By Jan Johnson
A frequent cause of traffic jams on highways in my area is the “Looky Lou” habit of drivers who slow down to examine accidents on the side of the road. Usually an ambulance has already arrived so it’s not as if people want to help. They just to want to look.
Similarly, when public tragedies occur, we find ourselves hooked on monitoring news coverage. At first, this helps us move through the shock phase of grief, but then it comes to resemble that morbid “Looky Lou” phenomenon. Perhaps we do this because we don’t know what else to do.
If obsessing on news reports isn’t the best response to tragedy, what is? While better responses include comforting the afflicted, joining a cleanup crew, or donating money, there’s another important response that off-site folks can participate in: the ongoing weeping with God whose heart throbs when humans suffer or wander off. Such weeping is, I believe, an ongoing way to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
THE DIVINE COMPANION
Weeping with those who weep invites us to become God’s weeping companions. God weeps—sobs might be a more fitting verb, for the tears stream down: “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people” (Jeremiah 9:1).
Often, the object of God’s weeping is wayward Israel: “Let my eyes overflow with tears night and day without ceasing; for my virgin daughter—my people—has suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow.” God also weeps over other nations: “O Virgin Daughter of Sidon, now crushed!” (modern-day Lebanon); “Virgin Daughter of Babylon” (modern-day Iraq); “O Virgin Daughter of Egypt!” (Jeremiah 14:17; Isaiah 23:12; 47:1; Jeremiah 46:11).
Even though God often weeps throughout Scripture (especially in the books of poetry and prophecy), our “don’t worry, be happy” culture may avoid these passages. Rarely are they taught or studied. But such weeping leads us to pray as part of our work in bringing healing to those who have suffered tragedies or wandered away from a life with God.
I stumbled into weeping with God after reading about the 2 million women and children held captive in the sex-trafficking industry each year—how they are lured, lied to, kidnapped, and coerced into bondage. I found myself unable to focus on much else for days. At the same time, my daily meditations moved to Psalm 56. As I read the passage, I pictured myself as a young girl of 12 trapped in a city unknown to me and beaten violently into submission to prostitution. The words of Psalm 56 fit my (her) situation (vv. 1-9):
Be merciful to me, O God, for men hotly pursue me; all day long they press their attack.
My slanderers pursue me all day long; many are attacking me in their pride.
When I am afraid, I will trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?
All day long they twist my words; they are always plotting to harm me.
They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life.
On no account let them escape; in your anger, O God, bring down the nations.
Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?
Then my enemies will turn back when I call for help. By this I will know that God is for me.
I soon found myself using the words of the psalm to pray for this 12-year-old:
When she is afraid, help her put her “trust in you” (v. 3). Help her believe, “in God I trust; I will not be afraid!” (v. 4). Help her to be courageous and declare, “What can mortal man do to me?” (v. 4) and “On no account let [her] enemies escape!” (v. 7). I also added prayers for certain organizations that assist these women and children.
Such praying is important because we keep company with God in the waiting room of time here on earth, crying over the tragic state of those exploited and oppressed and even those bent on exploiting and oppressing.
Such prayers of lament also involve praying for those we perceive to be the “bad guys.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who within seven years of writing these words was imprisoned by the Nazis and executed, wrote: “Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.”1
So while we weep over the badness of the bad guys, we also join Christ in wanting the bad guys to be transformed. (Yes, we feel reluctance here, but recall Jonah wasn’t too keen on those awful Ninevites turning toward God.) Our tears nudge us closer to the eventual goal of wanting what’s best for them—and this is called love.
I struggled with not wanting to weep for the “bad guys” when I attempted to pray for the manager of one of my family members. The one I love reported being ridiculed in front of others when this manager was mistaken about the facts. No amount of friendly explanations, reasonable clarity, or confidential talks with personnel seemed to dissuade this person from continual yelling.
I knew I could benefit from weeping over this manager, but it wasn’t possible until I read Psalm 82. In its picture of God holding a divine council and assessing the nations’ performances regarding their injustices, the unjust people are said to “walk about in darkness” (v. 5). That phrase described this manager and created more mercy in me. He (like the sex traffickers) walked in darkness, thinking that yelling at people would improve their performance. He was imprisoned in a desire to control and a continuing habit of rage. I asked God to free from bondage this one walking about in darkness.
BUT WOULD THE AVERAGE PERSON DO THIS ?
Perhaps such prayer sounds too emotional. First, let me caution you that this type of prayer is for the very practical and down-to-earth. The suffering on this earth is real, and such prayer moves us away from the sentimentalism sometimes associated with prayer. A weeping heart is a tough one—one that has moved outside the world of me, myself, and I and into the reality of life that God observes every day.
Or perhaps you cry only at movies. Well, I’m not sure my eyes literally, physically cry when my soul weeps. Scripture speaks of the soul crying out (Psalm 84:2; 57:1, 2; 88:2, 3; Ezekiel 27:31). A weeping soul mirrors the weeping of God. It’s not emotionalism, but a will bent toward wanting God’s will to be accomplished on this earth. As we identify all that we are and do with God’s purposes in creating us and our world, we come closer to thinking as God thinks and behaving as God behaves.
You may wonder what causes God to weep today. God weeps as people turn away from him, as people prefer themselves to God and others.
Reading the daily newspaper is a way of learning about what might cause God to weep. Where are the poor, the needy, the hurting today? What new or continuing guerilla warfare or natural disaster has caused people just like me to become widowed or orphaned? Who has been left without a home? What is happening today in yesterday’s crisis locations: Rwanda? Vietnam?
Being present and attentive to traumatized others is part of how we co-labor with God as a light in the darkness. Reading the newspaper can be a prayer starter.
To weep with the suffering does not mean, however, that we have a good cry and move on to other things. It’s more that we have a good cry and we are never the same. Weeping with God gives us a place from which to speak and act. As we work and pray and give to causes, we do so with traces of tears that recall names and faces and places. We speak out about such situations not with the voice of a do-gooder but from a broken heart–one that has had a glimpse of what that merciful, compassionate heart of God goes through. It fuels our efforts to reach out and helps us love God all the more.
1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1963), 166.
Jan Johnson is a retreat speaker and author of 16 books, including When the Soul Listens. www.janjohnson.org.