Conversatio Divina

Classroom: A God Who Weeps by Jan Johnson

Summary and Exercises by Joannah Sadler

Joannah Sadler

Read the article by Jan Johnson and then join me in the classroom for reflection and questions.

In the midst of pain, people often reach out for an image of God that helps them relate to God when they hurt. Writers in this issue of Conversations tell of God whispering comfort to those who suffer, standing by them, holding them or even singing over them. It is also true that what God does when we hurt is weep. This is part of God’s compassion in action. God weeps and suffers with humans.

Jan Johnson delivers yet another beautifully written article that helps remind us of God’s consistent mercy and goodness to his creation. As a writer and spiritual director, she’s spent time considering the nature of God. She’s also a gifted teacher, and in this article, she invites the reader to learn about various perspectives humans have of God, and how those influence our journey through pain.

The American folk song, “Going on a Bear Hunt,” was a weekly ritual of circle time at the Montessori school I attended as a child. Each week, children would chime in with various obstacles we would attempt to surpass on our imaginary trek through the woods and over the fields to find the bear: “Can’t go over it, can’t go around it, guess we’ll have to go through it.” The theme of that sing-song adventure reminds me of an expression often heard about pain, that the only way is “through.” However, and more importantly, it was noted that we weren’t alone. We were together as a class guided by our teacher, in this interactive, fear-inducing, imaginative experience.

It’s not good for us to be alone in real-life experiences of panic and pain, either. We were designed to live in community with one another, and with the Trinity. But sometimes the people around us feed us unhelpful and trite responses to our pain. Occasionally, our own unexplored images of God create a barrier instead of an invitation for God to be with us—leaving us feeling isolated and confused by pain. In this article, Jan Johnson introduces us to a God who is so close and personal, his heart grieved by the pain of creation, that he weeps.

Jan opens the article sharing about a woman she met who was in deep grief, and who’s emotional and spiritual response to her pain was complicated due to some conflicting perspectives about who God is. Some friends, attempting to alleviate their own discomfort—often the reason people say the weirdest and least comforting things to the bereaved—had tried to move her out of grieving by saying unhelpful things. It left her feeling alone and bewildered. Jan listened to the woman’s pain, shared in her tears, and then strongly reminded her that God is grieving with her.

Scripture is replete with examples of Yahweh who sobs: a father drenches the nation with tears (Isaiah 16:9, 11). God even weeps when people experience consequences and pain that seem deserved (Isaiah 22:4).

The scriptural language describing God weeping is so intense that “sobs” is a fitting verb for the tears streaming down: “ Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease” (Jeremiah 14:17, NRSVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). Passages like this show how God wept over the destruction and disobedience of “my people.”

Jan goes on to say,

Yet I am even more moved by how God also wept over wayward, non-Israelite, not-chosen peoples: “O oppressed virgin daughter Sidon (modern day Lebanon), “virgin daughter Babylon” (modern day Iraq), “O virgin daughter Egypt” (Isaiah 23:12; 47:1; Jeremiah 46:11). All these nations were enemies of Israel but were named as children. All were wept over.”

Old Testament professor and author of The Suffering God, Terence Fretheim writes, “Israel has no monopoly on God’s empathy. All people everywhere have experienced the compassion (and judgment) of God, even though they may not realize that fact.”Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 137.

God is also depicted biblically as a weeping parent, anguishing over his children as a parent might do over an adolescent making bad choices. Unlike a human response of “I told you so,” God’s heart is grieved by the consequences: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows to warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8). We’re given a real-life picture of God in the person of Jesus—who being fully human and fully divine, allows us to see his compassion toward others as well as anger, sadness, and grief.  Jan continues:

We’re not surprised that, like God, Jesus did not restrict his weeping to the suffering of friends. (John 14:9) Jesus wept even for those who wanted to destroy him. . . .

We have good reason to think these tears of Jesus shown to us in the Gospels weren’t odd occurrences. More likely they were an outflow of the weeping prayer that he practiced, the prayers and supplications that were offered up with “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7) This fits with Jesus as our High Priest who “suffers with” (sumpatheo in Greek) our weaknesses.

What comfort this reminder brings! Scripture also points to the Holy Spirit as part of God’s ever-present nature interceding for us with “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). All of these examples of the Trinity point to a God who is very present and engaged with His creation and is moved to sadness when creation suffers. Why then do Christians claim to know the Bible, yet miss who God truly is?  Jan shares a quote from Dallas Willard that is particularly helpful on this topic:

The bad things that happen to us are always challenges to our faith, and we may not be able to stand up under them. They are dangerous. To know this, one has only to watch how quickly people begin to attack God when bad things start to happen to them. . . .

What we learn about God from Jesus should prove to us that suffering and “bad things” happening to us are not the Father’s preferred way of dealing with us—sometimes necessary, perhaps, but never what he would, on the whole, prefer.Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) 265, 267.

Our image of God must never be distorted by the world we live in which is harsh, judgmental, and violent. This is why the practices of examen and spiritual direction can be so helpful to the believer. Jan closes this article with a challenge to move from weeping to courage. As many of the passages of Scripture referenced here attest; God models for us a divine sort of mourning. We may have forgotten this—or never learned it—or allowed the pain in our life to callous our heart and take on false beliefs about God. But with the Spirit’s help, we can move toward a truer knowing of God, and therefore, experience the comfort of His tears when navigating our pain.

Use the questions below for a time of reflection on the image of God in you and the problem of pain.

  1. What things have people said to you—especially, during a painful season of life—that gave a wrong impression of God? Maybe they offered advice or misquoted Scripture or some other form of spiritually bypassing your grief? Now recall what someone said or did that validated your pain and made you feel less alone.
  2. How has Jan Johnson’s article on a weeping God opened you to new ways of experiencing God’s with-ness in your pain?
  3. Offer a prayer to God about this divine weeping. You might begin by using the phrases from the Scripture passages in this article: “Thank you, God that you weep, that you drench nations with tears, that your heart throbs for people who are destroyed.” Tell God why you’re glad for that weeping, and why you weep.

Play the Communaute de Taizé song, “Stay with me”Communaute de Taizé, Les Presses de Taizé, 1984. Notice how it combines the themes of the Garden of Gethsemane events in Mark 14:32–42 with Jesus’s invitation to abide in John 15:1–16. Then, as you listen to this song and meditate on these Scriptures, imagine yourself sitting next to God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or within the circle of the Trinity.