A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh
A Time to Weep And a Time to Laugh
Anyone who loves great hymns will know of the compositions of Anne Steele. As a child, she had an accident that made her an invalid for life. In her late teens, when she seemed to have partially conquered her physical problems, she was introduced to Mr. Ellscourt, and they soon fell in love. Her cup of joy overflowed when he asked her to be his wife. But on the wedding day, as she eagerly awaited his arrival, a messenger came with the tragic news that he had drowned. Stunned with grief, she retired to her room to weep and seek comfort from God's Word. Recovering her strength, she wrote a hymn that has brought healing to many a wounded spirit:
Father, whate'er of earthly bliss
Thy sovereign will denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace
Let this petition rise:
Give me a calm and thankful heart,
From every murmur free,
The blessings of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.
Miss Steele wrote the lyrics for 144 other sacred songs, even though she spent the last nine years of her life as a shut-in (Bosch 1976). To study her life is to know what it is to reflect and radiate the Spirit of the indwelling Christ, for it is clear that Jesus had this capacity to weep and to laugh. We read that there were times when He "rejoiced in the Spirit" (Luke 10:21). People saw the merry twinkle in His eyes and heard the laughter in His voice. Then at other times He was truly the "Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). As we shall see presently, He wept at the graveside of a dear friend; He wept as He surveyed a shepherdless multitude; He wept over a city that had lost its soul. So there is a time to weep, just as there is a time to laugh. Reverently, we need to examine these God-given capacities.
The Capacity for Tearfulness
There is a popular notion that tears are associated only with having a fallen nature and living a life of sin, but the teaching of Scripture does not bear this out. Our Lord and Savior was neither fallen in His nature or sinful in His living, yet He wept. In His humanity, God had given Him a capacity for tearfulness, and so in this sense there is a place for holy tears. And, of course, the converse is just as true. Because of our sin, fallen man can shed and must shed tears of remorse, of bitterness, and even of hardened rebellion. Hell is described as a place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8:12).
In our consideration of this capacity for tearfulness, however, we are restricting ourselves to the two positive aspects of weeping. First of all, there is the shedding of natural tears. Because we are human, there are times in life when we can do nothing other than shed tears. For example, there is the sorrow of parting, such as Timothy felt when Paul was arrested and taken away from him. Writing later to his son in the faith, Paul could say, "[I] greatly [desire] to see you, being mindful of your tears, that I may be filled with joy" (2 Tim. 1:4). We recall how the Ephesian elders wept as they bade the apostle farewell for the last time (Acts 20:37). There is also the sorrow of bereavement, as when Jesus cried at the graveside of Lazarus (John 11:35). Then, of course, there is the sorrow of our mortality, when we sense the frailty of our bodies and groan and long to be delivered (Rom. 8:22; 2 Cor. 5:2). This sense of our creatureliness finds expression in many forms throughout the pilgrimage of life. It was this kind of experience that made the Psalmist pray, "Put my tears into Your bottle" (Ps. 56:8). As a minister, I have shed natural tears many times because of the suffering and bereavement of my people. Not to be able to weep on occasions like this is to be insensitive, abnormal, and lacking in the God-given capacity for tearfulness.
But with natural tears, there are also the spiritual tears. In an article entitled "When Should a Christian Weep?" John R. W. Stott (1969, 107-108) reminds us that there are some salutary things that need special attention in this superficial age in which we live. He says: "Evangelism has been debased into the simple invitation to 'come to Jesus and be happy.' The signature tune of the Christian Church has been 'I am Happy.' Christians are to appear hearty, ebullient and boisterous." He continues: "In a Christian magazine I receive, every Christian's picture (and there are many) shows him with a grin from ear to ear. Some Christians," he maintains, "would defend this attitude by quoting such [a] Scripture as 'Rejoice in the Lord always.'" But this is not "the true biblical image of the Christian." Our pattern is Jesus "who went about saying, 'Be of cheer ... Go in peace,' yet was called 'the Man of sorrows.' The apostle Paul expressed the same paradox [when he declared], 'as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.' "
Spiritual tears are tears of contrition. We all know the story of the woman who stood behind Jesus weeping, and then began to wash His feet with her tears (Luke 7:38). Those were tears of repentance for her sin and gratitude for her forgiveness. Would to God we saw more "holy water" of this kind in our gospel meetings!
I once remember hearing Duncan Campbell say that he doubted the reality of any man's conversion who had not wept over his sins.
David Brainerd, that most saintly missionary to the Indians at the beginning of the eighteenth century, could write in his diary for Oct 18, 1740:
In my morning devotions my soul was exceedingly melted, and I bitterly mourned over my great sinfulness and vileness. I never before had felt so pungent and deep a sense of the odious nature of sin, as this time. My soul was then unusually carried forth in love to God, and had a lively sense of God's love to me. (Stott 1969, 108)
God give us more men and tears like this!
Spiritual tears are tears of compassion. It is recorded that when the Lord Jesus "saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36). The sight of scattered sheep without a shepherd wrung His heart and He could not withhold His tears. In like manner, He wept over a city, crying: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate" (Matt. 23:37-38). The apostle Paul possessed this capacity for tearfulness. He could write: "I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:1-3). The burden of his unsaved Hebrew friends weighed so heavily upon him that day and night he shed prayerful tears for them.
Bishop J. C. Ryle once said of George Whitefield that the people "could not hate the man who wept so much over their souls." Andrew Bonar wrote in his diary on his 49th birthday: "Felt in the evening most bitter grief over the apathy of the district. They are perishing, they are perishing, and yet they will not consider. I lay awake thinking over and crying to the Lord in broken groans." We are told that that great theologian and preacher, Dr. R. W. Dale of Birmingham, was at first critical of D. L. Moody's preaching until he went to hear him. Thereafter, he had the most profound respect for the evangelist because he said Moody "could never speak of a lost soul without tears in his eyes" (Stott 1969, 109).
Spiritual tears are tears of concern. Compassion and concern must not be confused. Without doubt there is no true compassion without concern, but concern may not evoke compassion. On the contrary, concern may lead to holy jealousy, righteous indignation, and social action. The Psalmist could admit, "Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep Your law" (Psalm 119:136). And it was this kind of concern that led Paul to say to the Philippians that there were many whom he could only mention with tears because they were "the enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18).
Alas, we have become so immune to the challenge of social evils, that we can read headlines, listen to news reports, and watch gruesome pictures on the television screen without batting an eyelid. I don't believe God will ever hear our prayers for the troubles of the world until we know how to weep. Indeed, I don't believe God will ever intervene on behalf of our own country until the social evils that besmirch our land drive the church to her knees and to tears.
So there is a time to weep, and God has given all normal people capacity for tearfulness.
But to balance this truth we must consider also:
The Capacity for Cheerfulness
In the article by John Stott already referred to, he quotes Dr. W. E. Sangster's story of a very highbrow organist who pleaded with the drummer in the Salvation Army band not to hit the drum so hard. The beaming bandsman replied, "Lor' bless you, sir, since I've been converted I'm so happy I could bust the bloomin' drum."
There is a time to laugh, and there are two aspects of such laughter. There is the natural cheerfulness. Someone has pointed out that it takes a good laugh to exercise the entire complement of muscles that surround the face and throat of a normal person. Dr. G. Campbell Morgan (1934, 51) says, "The power to laugh, to cease work, and frolic in forgetfulness of all the conflict, to make merry, is a divine bestowment upon man." Natural cheerfulness is usually associated with the happy Spirit. The Scripture says, "A merry heart does good, like medicine" (Prov. 17:22), and again, "A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, ... he who is of a merry heart has a continual feast" (Prov. 15:13, 15). Nothing is more scintillating and uplifting than to be around a person possessed of a happy disposition.
Then, so often, natural cheerfulness comes from the humorous story. Thank God for those whose wit and mental ability have a humorous turn. All of us enjoy listening to a good storyteller who can draw forth laughter with good taste and timing. So there is natural cheerfulness.
But even more important, there is the spiritual cheerfulness. The gospel is the glad "tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10), and in God's presence there is "fullness of joy" (Ps. 16:11). Indeed, Jesus wanted His disciples to be full of joy (John 15:11; 16:24; 17:13), and we are reminded by the apostle Paul that "the fruit of the Spirit is ... joy" (Gal. 5:22). But we must be sure what we mean by such joy.
The Bible teaches that true joy is the expression of a deep spiritual experience with God. There is the joy of Christian forgiveness. "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5:1-2). David could express the same sentiment when he exclaimed, "Blessed [happy] is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered" (Ps. 32:1). No one can know real joy without the forgiveness of sin. True, there is a happiness that is artificial and synthetic, but cheerfulness is the refracted light of the inward lamp of joy.
The story is told of a famous comedian who came to see a psychiatrist. He was suffering from deep depression and heaviness of spirit. He confessed that there was no joy in his life and that life was a hollow thing. Without knowing the significance of what he was saying, the psychiatrist suggested that among other things he should go to a certain theater and listen to the starring comedian. After a deathly pause, the man looked up into the face of the psychiatrist and said, "I am that comedian!"
Do you and I know the joy and blessedness of sins forgiven? We will never be able to laugh as God intended until we know that the blood of Christ has covered the guilt of sin and that the grip of sin has been conquered by the power of Christ.
There is also the joy of Christian fellowship. In the greatest chapter on fellowship in the Bible, John the apostle says, "Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:3-4). Outside of the forgiveness of sin there is no joy quite like the joy of Christian fellowship. Listen to Christians as they gather at a time of conference, or around a meal table, or at a cozy fireside! The laughter you hear at such times is both holy and healthy. There is nothing phony about it; it is the true expression of Christian cheerfulness. Whatever the world may say about the failures and foibles of the church of Jesus Christ, it is still the greatest and most joyous fellowship on earth!
Most importantly, there is the joy of Christian fulfillment. It is said that the Lord Jesus "for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2). To Him, there was no greater joy than that of fulfilling the will of God. Throughout His life He was forever saying, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work" (John 4:34). And this was because His joy, or delight, was ever to do the will of God.
Show me a person who is in the center of God's will and fulfilling the Lord's commission, and I will introduce you to someone who has a capacity for cheerfulness. There is something exhilarating and exciting about working for Jesus. There is a fulfillment in Christian service that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. And when I talk about Christian service I do not necessarily refer to what is commonly known as "full-time Christian service." Wonderful as it is to be set apart for a specific God-given task, we must not overlook the fact that the housewife, the banker, the college professor, or the factory worker can serve Jesus Christ just as devotedly and hilariously as the missionary on the foreign field.
So we have seen that there is "a time to weep," (Eccl. 3:4) and God sees our tears and shares our tears. Do you share the tears of a broken world? How many members of your family are hurting, and you don't know anything about it? It may be even closer than that—your husband, wife, children, or parents may have a deep grief in their heart because of something that has happened to them. You may be going in and out of the house and be as cold, calculated, and clinical as the "professional" man. Do you suffer with your family? What about your church? Do you know that in every church there are broken hearts? I have been a pastor long enough to know that I never stand in the pulpit without knowing that I look into the faces of people who are crying inside. That is why in my pastoral prayers, and I trust in my preaching and in counseling, I always seek to identify with suffering hearts? What about people in your church who are really hurting? Do you identify with them? Do you seek them out? Do you know that the Bible says, "if one member suffers, all the members suffer" (1 Cor. 12:26). That is to say that nobody can be suffering in any given church without others feeling it, unless their sensitivities have been dulled. If we are answering to the Headship of Christ as our Lord, and the Holy Spirit is truly witnessing in our hearts to all that is going on in a local church, then we won't rest until we seek out those who need tenderness, consideration, and love.
But there is also "a time to laugh," (Eccl. 3:4) and God is just as much in our cheers as He is in our tears. Do you enjoy fun with others? Do you enjoy fellowship in the home and the church? There is no better representative of Christianity than a happy Christian. Joy is the flag that flutters at the mast of the castle when King Jesus is in residence. Unfortunately, most people see our flag flying at half-mast! Do you know what it is to rejoice in the little things? Geoffrey King recalls the story of a newly converted boy in a missionary school in India. The little lad was an excellent soccer player, and a day or two after his encounter with the Lord, he was on the field playing hard at the game. Presently he received a pass, and dribbling the ball through the defense, he delivered a glorious shot. Just as the ball was passing through the goalposts he was heard by one of the staff to say, "Look, Jesus, it's a goal! It's a goal!" So real was the relationship of this boy to his Savior that he was determined to share the joy of that moment. I can't help feeling that there was laughter in heaven, even as there was delight in the heart of that lad.
Think on These Things (Phil. 4:8)
There is "a time to weep" and there is "a time to laugh" (Eccl. 3:4). Do we have this God-given capacity for tearfulness and cheerfulness? To have it is to know the spirit of Jesus who said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). Someone has said that "tears are the lenses through which our dim eyes see more deeply into heaven and look more fully upon [the face of God]" (Miller 1912, April 17). And the wonderful thing about it is that as we see this vision of the face of God our hearts are filled with "joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Pet. 1:8). Let us live with "a tear in one eye and a twinkle in the other."
— Time for Truth, A