The Property of Tears
Five year-old Samantha was the victim of a cruel and tragic murder, and her own tears were the evidence that sealed the case against her abductor. “[S]he solved the crime,” said her young mother. “She was her own hero.”(1) DNA in the form of teardrops was found on the passenger-side door of the killer’s car, irrevocably making their mark on the crime scene and everyone who imagines them.
It is impossible to hear stories like this, of heinous murders, of calculated school shootings, without retreating to the deepest whys and hows of life. The abrupt ending to these lives is another wretched symptom of a sick and desperate world. The problem of evil is a problem that confronts us, sometimes jarringly. The problem of pain is only intensified by the personal nature of our experience with it.
The first time I heard Samantha’s story my numbed mind was startled by this property of tears. I had no idea that our tears were so personally our own. Samantha’s tears solved the case because there were none others like hers. They were unique to the eyes they came from, intricately a part of Samantha herself. In the pains and joys that cause us to weep and to mourn, we leave marks far more intimate than I ever realized. We shed evidence of our own makeup, leaving behind a complex, yet humble message: I was here, and my pain was real.There are a lot of really bad and unhelpful things that people say in the face of tragedy and particularly to those who mourn. For me this brings new meaning to the wisdom of being silent with the grief-striken, sharing tears instead of advice.
There is no doubt something deeply necessary about the Christian hope that pain will one day be removed and tears will be no more. We are rightly comforted by the image of heaven as the place where God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the weeping. There is much hope in the promise that there will one day be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.(2) But perhaps there is first something deeply necessary about a God who has marked our tears so specifically even now, declaring that our pain is far from a generic or empty occurrence.
There is a line uttered by the psalmist that was comforting to my grandmother through many years of loss and life. To God the psalmist confesses, “You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle” (Psalm 56:8). Tear-bottles were small urns of glass or pottery created to collect the tears of mourners at the funerals of loved ones. They were placed in the sepulchers at Rome and in Palestine where bodies were laid to rest. In some ancient tombs these bottles are found in great numbers, collecting tears that were shed with great meaning to the ones unique to them.
How assuring to know that our pain is not haphazardly viewed by the one who made tear ducts able to spill over with grief and anguish. God keeps count of our sorrowful struggling, each tear recorded and collected as pain steeped with the life of the one who wept it. Like a parent grieving at a child’s wound, God knows our laments more intimately than we realize.
But also more than a parent wiping eyes and collecting tears, God has shed tears of his own, taking on the limitations and sufferings of creation personally, declaring in body that embodiment is something God takes very seriously. In her book Creed or Chaos, Dorothy Sayers writes:
“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine… He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”(3)
I know of no equal comfort in the midst of life’s sorrows, no other answer within the problem of pain and evil. God has sent a Son as unique and personal as the very tears we shed crying out for answers and consolation. Every tear is marked with the intricacies of a Creator, every cry heard by one who wept at the grave of Lazarus, every lament collected in his bottle until the day when tears will indeed be no more.
(1) “Justice for Samantha,” People, June 06, 2005, Vol. 63, No. 22, pp. 73-74.
(2) Revelation 21:4.
(3) Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949), 4.
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