Sometimes Christians forget the sweetness that can exist along with the bitterness of tears. Because we live in a culture that focuses on entertainment, instant amusement, glamour, fame, and popularity, it is easy for us to jump on the bandwagon by doing our best to avoid tears, pain, and sorrow. Everyone is searching for happiness and trying to get rid of tears. So we turn to pills, personal trainers, makeovers, religion, sex, drink, and drugs (the list goes on) in the quest to attain happiness. Of course there is a longing in every human heart for happiness because sin (in us and “out there”) has left humans a miserable bunch. What about tears? Should we avoid them at all costs? Why did Jesus say, Blessed are those who mourn and Blessed are you who weep now? Below are some points made by Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) in The Beatitudes, as he discussed Matthew 5:4. These are slightly edited and abbreviated. You can find the full discussion in chapters 6-10.
“1) Sin must have tears. While we carry the fire of sin about us, we must carry the water of tears to quench it (Ezek. 7.16). We have in our hearts the seed of the unpardonable sin. And shall we not mourn? He that does not mourn has surely lost the use of his reason.
2) Gospel-mourning [the weeping of repentance] is spontaneous and free (it is not forced). It is spiritual, that is, we mourn for sin more than suffering.
3) Gospel-mourning sends the soul to God. Evangelical mourning is a spur to prayer. Gospel tears must drop from the eye of faith. Our disease must make us mourn, but when we look up to our Physician, who has made a plaister of his own blood, we must not mourn without hope. Believing tears are precious. When the clouds of sorrow have over-cast the soul, some sunshine of faith must break forth. Though our tears drop to the earth, our faith must reach heaven.
4) Gospel-mourning is joined with self-loathing. The sinner admires himself. The penitent lathes himself (Ezek. 20:43). Gospel-mourning must be purifying. We must not only mourn but turn. ‘Turn to Me with weeping’ (Joel 2.12). We must not only abstain from sin and weep over it, we must also abhor it.
5) Tears cannot be put to a better use. The brinish water of repenting tears will help to kil that worm of sin which should gnaw the conscience. Gospel-mourning is an evidence of grace. Weeping for sin is a sign of the new birth.
6) Repentant tears are precious. Tears dropping from a mournful, penitent eye, are like water dropping from the roses, very sweet and precious to God. That heart is most delightful to God which has a fountain of sorrow running in it. ‘Mary stood at Christ’s feet weeping’ (Lk 7.38). Her tears were more fragrant than her ointment. God delights much in tears, else he would not keep a bottle and a book for them (Ps 56.8). Tears, though they are silent, yet have a voice (Ps 6.8). David who was the greatest mourner in Israel was the sweet swinger in Israel. My tears were my food (Ps 42.3). Ambrose gives this gloss: ‘No food so sweet as tears!’ Bernard says ‘The tears of the repentant are sweeter than all worldly joy.’
7) Tears line the road to the New Jerusalem. Perhaps a man may think, ‘If I cannot mourn for sin, I will get to heaven some other way. I will go to church, I will give alms, I will lead a civil life.’ No, but I tell you there is but one way to blessedness, and that is through the Valley of Tears. ‘I tell you, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish’ (Lk 13.3).
8) Christian tears will eventually end. It is only a while that we shall weep. After a few showers fall from our eyes, we shall have perpetual sunshine. God shall wipe away all tears (Rev. 7.17). When sin shall cease, tears shall cease. ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’ (Ps. 30.5).”
There are other reasons why Christians weep, to be sure. I appreciate Watson’s perspective here because he gives us a good biblical way to view tears of repentance. They don’t save us nor do they wash away our sins, but they do have a place in our pilgrimage. So Christian weeping truly is bittersweet: bitter because it has to do with sin and sweet because it has to do with faith in Jesus the Saviour.
A last thought from Watson:
“True holy water is not that which the pope sprinkles, but is distilled from the penitent eye.”
– Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686), A Body of Divinity, p. 26