The laboratory of Tears.
Ten days ago, if I knew what I am about to share with you, I would not have had the regrets that haunted me from then, nor the inexplicable lingering burden from which I could not weave free. It is with sorrow therefore that I share with you this message on the prayer of tears, as I have learned it from the Lord. I shall tell the rest of my story in later lines.
Sometime ago, I got puzzled by something I read in the Psalms, to the effect that God has a bottle, or bottles, in which He stores the tears of His people. I wondered to myself, “What does God do with the tears in His bottles? Is there a library or laboratory in heaven, with our tears in beakers and cylinders?” It occurred to me that each teardrop is a microchip of those unspeakable emotions that generated the tear; that each teardrop is a coded material summation of the intangible and inarticulable turmoils that compelled it. I suppose that each time God picks up those bottles in His prayer laboratory, He reads the ripples of pain in them; He hears from them the echoes of those prayers, those pains, those aspirations that the crying person was unable to put into words. He decodes from them those requests and emotions expressible only in the language of tears, like the prayer language of the Holy Spirit, according to Romans 8:26-27.
Bible scholars tell us that the metaphor of tears in a bottle derives from the ancient Eastern practice whereby mourners saved their tears in a bottle, in memory of the dead. At other times, if someone was sick, afflicted, or in great distress, their friends often visited them with a tear bottle, called a lachrymator. As the sufferer wept and the tears rolled down the cheeks, they were collected into the bottle and kept in memory of that tribulation. Each time one looked at that bottle, it became a reminder. Such ornate bottles decorated homes in Egypt and in Rome.
Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book? (Psalm 56:8).
2. The language of Tears
Nobody can fully interpret tears, even as no one can perfectly translate any one language into another. The specialists tell us so. However, tears have a language of their own that is universal. Every human being speaks the language of tears. Whatever strange native language somebody speaks, when they cry, we seem to understand the common language of pain or joy that their tears express.
I do not speak Japanese, but when I see the Japanese woman weeping for her 2-year old son crushed in an earthquake, I understand that she is not celebrating a lottery of a million yens that she has won. When I see the Korean grandfather weeping for a baby shot dead by a crazy gunman, I understand that he is not celebrating a birthday. He is speaking in a language too deep for words; a language best understood only by God; a language analogous to the prayer language of the Holy Spirit, according to Romans 8:26-27:
26 At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don't know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes...with our groans that cannot be expressed in words.
27 The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God's people the way God wants him to (Romans 8:26-27, GOD'S WORD).
The New American Standard Bible describes this prayer as “groanings too deep for words.” According to the New International Version, it is groans that words cannot express.” I think it makes sense to me, otherwise tell me, what is the meaning of the repeated cry of “Ahhhh!” that comes from the young woman in Jos who has lost a husband to Islamic jihadists after only six months of a pleasant marriage? How does one interpret the moans of “Ooo! Mnnn! Ehhh!” from a pastor in the northern Nigeria city of Bauchi whose church has been burnt down by Muslims, with his wife, four children, and fifteen members in it? Only the Creator who puts our tears in His bottle can fully tell what such groans mean. Only in God's lachrymal laboratory can those wordless wails and tears be fully analyzed and interpreted.
Could this New Testament prayer mystery of inexplicable groans be what the Old Testament Psalmist describes by the metaphor of tears in a bottle? Perhaps. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, remarks knowingly in The Little Prince, “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
3. The logbook of Tears
God not only has a bottle for tears, He also keeps a logbook for the tears; a logbook recording who wept what tears, when, why, on account of what or whom.
“…My tears… are they not in thy book?” Malachi calls that logbook the “book of remembrance:”
…the LORD listened and heard them; So a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the LORD, And who meditate on His name (Malachi 3:16, NKJV).
Do tears mean so much to God, that He should take such pains to document and catalogue and preserve them? Yes. With God, there are no wasted tears. John Webster the English playwright says in The White Devil, “There's nothing sooner dry than women's tears.” That may be true about some tears, but not all. Tears shed before the Lord do not “sooner dry.” Hannah's tears did not. They gave her a son and still stand recorded in the greatest ever book, the Holy Bible.
Every tear is documented, in His book; and the day comes, probably not as soon as one expects, when He shall read the book and reply to the tears (Luke 18:1-7; Esther 6:1-11). For example, after about 400 years of exile in Egypt, God appeared to Moses and said to him about the slaving Israelites, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry… And I am come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8). God was recalling tears.
4. The Weapon of Tears
Not only does God save tears; not only does He record and read them; the next verse tells us something even more strange, that tears are a weapon:
When I cry unto thee, THEN shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me (Psalm 56:9).
Some enemies may never be turned back except by the prayer of tears. Some enemies may never be overcome until we are at the place of tears. However, not every tear wins the war. The passage makes that clear. It speaks of tears “unto” God, not those shed in pity for ourselves or as a means of manipulating a husband or a mother or anybody. It says, “When I cry unto thee....” Some tears, though profuse, have been futile, because they were not “unto” God (Hebrews 5:7; 1 Samuel 1:10). Learn to turn your tears to God, then wait and watch what He will do.
As anointed a prophet as Jeremiah was, he learned to use the instrument of tears so much that it got into his title: The Weeping Prophet. His second book, Lamentations, says it both in the title and in the content.
Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people... (Lamentations 2:11).
Jesus Himself also wept, publicly, at least on three recorded occasions: at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35), over the blind city of Jerusalem that, oblivious of its glorious season of divine visitation, was heading for imminent trouble (Luke 19:41-44), and probably in the Garden of Gethsemane, in His high priestly capacity, as told in Hebrews 5:6-8:
6 As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
7 Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;
8 Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered (Hebrews 5:6-8).
Talking with a friend three days ago as we studied the book of Hebrews in preparation for a retreat, he read this passage to me, stressing that even Jesus the Son of God wept. It touched me deeply, especially (I told him) as it reminded me of my failure of tears only a few days before. (I shall tell the story in later lines.) He proceeded to show that even “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:22), and added that such was also Paul's prayer life: “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
Once upon a time, trouble was coming upon Jerusalem. The enemy had planned to litter the streets with the corpses of young people, which was going to make mothers to cry. God thus advised the Weeping Prophet himself on what to do. He was to confront the coming plot with the weapon of tears, yet not his male prophetic tears but those of women who needed to weep in prayers then, so as not to weep in sorrow later for their children slain.
17 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Consider ye, and call for the mourning women, that they may come...
18 And let them make haste, and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush out with waters.
19 For a voice of wailing is heard out of Zion, How are we spoiled! ...
20 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O ye women... teach your daughters wailing, and every one her neighbour lamentation.
21 For death is come up into our windows, and is entered into our palaces, to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets (Jeremiah 9:17-21).
In The Living Bible, we read,
The Lord Almighty says: "Send for the mourners! Quick! Begin your crying! Let the tears flow from your eyes (Jeremiah 9:17-18).
What is there in tears that even God has to recommend them to the prophet Jeremiah, as a means of saving his land? Only He knows.
5. The Force of Tear
Not only have feeble tears won battles, they have also wrought deliverance. In other words, they have not only defeated enemies, they have also broken the chains of captivity. We see it hinted at in God's point of view on how the deliverance of the Israelites came about:
7 And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry (from which tears I decode that the cry is] by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;
8 And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey….
9 Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen [through the tears analyzed in my laboratory] the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.
10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10).
Some salvation will come only through tears, for, according to Psalm 145:19, “...He also will hear their cry and save them” (NKJV). Of Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel, we read in 1 Samuel 1:6-10,
6 And her adversary also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb.
7 ...so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and did not eat.
8 Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou? …
10 And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore.
As she spoke to God in that language of tears, expressing her pains too deep for words, Eli the high priest, not sufficiently familiar with all the ways of God, interrupted her, confronting her with the theological and denominational inappropriateness of her mode of tearful speechless prayers. He misinterpreted it as demonic drunkeness; but this was her reply,
15 …No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD.
Only then did Eli's eyes open to say,
17 …Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him.
What we read thereafter is her testimony: “and the LORD remembered her” (v.19) and “Hannah... bare a son, and called his name Samuel” (v.20). That was her last barren year; those were her last memorable tears. She broke through with tears, even when her pastor could not understand. It also was the last we read anything of her adversary's merciless provocations.
…When he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious (Exodus 22:27, NKJV).
6. The Therapy of Tears
Besides their spiritual potentials, tears also have other natural therapeutic benefits. Even psychologists acknowledge that they heal their minds who let them flow. Alice Walker the American poet and writer, in Her Blue Body Everything We Know, writes: “Tears left unshed / turn to poison / in the ducts.” As British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher also confessed in an interview with Woman's World (London), “There are a few times when I get home at night and everything has got on top of me when I shed a few tears, silently, alone.” Even prime ministers cry.
7. The Empty Bottle of Tears
Now my story. Fifteen days ago, I had been scheduled to speak at an annual national women's convention. I had had a session with them the previous day. While I prepared to leave for the meeting that day, I visited one of our offices briefly, and met “breaking news” on the TV. It said that the United Nations office in Abuja, Nigeria, had been suicide bombed. I froze. “Islamic Jihad again,” I moaned within myself. I left for the meeting sad, burdened by the several vicious Islamic attempts at taking Nigeria and the many other nations that they have often terrorised.
As I sat and waited, the women made their elaborate introduction about the “great man of God” that had come again to bless them, then they called me out to preach. I trudged out slowly to the lectern without my Bible, and announced that I was not happy. Their faces suddenly took up an expression, as if to say, “What have we done to make this man of God sad?” I told them that I was not going to stand to preach, but was going to sit on the floor in my lamentation. More surprised, and meaning to be polite, they quickly offered me a chair, which I also politely refused, and proceeded to sit on the floor, and began to tell them of the “breaking news,” in the context of the current Islamic agenda to take the country. The house broke into a spontaneous lamentation. I broke down in tears. For the next hour and more, I could not preach their topic to them. We simply all sat on the floor and wept to God, having moved all the chairs and stacked them by the walls, as we felt urged by the Spirit of God. It was a solemn atmosphere. Mothers, daughters, rich and poor, old and young, rural and city women, we all were on the floor in tears to God.
Five days later, which was ten days ago, I was at another great prayer function of about two thousand women who had come from different churches. I shared with them my burden, telling what had happened five days earlier. I broke down again in tears, but this time, I resisted the tears. I put my tearful head down on the lectern, put the microphone away from my sobbing lips, and wept silently and controllably. The atmosphere suddenly had become electric with the power and presence of God. A few women had dropped to the floor at the burdens that I had shared, and were already lamenting, but I managed to cut it short after a few minutes and wiped my eyes, so I could go on with my preaching. A few more times during the preaching, I nearly broke down again in tears, but I kept managing my emotions.
During the meeting and after, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I had not done right by restraining the spontaneous move into a prayer of tears, simply because I meant to go ahead with my preaching. The meeting went well, and everyone thought that it was a great visitation, but I carried a burden and a guilt I could not explain. It has followed me for days. Only now have I begun to realise that I denied that great congregation the opportunity of an inspired prayer of tears, and that the angels may have gone back with an empty bottle. Perhaps God had already opened His logbook to record the tears and the pains of His people. Perhaps there were enemies that He was about to turn back that day from us as individuals and as a nation, but my male and intellectual head got in the way of the Spirit's visible move. Perhaps some tear bottles now stand empty in God's prayer lab, on account of my failure that day. I regret it. I wish I knew these truths before that day, perhaps we would have raised strategic lamentations that could have added to the missiles for dealing with the encroachments of Islamic darkness that now top the prayer concern of the Church of my age.
Yesterday at a prayer retreat of The Preacher, I made my confessions of this failure. I told them I wished I knew better, ten days ago. We went on to pray. Today, as we worshipped at that retreat, I saw a young woman, lost in His presence, with the tears streaming down her cheeks. She had not been with us yesterday. I wondered that the angels might be taking her tears into God's bottle. The pastor of a large congregation wrote back to say, “It has been sometime now since I shed tears in prayers. Thank you for inviting me.”
From The Preacher's diary,
September 10, 2011.