"Yet even now," declares the LORD,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments."
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster."
Editor's note: PCPC member Shannon Geiger is the author of this Every Thought Captive.
In my Christian life thus far, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a prayer service where the pastor or leader commanded everyone to start crying. Nor have I seen a prayer service put on the church calendar with announcements in the bulletin and a slick video clip saying, “Special Prayer this Friday night, 6:00 pm, a Concert of Praise—right after the Great Chorus of Weeping. Come one, come all.”
Sounds like it could end up like a Flannery O’ Connor short story that I might have missed or a bad Young Life skit. Picture a drill Sergeant coming onstage and spit-screaming at the crowd, “All right, you bunch a ladies, get down and give me FIFTY—ON YOUR KNUCKLES. After that we’ll all start crying right here before Jesus, PRONTO. Let’s Go! Weep! Weep! Weep! Come on you stoic cowards, REPENT! Start your wailing NOW!”
Commanded repentance? Scheduling a time of weeping together? How does that honestly work? Many of God’s commands don’t come with instructions for how they’re supposed to look in our lives, but there they sit like mountain rock: “Love your neighbor.” “Confess.” “Forgive.” “Repent.” “Believe.” And we’re supposed to scale each of these in our life of faith, our journey home. But if you’re like me, a lot of the time you just stand there craning your neck looking at the top going, “Huh?”
So, here is our rock of “mourning over sin with loud tears,” in the book of Joel along with God’s command that the priests and prophets lead the way (Joel 1:13). Like all of God’s direction, this is a great gift to us, but we question it. “Can’t I just be quiet and sorry for my sin? What would I need to publicly cry for? And why are our pastors, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, and counselors being told by God to lead us in weeping over our sin? How is that going to help? Is God just trying to humiliate us?”
The answer is an emphatic no. No, God is not trying to humiliate us. In fact, He punishes those who humiliate his loved ones (for one among many instances, see Zephaniah 2:10-11). But one of the purposes for God’s call to pray and weep is not humiliation but humility.
What a hard word to grasp, don’t you think? And what God commands here is not just a private, inner state but a public humility with cries and weeping that are not sentimentalism or show, but tears that can’t be quieted or helped. They’re to come with haunting sounds that no one, especially you, expected, and if it weren’t for the bone-deep rightness of this response, we would all be embarrassed. But it is the truest response there is, and we all can sense the nearness of God by His Spirit and His pleasure in the moment, and with these tears of repentance we are—for the first time in a long time—starting to see, and we are being freed.
“Draw near to God,” James, the brother of Jesus tells us, “and He will draw near to you.” But watch how James connects this intimacy of the Father’s love for us to repentance and tears. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep….Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you” (James 4:8-10).
Though sometimes everything in us fights against crying, the welcome of scripture here tells us we will be loved, embraced, not shunned or shamed. And what we are weeping over is sin’s ruin that we now see and understand in a whole new light.
Just like the people of Joel, we have to wake up and see the devastation around us. We have to ask the Lord to humble us and help us see how our sin contributes to the spiritual famine of Dallas, then ask Him to act both in and through us to humbly bring life to the city around us.
What could our sin be contributing to? We’ve got plenty of things to choose from, from Oak Cliff to Allen, but what could the Lord be calling you to see in your neighborhood and your work relationships? We’ve got strip clubs on I-35, inner city public schools where high school kids can’t read, neighborhoods divided by race, homosexual churches, prices in shopping malls that would make Solomon blush, rancor and fraud in city and county government, immigration woes. We live, shop, eat, drive, work, worship in all these places. What might the Lord be calling us to see? To weep over and ask for life and worship to replace our death and enslavement?
Lastly, and less conceptually, has anyone ever asked you, “How do I draw near to God? How can I feel close to Him?” Has your answer ever been, “Start crying”? Maybe if it hasn’t, I’ll bet many of you have offered something to the effect of, “Start praying—just lay your heart before God—talk to Him like you’d talk with a friend, and He hears you and loves you.”
Praying involves not only speaking to God, but listening in return. And when you tell your friend to pray to God, you also can encourage them to stop and listen to Him, to His word, and then see how He might bring them to tears. Offer to weep with them, too, and watch how the Lord will draw you both closer to Him and eventually dry your tears.
All of God’s children are supposed to cry, and our tears get dried by Him personally. Can you imagine? But tears of repentance must come in this life or else we will weep eternally with no one to deliver. Jesus tells us six times in the gospel of Matthew that those who do not repent are thrown into a place, far apart from Him, where the weeping and gnashing of teeth goes on forever.
It is God’s gift and grace to us to have this boulder set before us, this Jesus, who is our rock of stumbling and offense, this mountain of James’ and Joel’s command to weep and mourn over our sin together. Let’s come to Him now, humble ourselves and open our hearts to his command to weep. The time for tears is this life not the next. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us” (Matthew 20:31)!