Conversations in the public square of late have ranged from biblical masculinity to gender roles in the church. We need these debates, and I am a willing participant in those arguments. But for me, the topics have a personal connection to memories about tears—both my own and the tears of Jesus.
I was 12 years old when my paternal grandfather died, and when I stood in front of his coffin, I received a memorable—but as I now see it, toxic—lesson in what it means to be a “masculine” Christian. Our extended family was gathered at the funeral home the evening before the day of the memorial service, and my parents encouraged me to approach the coffin to “say your goodbyes to Grandpa.”
When I did so, I started to sob. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, the strong grip of a favorite uncle who was a construction worker. He leaned over and said softly in my ear, “Chin up, soldier. Men don’t cry!”
That image of the Christian man as a warrior facing the challenges of life bravely and without tears stayed with me. It was reinforced by many elements in my early spiritual journey relating to being a “strong man”: singing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war” and “Sound the battle cry, See, the foe is nigh.” Evangelical youth rallies urged us to see our public high school biology classes and the lifestyle of “the fast crowd” as battlefields where we must hold our ground in the causes of truth and purity.
I say that my uncle’s counsel stayed with me, reinforced by “battle” language in my spiritual upbringing, but the image of masculinity that he pressed on me was also countered in many ways in my evangelical upbringing.
By the time I was in my 30s, I had learned through many experiences that it was okay—even good—for me as a Christian man to cry, to let other people see my tears. I had sobbed when I first saw my newborn son, and I had cried at key moments in marriage counseling. I had also shed tears when standing in front of many other coffins. And in doing so, particularly in funeral home settings, I had frequently acknowledged that I felt no need to live up to my uncle’s standard of manliness.
But while reading my Bible one morning, it all came together for me in a dramatic way while reading chapter 11 of John’s gospel, detailing Jesus’ visit to the sisters of Lazarus after their brother had died. Jesus at one point asks to be taken to the burial place, and then in the shortest verse in the English Bible: “Jesus wept.”
I had come upon that short verse many times. On this occasion, though, in reading about the grief of Jesus when he approached the tomb of Lazarus, I believe that the Holy Spirit confronted me with the stark contrast between my uncle’s counsel and the stark declaration of the gospel account. I heard again my uncle’s voice: “Men don’t cry.”
And at the same time, I heard the Spirit whispering to me: “Jesus wept!”
I got the message: the Lord wanted me to hear that “the man” cried. The eternal Second Person of the divine Trinity, incarnate as a Galilean man whose divine mission was to understand in his own being all the ways that we men and women suffer—that man wept.
Those issues have come to mind for me frequently in recent times as I have followed the important—and often hostile—discussions about evangelical understandings of masculinity. I am convinced that the picture of the Savior weeping in a public setting has profound importance for our discussions of masculinity. But over the years, one other thing has given me theological reasons to question my uncle’s counsel: the hymns of the evangelical community.
In her classic study of 19th-century gospel hymns, Sandra Sizer points to a profound shift away from some of the harsh depictions of the unregenerate sinner in 18th-century hymnody, with Isaac Watts’s “such a worm as I” image as one of her key examples. Sinners were characterized in sermons and songs as despicable creatures, criminals, willful rebels against the ways of godliness.
But, says Sizer, all of this “softened” in the 19th century, when variations on the theme of “these poor sinners” began to take hold in how Christians sang—and thought—about unbelievers. Unregenerate people were now viewed as wandering souls who had lost their way. They needed to be called “home.” Unbelievers were “weary,” bowed down under the burdens of guilt and despair.
Much of the hymnody of my youth, then, pointed us to a compassionate Savior. When preachers shed tears over the plight of “the lost,” they were clearly implying that Jesus understood those tears. And when it came time for us to sing an “invitation” hymn, it was often these words that we chose: “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling ‘O sinners, come home!’” Jesus was a nurturing, loving shepherd who showed “gentle care” to each of us in the “pleasant pastures” where he fed us. When, as the sovereign Lord of creation, he confronted angry waves, he revealed to us that “as a mother stills her child” he could “hush the oceans wild.”
All of that worked in subtle but very real ways in my life. It was spiritual formation that knew the embrace of a compassionate Savior. I nurture no delusions about reviving the hymnody of the past. But we do need to find ways of hearing Jesus speak “softly and tenderly” to each of our hearts.
Some might push back: Yes, it is OK for men to cry. But there are elements of the call for men to be “masculine” that we need to preserve. There are times when it is crucial for the health of the Christian community when men need to show some spine in their leadership. It’s not all about “gentle Jesus.”
My response is that to the degree that men need to show that firmness, so do women. Gentleness and boldness are not gendered callings. Of course, the Savior modeled courage and strength well. He reprimanded people. But in discussing these aspects of his ministry, we should look at the context.
Very often, the tough talk of Jesus was against male religious leaders who were committed to abusive forms of leadership. It is hard for me to imagine, for example, Jesus not being upset if he heard his male disciples talk about “those women” in the manner that is so common today when men talk off the record about women that they know.
Back to my uncle. He did not live his adult life as a person of faith. In the final months, though, a cousin visited him. He was now a weak and lonely man. In that visit, my cousin asked him if he would like to pray and ask Jesus to embrace him in love. My uncle said that he would, and they prayed together. When my cousin told me that story, I wept tears of joy.
Richard Mouw served as president of Fuller Theological Seminary for 20 years. He is the author, most recently, of All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight.