The Lost Art of Evangelical Weeping, Part 1

There is a mood and practice of forced buoyancy in American evangelical churches. In near Orwellian fashion, this frenzied gaiety tries to sanitize the church of any perceived negativity, sorrow, or grief. I have been in church services where the worship leader mounts the stage, “kicking off” the service with, “How’s everybody feeling this morning?” (implying the expectation of a positive reaction), followed by, “Oh, you can do better than that!” when the enthusiasm of the congregation isn’t to his liking. Cue the concert-esque music and lights. The message is clear: we’re here to be happy and celebratory. Negativity is not a component of our brand. It’s bad for business. And truth be told, business is not really booming.   

Russell Moore summed up this attitude of American evangelical churches in a humorous but sobering way:

“Our most ‘successful’ pastors and church leaders know how to smile broadly. Some of them are blow-dried and cuff-linked; some of them are grunged up and scruffy. But they are here to get us ‘excited’ about ‘what God is doing in our church.’

Our worship songs are typically celebrative, in both lyrical content and musical expression. In the last generation, a mournful song about crucifixion was pepped up with a jingly-sounding chorus, ‘It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!’”1

He goes on to suggest that many in the pews assume that others have the kind of happiness that churches keep promising, and wonder why it’s passed them by. “By not speaking, where the Bible speaks, to the full range of human emotion—including loneliness, guilt, desolation, anger, fear, desperation—we only leave our people there, wondering why they just can’t be ‘Christian’ enough to smile through it all.”2

Scripture, however, speaks in direct contradiction of this prevalent evangelical attitude (Matt. 5:4; Jas. 4:9). Indeed, the gospel did not come for the happy and healthy, but for the broken and sick. It also does not promise the eradication of all non-cheerful emotions after salvation, nor does it advocate the inhuman suppression of expression of such. In fact, grief, sorrow, and weeping should not only be welcomed and expected as natural human emotions, but can be beneficial to spiritual growth individually, as well as in the life of the church. These emotions, observed rightly, are “excellent” and “precious to God.”3 This is not to say that the life of Christian faith is not one of celebration and true joy. It is to say that celebration and joy should be correctly motivated.

There are two kinds of “weeping” that should be present in our churches: first, to be examined here, is what I will call “spiritual weeping” (what Thomas Watson calls “evangelical weeping”). Second, to be covered in part two, is what I will call “natural weeping.” Contra Watson, I will use “evangelical weeping” as the overarching label for both types delineated above.

Spiritual Weeping

The first kind of weeping is most adequately described and applied by Thomas Watson, an English non-conformist, and Puritan preacher and writer of the late 17th Century. His book The Godly Man’s Picture is a classic and helpful example of Puritan spirituality. I would wholeheartedly encourage every Christian to read it in its entirety. The section of the book entitled “The Godly Man is an Evangelical Weeper” will be our focus here.

As a preliminary clarification, it should be noted that by “evangelical weeping,” Watson does not mean “weeping” as a mechanism for fulfilling Matthew 28:16-20 (i.e. evangelizing), but rather in the sense of it being a requisite practice of a Christian. “Weeping” is often used interchangeably for “grieving” and “mourning” by Watson and therefore should not be confined to mean only the shedding of tears.  

As alluded to earlier, in many Christian circles there is an unspoken vendetta against sorrow, grief, and guilt, even when expressed toward the sin we claim to hate (Rom. 12:9). We have a tendency to eradicate feelings of guilt (especially when guilt is related to one’s personal behavior, beliefs, or past) in particular. Making someone feel guilty is a cardinal offense of sorts. The Bible speaks differently (as does Watson) about these emotions and their function in the Christian life.

Should we practice and encourage weeping, mourning, and guilt over sin?

In short, yes. Watson saw “a melting heart” as the sine qua non of entering the covenant of grace with God, and evidence of the Spirit’s presence in a believer’s life. This may be counterintuitive and uncomfortable for the modern evangelical. It’s sufferable to have a weepy, come-to-Jesus moment, but then it’s time to button it up and take your seat in the happy pew. Yet, unless we believe that sinless perfection is already attained, weeping should be encouraged and expected in all believers. It represents a growing recognition of depravity and an acknowledgement of God’s supremacy, grace, and holiness. “The sorrow of the heart runs out at the eye (Ps. 31:9).”4 It is by this weeping over sin that we come to rely on Christ and conform to him. An anonymous Puritan prayer exhibits this posture of weeping well:

“O Fountain of all good, destroy in me every lofty thought,

Break pride to pieces and scatter it to the winds,

Annihilate each clinging shred of self-righteousness,

Implant in me true lowliness of spirit,

Abase me to self-loathing and self-abhorrence,

Open in me a fount of penitential tears,

Break me, then bind me up;

Thus will my heart be prepared dwelling for my God;”5

When was the last time you heard an evangelical worship leader or pastor open a Sunday service with such a prayer?

Why weep?  

Watson anticipates objections: is not pardoned sin the ground for joy? Why does the redeemed Christian continue to weep? In true Puritan fashion, he provides a terse preface, “A godly man finds enough reasons for weeping,” followed by rich applications.

First, the Christian continues to weep because of “indwelling sin” and “clinging corruption,” realizing that the “old self” (Eph. 4:22) remains at war against the soul (1 Pet. 2:11; Gal. 5:17) until death.6 St. Paul presents this remnant of sin as a law bound to our very existence until our final glorification (Rom. 7:21). John Owen characterized indwelling sin as “a powerful and effectual indwelling principle, inclining and pressing unto actions agreeable and suitable unto its own nature.”7 It is as if indwelling sin is a (now) foreign entity inside the Christian, pulling in the opposite direction for its own sake. Weeping over indwelling sin shows that the Christian recognizes his depraved state and remains in a posture of repentance. “The eye is made both for seeing and weeping. Sin must first be seen before it can be wept for.”8

In connection to this, a Christian may weep because prevailing sin sometimes overcomes him (i.e. Rom. 7:19; Jer. 44:4-5; Isa. 1:2). This is justifiably troubling to the believer who aspires to holiness. “It troubles him that he shoots so short of the rule and standard which God has set.”9 The genuine Christian weeper will show “habitual desire to live up to the standard which St. Paul sets,” but often falls short.10 Mourning over such should not be discouraged or snuffed out lest we deny truth: that man is sinful, that God has set a standard of perfection, and that holiness is worth the struggle. Also, weeping over prevailing sin propels the believer to war against the sinful habits “embattled against [him]”11 and arrive at a greater apprehension of the need for the Holy Spirit’s work. Our sin should bother us because it is counter to the God we profess to love. And in a sense, the sins of those justified are particularly odious because they act in contradiction to the truth known by them. As Watson puts it, “The sins of God’s people put black spots on the face of religion.”12 As we relinquish the idols of our hearts we should mourn that such things were ever substitutes for God in us.

Therefore, we are to mourn with those who are mourning their sin (Rom. 12:15) because the repentance of sin is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and of our incremental sanctification. “Grace dissolves and liquefies the soul, causing a spiritual thaw,” says Watson.13 This process in our fellow congregants should be encouraged and we should endeavor to walk alongside them in it. For it is “in the agony of death [that we] come to life.”14

Second, Christians may, and should, weep out of awe of God’s love and mercy. “Gracious hearts, which are golden hearts, are the soonest melted into tears by the fire of God’s love.” It is often a lack of apprehension of our own depravity and our unmeritorious reception of the grace of Christ that keeps us from exhibiting Christ-like patience and compassion for others. Mourning over our own sin and reflecting on the mercy of Christ is a sure-fire cure for this tendency that is all too present in many congregations.

Third, Christians should weep for the church. “[B]ut an upright Christian, […] counts the church’s loss his loss, […] and bleeds in her wounds.”15 Watson suggests that most Christians live like a drunken man sleeping securely in his wine, too conceited and lackadaisical to have concern for the condition of the church.16 I began this post with a link showing declining commitment to church attendance (and religion in general) in America. Throughout the world we see the church actively persecuted. Despite these issues, the majority of American evangelicals are more likely to be moved to tears by whispers of threats against the Second Amendment than they are by reports of persecution and dwindling congregations. Evangelicals are more likely to be at a ball game than in the church pew and more knowledgeable of their favored political party’s platform than the historic creeds and confessions of their Spiritual Mother.17 This should not be so. “True grace ennobles the heart, dilates the affections, and carries out a man beyond the sphere of his private concernments [sic], making him mind the church’s condition as his own.”18 Evangelicals need to recover their emotional identification and connectivity with the church, grieving when she suffers and rejoicing when she flourishes.

To be clear, the purpose of Christian weeping is not to create a culture of despair. Mourning without hope is dishonorable to Christ because it implies that his work is inadequate, that faith is not triumphing. Watson would have concurred in this distinction, I think. Later in the chapter he makes an effort to distinguish between worldly despair and “divine sorrow.”

The essential points are: (1) appropriate sorrow is ingenuous, being “more for the spot than the sting.” It is concerned with the existence of sin nature, not just the unfavorable repercussions that sin brings. Per Watson, “Hypocrites weep for sin only as it brings affliction.” Focusing on the existence of the sin nature, and not just sin’s affliction, prohibits an attitude of legalism and unloving judgment towards one another. It is the remainder of sin in all of us (both seen and unseen) that sends us to our knees.

(2) Furthermore, appropriate weeping is “influential.”19 It produces spiritual growth and ultimately makes the heart better. Whereas, sorrow over sin that plagues the believer to a fault is not productive, if you will. Accordingly, a Christian suffering from prolonged sorrow over sin needs exhortation and encouragement from fellow “weepers,” not to continue into ever-deepening sorrow.

Watson warns that some weep in vain over sin because they return to their same wickedness willingly, making the previous weeping superfluous. True sanctification does not consist of “temporary religious feelings” or “outward formalism and external devoutness.”20 “Repenting tears are precious,” and not to be wasted or fabricated.21 It is those who are not truly wounded over their sin who produce superficial weeping. Their repentance, and subsequently their peace, is only “skin deep.”22 Jonathan Edwards warns against fabricated spirituality masterfully in Religious Affections:

“False affections, however persons may seem to be melted by them while they are new, have a tendency in the end to harden the heart. With the delusion that attends them, they finally tend to stupefy the mind, and shut it up against those affections wherein tenderness of heart consists: and the effect of them at last is that persons become less affected [by] their present and past sins, and less conscientious with respect to future sins, less moved with warnings and cautions of God’s word […] and have far less care of their behavior when they come into the holy presence of God in the time of public or private worship.”23 24

Perhaps it is a lack of “evangelical weeping” and an abundance of “temporary religious feelings” that has brought the American evangelical church to the beleaguered state in which it presently finds itself. Christians should not weep for weeping’s sake nor for the sake of “external religiousness,” but for the sake of mortifying their own sin and growing in greater admiration for Christ and his attributes.25 American evangelicalism needs to regain the lost art of evangelical weeping over the reality of our sin against Christ, in order that we may recover a steady walk with Christ, true and vibrant worship, and a proper posture before God. To conclude as Watson does, “Let us give Christ the water of our tears and he will give us the wine of his blood.”26

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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