God keeps it real with us. So why not keep it real with God? When I read the Bible I often say to myself, “Sheesh, God, do you have to be so honest and say it that way?” When we set our hearts on grieving well, we can be confident that what we “sow with tears” we will eventually “reap with songs of joy” (Ps. 126:5).