The Right Kind Of Tears On Ash Wednesday

They say that the Inuit language has, like, thirty-seven words for snow because Eskimos are so overly familiar with the stuff that it would be silly to just refer to “snow” in general.

That’s probably not true, of course, but it makes a good, broader point. There are many different types of snow, different kinds of love, different forms of stress, etc. and oversimplifying can lead to problems.

And, as we commence our observance of Lent in the Christian church (except those hardcore Presbyterians—it’s too “popish” for them), with a day that is traditionally associated with ashes, sackcloth, and repentance, we might stop to consider that there are different kinds of tears.

A Variety Of Tears For A Variety Of Occasions

I’m sort of an expert on this (meaning, I read a Wikipedia article), so let me fill you in. You’ve got your basal tears, which are for lubricating your eyes and actually serve as part of your immune system. Then you’ve got your irritant tears. These are more reactive, like when a particularly nasty blast of wind comes your way, or you walk into a sand storm.

Then, of course, there are emotional tears, which actually have a different chemical structure from the tears used for lubrication. So if your buddy says he has “something in his eye” while watching Up, you could prove him wrong in a lab, with a sample of his tears, because emotional tears contain stress hormones.

So that’s the scientific classification, but we all know that emotional tears can be subdivided into many more categories. Infants have three kinds of crying: basic, anger, and pain. When we had a baby, I was told that I would eventually learn the difference between “hungry” crying and “diaper” crying, but I call shenanigans on that.

Biblical Tears

As we grow up, we develop more complex categories of tears. These are common to all humans and have been from the beginning. We even see them in the Bible. I would break them down into a number of categories:

Tears of Happiness / Relief – This one’s my Achilles’ heel. I can endure the saddest of the sad and keep it together, but something touching can make me go all bubbly in a heartbeat. Jacob was apparently the same way.

“Now as soon as Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s broth . . . Jacob came near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud.” – Genesis 29:10-11

Tears of Simple Sadness – Sometimes you’re just sad and you cry. If you think that makes someone less manly, you’re wrong. For proof, see the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) He also wept over Jerusalem and several other times.

Tears of Great Disappointment – Remember when the Israelites, having returned to their Promised Land, finished rebuilding the temple? And all the young guys who hadn’t seen Solomon’s original temple shouted for joy, while all the old timers just saw how lame the new one was compared with the original?

“Many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses—old men who had seen the first house—wept with a loud voice” – Ezra 3:12

Tears of Betrayal – There’s a certain extra stab of bitterness to the sadness we feel when betrayed by a friend or relative, like what Judas did to Jesus, or what Peter did in denying him. Or take Jacob and Esau after the Affair of the Fake Hairy Arm:

“As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” – Genesis 27:34

Tears of Regret – When Peter had denied knowing Jesus, not only the one betrayed, but the betrayer himself felt almost immediate sorrow and bitterness. Matthew 26 ends with the words, “And he [Peter] went out and wept bitterly.” Similarly, the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house produced enough tears to wash Jesus’ feet, seemingly weeping with regret for her sinful life (probably transforming into tears of happiness and relief).

Tears of Fear – These are very common in children. There was a stretch when my son was much younger when he would wake us up in the middle of the night at least weekly, crying because of a scary dream. Even as adults, we can be scared to the point of tears.

“Then all the congregation raised a loud cry [upon hearing about the giants in the land], and the people wept that night.” – Numbers 14:1 

Tears of Despair – These have no end or goal. They’re not therapeutic or meant to “cry it out;” they just come flooding out from deep within. They are often conveyed with the word “wail” in the Scriptures. Think of David when his son Absalom had died, or the people of Bethlehem after Herod ordered the young boys slaughtered.

“Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’” –Matt 2:18 

Sympathetic Tears – My son is the king of this and, in that way, he is my hero. If someone is hurting, he will rush to them, put an arm around them, and cry with them. Real tears, because he is really hurting with them. This is also what happens when we’re reading a good book or watching an emotional movie and find ourselves (or, I mean, you find yourself, ya wuss) on the verge of tears. This is actually commanded in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

False Tears – Kids can be good at these too. To get their way or to avoid getting into trouble, they can produce crocodile tears on the spot. (“There was this icicle and it fell on me and I stepped on my glasses!”) Adults have also been known to pull this trick (politicians caught in the act or criminals at a sentencing). The mourners at Jairus’ house when Jesus raised his daughter from the dead had likely been hired to mourn and were able to go from weeping to laughing on a dime.

Tears of General Overwhelming Emotion – Sometimes you don’t even know if you’re mad or happy or horrified or what and that mishmash of emotion comes out in the form of tears. When you find the child who slipped away from you in the crowds of Black Friday, these are the tears that come. Or look at Jacob again, when he was reconciled to Esau and they both felt happiness, regret, betrayal, adjustment, anger, and surely a lot more…

“But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” -Genesis 33:4

Yeah, I know this has gotten ridonkulously long, but we could add many more subcategories if we wanted (tears of physical pain, anger, loneliness, etc.)

Appropriate Tears On Ash Wednesday

But let’s get back to the point of all this: fasting, repenting, and the like. Several times in the Scriptures, weeping is coupled with penitence and fasting (e.g. Zechariah 7).

So, on a day like Ash Wednesday, what kind of sadness are we to observe? What sort of tears should we cry?

Obviously not tears of happiness, right? Although those are easy to create (just show me a YouTube video of kids or even dogs greeting returning soldiers. And certainly not false tears (although these are common in churches where there is a high expectation of emotionalism).

It’s easy to drum up some actual tears of general overwhelming emotion, too, especially if there’s weep-momentum around you, because there’s no real content to them and they don’t require any actual change. It’s like binge eating emotion and eventually, the next day, you’ll feel back to normal.

Should they be tears of simple sorrow or regret? No, these are a key component of repentance, but there’s more to it. Much more. So should we ramp it up to despair, then? Do real hard core Christians get so sad when they repent that, like Rachel, they “Refuse to be comforted?” Is the point to hit bottom for the next forty days so that Easter morning will be that much more awesome?

Or is it sadness and solemnity “just because?” Because we’re supposed to? Because it’s healthy to have a good cry once in awhile? No; worldly sorrow is just feeling bad for my sins in this moment and then saying, “Ahh I feel better.”

And, as St. Paul tells us, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

So, what is godly sorrow? What is true repentance, and what kind of tears does it produce?

Godly Sorrow

A good case study might be the woman caught in adultery in John 8. No tears are specifically mentioned in that passage, but I challenge you to imagine the scene without them. She’s about to die for doing something she’s ashamed of, then she’s saved from death, then she’s forgiven by God in human flesh.

But notice that Jesus doesn’t just say, “There! See how serious that was? Don’t you feel awful?! Now get out of here.” Nor does he say, “There, there. Let it out. Work out those stress hormones through the tear ducts. Have a good cry. Now, don’t you feel better? Have a great day, sweetie.”

No, he says, “Has no one condemned you? . . . Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

I suppose tears of Christian Repentance are their own category altogether, and they follow this same arc. Fear and regret followed by relief and happiness, and they all kind of smash into each other.

Even as we confess our sins to our Father, we feel the reality of past bondage in light of the freedom of the present and future, thanks and sorrow for what Christ endured for us, and joy untold for what it means.

This is why we can’t forget Easter during Lent, and we shouldn’t try to. It’s not total darkness we’re observing, not hopelessness, not despair, not empty regret on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, because the light of Easter morning shines back on us.

And that makes our days of repentance and renewal that much more meaningful and far more likely to bear fruit than if we simply focused on how very, very bad we’ve been and how we’re going to die.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. – Revelation 7:17

We weep now, knowing that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes! And so our sadness is not despair, refusing to be comforted; it does have an end, a goal—that having repented, we will go and sin no more!

Zach is pastor at Judson Baptist Church in Lansing, MI and the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and a few other books. He's husband to Erin, father to Calvin, and lover of gourmet coffee and fine cigars. He's the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and The Christian Gentleman's Smoking Companion