Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Spiritual Growth & Compassion

Weeping Prayer
by Jan Johnson

A frequent cause of traffic jams on southern California freeways is the “looky Lou” habit in which drivers slow down to examine an accident on the side of the road.  Usually a Highway Patrol car has already arrived and an ambulance is visible so it’s not as if people are wondering if they should stop to help. They seem just to want to look.  Similarly, when public tragedies occur, we find ourselves hooked on monitoring news coverage. At first, this helps us through the shock phase of grief, but then it comes to resemble that morbid “looky Lou” phenomenon.  Perhaps we do this because we’re not sure what else we can do.

If obsessing on news reports isn’t the best of all responses to violence and tragedy, what is?  While better responses include comforting the afflicted, joining a clean-up crew, donating money or getting involved in settings that promote reconciliation, there’s another important response that off-site folks can participate in: the ongoing weeping with God whose heart throbs when humans harm and oppress each other.  Whether the violence is directed at us, surrounds us or even rises up within us, we can train our heart to grieve on a regular basis in order to release our claim on vengeance because we are children of God.

Such weeping is, I believe, an ongoing discipline for those in whom God dwells. Sandwiched between Scripture’s difficult biddings to “bless those who persecute you” and “live in harmony with one another,” is the command: “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:14-16).  The kindred ideas flow on:  “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” until we come to the charge:

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 16, 19-21).

In Christian spiritual tradition, certain kinds of weeping are a charism, or gift of the Spirit.  Captured in the Greek word penthos, such weeping involves a broken and contrite heart and inward godly sorrow.  Stories of the desert fathers often include the bidding to stay in one’s cell and weep for one’s sins. 1 “Useful” grief included “weeping over one’s own faults and weeping over the weakness of one’s neighbours.” 2 It is this latter action -- weeping over others’ bent lives and the evil phase they have chosen and even for the redemption of their lives -- that helps us respond to tragedy and disaster without vengeance.


Weeping with those who weep opens us to becoming God’s weeping companions. God weeps -- sobs might be a more fitting verb, for the tears stream down:  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears” (Jer. 9:1refers to God). Those around God were enjoined: “Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains” (Jer. 9:10refers to God).

  •   The object of God’s weeping is wayward children:
  • “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
  • and let them not cease,
  • for the virgin daughter—my people—is struck down with a crushing blow”  (Jer. 14:17).

While some might postulate that God wept over the destruction and disobedience only of Judah about to go into captivity, the obstinate children over whom God wept included others besides Israel: “O oppressed virgin daughter Sidon,” (modern day Lebanon)  “virgin daughter Babylon!” (modern day Iraq),  “O virgin daughter Egypt!” (Isa. 23:12; 47:1;  Jer. 46:11).  All were named as children;  all were wept over.


Even though the idea of God weeping is a repeated theme to those who read the prophets, our “Don’t worry, be happy” culture – even in church – typically avoids these passages. Rarely are they preached on, taught, or savored in meditation.  But such weeping is important as it leads us to pray as part of our work in bringing healing to those who have suffered tragedies.  I stumbled into doing this after reading about the two million women and children held captive in the sex trafficking industry each year – how they are lured, lied to, kidnapped and coerced into bondage. I found myself unable to focus on much else for days. The order of my daily lectio divina passages mercifully fell to Psalm 56. Picturing myself as a young girl of twelve trapped in a city unknown to her and violently beaten into submission to prostitution, I prayed in her place for her: 

    Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
    all day long foes oppress me;
    2my enemies trample on me all day long,
      for many fight against me.
    O Most High, when I am afraid,
    I put my trust in you.
    4In God, whose word I praise,
    in God I trust; I am not afraid;
    what can flesh do to me?
    5All day long they seek to injure my cause;
    all their thoughts are against me for evil.
    6They stir up strife, they lurk,
    they watch my steps.
    As they hoped to have my life,
    7 so repay them for their crime;
    in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
    8You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your record?
    9Then my enemies will retreat
    in the day when I call.
    This I know, that God is for me.

By the third reading of the passage, my mouth could not help but pray, When she is afraid, help her “put her trust in you.”   Help her think, O God, “This I know, that God is for me!”  Help her to be courageous and declare, “What can flesh do to me? Make her “enemies retreat in the day when I call.”  I also prayed, I confess, Repay them for their crime. In such prayers, we keep company with God in the waiting room of chronos time, crying over the tragic news of the ones who do not choose to stand in the light of God’s life.


Such lament prayers are woven with what Walter Brueggeman calls “decisive weeping.” Brueggeman paints a picture of a passionate, anguished Jesus who weeps not only over a friend’s death (Lazarus) but also over the impending destruction of the city of Jerusalem even though “he understood early that he must die at the hands of Jerusalem” (Lk. 19:41-42;  Matt. 23:13-33).  “The compassion of Jesus has two sides,” says Brueggeman, “a frontal attack upon the dominant culture,” but also in “in [Jesus’] criticism and solidarity he evidences power to transform.”3 So while we weep over the badness of the bad guys, we also join Christ in wanting the bad guys to be transformed.

Speaking about this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who within seven years of writing this would be held captive by the Nazis and executed, wrote: “Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.  If we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them.  We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.”4

Helmut Thielicke calls such prayer “vicarious intercession”  and refers to Abraham pleading for the possibly ten righteous ones in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:16ff).  Speaking of the people around us, he writes: “God is seeking them all and yourself.  Therefore you must intercede for them all before God;  you must be the one whose hands are stretched out to and over them. We must represent before God all those who do not know what they are doing and do not do what they know.” 5 Those last phrases are especially helpful to me in finding words about what to pray for those who perpetrate evil.  They move me toward asking God to help them see what they are doing and forsake it, to move toward the light of God.

Perhaps such vicarious intercession sounds like too much of a stretch for you.  On many days it is for me. That’s why the regular discipline of weeping for those who have postured themselves as enemies helps. As we assume that beneficent posture of weeping with those who weep, we move into weeping for those who ought to weep.

In the midst of it all, we may even ask ourselves, Do I want this person or people or nation reformed and restored?  (Recall Jonah wasn’t too keen on those awful Ninevhites turning toward God.)  Our tears nudge us closer to that eventual goal.

I struggle with this when praying for the manager of one of my family members. The one I love reports being ridiculed in front of others when this manager is mistaken about the facts.  No amount of friendly explanations, reasonable clarity, or confidential talks with personnel seem to dissuade this person from continual yelling.  This situation came to mind when meditating on these words, “his heart is set on war, with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords” (Psalm 55:21).  To try to filter my desire for justice through the faith of Christ, I modified the word “wicked” (“the clamor of the wicked”) to “his phase of wickedness at this time in his life.”  Praying Psalm 82 creates more mercy in me. In this picture of God holding a divine council and assessing the nations’ performances regarding their injustices, the unjust people are said to “walk around in darkness” (v. 5). This reminds me of how my Pentecostal friend describes such people as “bound up” so I see this oppressive manager as bound up in a desire to control and a continuing habit of rage.


Because the planet is continually beset with actions that cause God to weep, it seems self-absorbed to restrict weeping to things that come up in my reading selections or my dear ones’ lives.  Daily instances occur that cause God to weep and it’s good for our souls to join God in this because our aim is to identify all that we are and all that we do with God's purposes in creating us and our world.  This is not something we can do on our own, of course. But the Spirit of God helps us search out and know the very mind of God (1 Cor. 2:12).  This is yet another path in having the mind of Christ (2:16).

So we find ways to become aware of tragedy on a regular basis.  We don’t let ourselves slip into complacency.  For me this involves reading the world news section of the newspaper daily to see what is happening that would cause God to weep.  Where are the poor, the needy, the oppressed today?  What new or continuing guerilla warfare or natural disaster has caused people just like me to become widowed or orphaned?  Who has been lied to and defrauded?  Who has been left without a home?  How are the hurts of the past being mended – or not?  What is happening today in yesterday’s crisis locations:  Rwanda? Sudan? Vietnam? Being present and attentive to those in crisis is part of how we co-labor with God as a light in the darkness.

Sometimes reading the newspaper isn’t enough to adequately inform us of the tragedies God’s children experience.  We need to walk among suffering folks. After I returned from speaking at an affluent venue in Guatemala, a relative asked me what sites I saw there.  I began talking about the Guatemala City dump.  Unable to contain myself, I poured forth the story of how days before my visit several children had slipped down through the garbage and suffocated underneath it all.

“Why in the world did you go to such a place?” he howled.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  “. . . because I needed to?”

At the time, I didn’t have words to explain.  I could see that it wouldn’t do to tell him about the other heart-wrenching things I saw and heard so I talked about following the nurse who works there around the dump. She was greeted with hugs by those living in the shanties on the fringes. The pregnant women caught her eye and grinned as did those whose injuries she had mended the day before.  Children cozied up to her knowing that bits of candy would soon slip out of her pocket into their hands.  Back at her clinic in the midst of the lean-tos, we fed children and again watched her do her medical magic.  I explained to my relative that it was like walking behind Jesus for an afternoon.

I didn’t tell him how it felt later that night to sit on a balcony above the city and dine in the home of the American controllers of an oil company.  Guarded with automatic weapons, the gates had opened to let us into this palatial home.  There I sat in the moonlight with a full stomach, asking Jesus if I really belonged there. But in the quiet, I gained a strong sense that Jesus wept over these people too.

Later, I knew why I had requested to visit the dump. I was becoming too complacent in my daily life and needed to be immersed, up close and personal, in how the rest of the world lives. While volunteering at a shelter for the homeless in my American town has meant a great deal to me, I knew our shelter would be like Club Med in Guatemala.  It had been too long since I’d been out of the United States and I needed to see an impoverished child of God sitting right in front of me once again. I needed to weep anew. Like a regular discipline, I needed to practice it.


To weep with the suffering does not mean, however, that we have a good cry and get on with other things.  It’s more that we have a good cry and we are never the same.  We do not “shun the duty of proclamation and choose the easier way of prayer. . . . . Vicarious intercession springs from love;  and love impels to proclamation rather than dispense with it.” 6 Regular, disciplined weeping gives us a place from which to speak and act. As we work and pray and give on behalf of this cause, we do so with traces of tears that recall names and faces and places.  We speak out about such situations not with the voice of a do-gooder but from a broken heart – one that has fellowshipped with God’s broken heart. This keeps us away from vengeance, fuels our work for justice, and bonds us to the heart of our weeping God.


1 Benedicta Ward  The Sayings of the Desert Fathers  (Kalamazoo, MI:  Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 50, 90, 126, 133, 138.
2 Ward, p. 235.
3 Walter Brueggeman  The Prophetic Imagination, Philadelphia, PA:  Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 90-91.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Disicpleship, (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1963),. p. 166.
5 Helmut Thelicke The Silence of God  (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962),  p. 47
6 Thelicke, p. 48


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