Spiritual Disciplines for Tough Times 3

One of the problems with this quarantine and the disruption of this pandemic is that it throws your life out of balance. Add the fear and uncertainty of the future and this season can be very challenging, and it can threaten your peace and sanity.

Thankfully, God is a rock and a sure foundation in the midst of any storm. We, however, must take time to center our lives on His foundation and to stand on the Rock. One of the best ways to center your life is to take a 15-minute quiet time break with Jesus. The monastics did it in “hours” or set times during the day. They prayed 7 times a day (2AM was one of the “hours”). We could try for 2 or 3 times during the day.

Set an alarm on your phone for morning, noon, and night. During this challenging season, we all need to re-center our lives frequently. Here is a suggested plan for each prayer hour:

1. Quiet time. (1 minute)
Be still and quiet! SLOW down! Prepare your heart. Take a few deep breaths and wait on God.

2. Bible reading. (4 minutes)
Read until you feel God has told you something. The Psalms are a great place to start. Stop and think about what God tells you through His Word.

3. Meditate. (4 minutes)
See yesterday’s post. Think about what the passage means to your life. Write down your thoughts. Part of reflecting is memorizing verses that speak to you in a special way.

4. Apply. (2 minutes)
Write a sentence or two in a prayer journal.

5. Pray. (4 minutes)

More than ever, each of us needs to find our center in Jesus. Share what God says to you in your quiet time in the comments.

Spiritual Disciplines for Tough Times 2

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3

Our life is surrounded by news of virus, and our daily lives now remind us constantly of the coming threat. More than ever, it is easy to get our minds off of God. Our minds shape our future. While we should take whatever actions we can (stay at home, maintain your health, etc.), worrying about what we cannot change will only cause stress that compromises our immune systems.

The solution is in our spiritual disciplines. Choose to spend this time focusing on God and His unchanging Word. Meditation involves choosing our minds’ focus. You may feel powerless over your situation, but you can always choose your mental focus.

Choose a scripture (from your Life Journal plan or our Lenten reading plan) and spend the day thinking about it. A few helpful ideas from Liberty 201:


1. PICTURE IT– Visualize the scene in your mind
2. PRONOUNCE IT– Say the verse aloud, each time emphasizing a different word.
3. PARAPHRASE IT– Rewrite the verse in your own words.
4. PERSONALIZE IT– Replace the pronouns or people in the verse with your own name.
5. PRAY IT– Turn the verse into a prayer and say it back to God.
6. PROBE IT– Ask the following nine SPACEPETS questions:

In this verse is there any…


Choose the “channel of your mind.” When your mind drifts to worry, choose another channel. Your thinking shapes your future. Post the scripture your are meditating on today.

Spiritual Disciplines for Tough Times 1


I will be posting some ideas for maintaining spiritual disciplines during this tough time. Our life is shaped by our thoughts, and if we keep dwelling on the crisis it will overwhelm us. We need to keep our minds fixed on God not the problems. Most of this will be from Liberty 201, but I will try to apply it to our current situation.

This is a great time to memorize God’s Word. Hiding God’s Word in out hearts gives us a well of strength from which we can draw in the coming days.

How to Memorize a Verse:

1. Pick a verse that speaks to you

2. Say the reference before and after the verse

3. Read the verse aloud many times! Record it!

4. Break the verse into natural phrases

5. Emphasize key words when quoting the verse

6. Write down the verse and erase a word, one at a time

7. Write out the verse on a flash card

8. Carry some cards with you at all times for review

9. Display your verses in prominent places.

10. Always memorize the verse word perfect

11. Put the verse to music. Write a song!

12. Get a partner so you can check each other

Some suggested scriptures:
Living the New Life:
Christ the center 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20
Obedience to Christ Romans 12:1; John 14:21
God’s Word 2 Timothy 3:16; Joshua 1:8
Prayer John 15:7; Philippians 4:6-7
Fellowship Matthew 18:20; Hebrews 10:24
Witnessing Matthew 4:19; Romans 1:16

Proclaiming Christ:
Sin in our world Romans 3:23; Isaiah 53:6
Sin’s penalty Romans 6:23; Hebrews 9:27
Christ paid the penalty Romans. 5:8; 1 Peter 3:18
Salvation not by works Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5
Must receive Christ John 1:12; Revelation 3:20
Assurance of salvation 1 John 5:13; John 5:24

Relying on God’s Resources:
His Spirit 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 2:12
His strength Isaiah 41:10; Philippians 4:13
His faithfulness Lamentations 3:22; Numbers 23:19
His peace Isaiah 26:3; 1Peter 5:7
His provision Romans 8:32; Philippians 4:19
His help in temptation Hebrews 2:18; Psalm 119: 9,11

Being Christ’s Disciple:
Put Christ first Matthew 6:33; Luke 9:23
Separate from the world 1 John 2:15-16; Romans 12:2
Be steadfast 1 Corinthians 15:58; Hebrews 12:3
Serve others Mark 10:45; 2 Corinthians 4:5
Give generously Proverbs 3:9-10; 2 Corinthians 9:6-7
Develop world vision Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:19-20

Growing in Christ Likeness:
Love John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:18
Humility Philippians 2:3-4; 1 Peter 5:5-6
Purity Ephesians 5:3; 1 Peter 2:11
Honesty Leviticus 19:11; Acts 24:16
Faith Hebrews 11:6; Romans 4:20-21
Good works Galatians 6:9-10; Matthew 5:16

Make this a family activity. Write it out on a card or on a whiteboard and surround your family with God’s Word. your family will grow strong in this season and find protection in God’s Word!

The Great Civil War Revival


America in 1861 presents a painful and complex chapter in history. God, however, had a plan for the American people, and God remained present during the painful chapter. God appears most in this period in the soldiers fighting the Civil War. Along the banks of the Rappahannock River in 1863, both armies faced one another in battle; however, both armies also faced a revival of religion. The paradox of revival in two armies facing one another presents an example of God’s ability to use revival to accomplish His purposes in spite of human conflict.

The revivals during the last half of the Civil War proved similarly effective in both armies, but I will primarily explore the revival among the Confederate armies. Extensive literature documenting the revivals in the Confederate armies exists, as Lost Cause supporters during Reconstruction used the revivals to support their ideology. I will use some of the documents arising from Lost Cause authors, but my focus remains on God’s work in the war among the soldiers not supporting a nostalgic or racist view of the antebellum or wartime south. My focus on the southern armies arises from the prevalence of documents rather than any attempt to prove the righteousness of the southern cause.



Pre 1861 America

While many modern interpreters of the American situation before the Civil War view the war as a simple moral war in which one party supported slavery and the other party arose as a benevolent deliverer of an oppressed people, the actual situation in America proved much more complex. Americans, from both north and south, had sanctioned or at least ignored slavery for nearly a century. White men ruled the country, and obvious examples of misogyny and racism rarely arose as issues in a land that voiced the values of liberty and equality. The powerful elites from both north and south worked to protect the prominent position of the light-skinned and masculine. The first and second Great Awakenings had revived religion in America, but paternalistic racism remained unaddressed. Religion focused mostly on benevolence within the paternalistic system rather than valuing or empowering all humans.

Slavery in America found support in the hermeneutical principles of American religion in both the North and the South. Mark A. Noll describes the unique hermeneutic of America:

Americans held to a hermeneutic that was distinctly American. The reason they held it so implicitly was precisely that this hermeneutic—compounded of a distinctly Reformed approach to the scope of biblical authority (“every direction contained in its pages as applicable at all times to all men”) and a distinctly American intuition that privileged commonsense readings of scriptural texts (“a literal interpretation of the Bible”)—had functioned as the vehicle through which the Bible was unleashed in the creation of the American civilization.[1]

Plain readings of the Bible led to silent, submissive women and obedient slaves. Radical abolitionists departed from the plain reading of the Bible supported by almost all Americans. Noll discusses the prevailing view in America that attacks against slavery were “infidel attacks against the authority of the Bible itself.”[2] The letter of the Bible does not prohibit slavery, and its many descriptions of slave-master relationships seemed to support the institution. America lacked a hermeneutic in which biblical principles could rise above the use of proof texts that seemed to support the existing order.

White male supremacy dominated life in America. The radical abolitionists pushed the issue of slavery as an ethical principle, but the abolitionists missed the larger issue of mass oppression of entire racial groups and females. America remained stuck in a world voicing the values of equality and liberty while using religion and social systems to maintain a white paternalistic system. Racism prevailed even among many abolitionists. George M. Frederickson describes the common view that abolition of slavery would eliminate those of darker skin from white America:

Sympathy for the black victims of “the peculiar institution” and forthright condemnations of racial inequality as the essence of slavery’s sinfulness were not the dominant themes in this emancipationist discourse. Some prominent northern clergymen even contributed to the Malthusian or proto-Darwinist racism that permitted white supremacists to support emancipation on the expectation that it would lead to a struggle for existence between the races that would end only with the elimination of the exotic African stock from the American population.[3]

Some northerners viewed slavery as evil in spite of the prevailing literal interpretation of the Bible, but few saw the larger issue of racism and sexism. African Americans like Frederick Douglas saw the problem in terms of racism, but the voices of African Americans had little power in antebellum America. As difficult as it might seem to modern minds, many Americans viewed slavery as a more benevolent way to care for the weaker working class than the northern system of paid factory workers. The North increasingly pointed to slavery as proof of moral superiority while the South pointed to the North’s abusive labor system as proof of moral superiority. The oppression of entire races and women rarely arose as the issue.

The Second Great Awakening had different effects on northern and southern religious practice. Northern evangelicals primarily expressed awakening through community transformation.[4] Revival led to community transformation, and the abolition of the evil institution of slavery arose in the minds of the abolitionist as a natural effect of awakening. Southerners, however, felt revival as personal rather than societal. To the southern mind the church existed as a spiritual entity, and social or political issues remained out of the realm of religion. The prevailing ethic of the North arose as social transformation while social preservation arose as the prevailing ethic of the South. The separation of church and state, a southern value, prevented the church from influencing politics, and slavery remained a political issue. The Great Awakenings arose in the South among common people, and southerners felt that religion or common people lacked the power to influence the elite slaveholding gentry.[5]

Issues Related to War

America in 1861 polarized around regional differences. “Each side saw itself as guardian of the nation’s heritage of liberty.”[6] Philip Shaw Paludan points out that the larger story of the war arises from the “transition of the United States from an agrarian society into a market-driven and more industrialized society.”[7] Shattuck believed the religion of America that had unified the nation increasingly formed “one of several ideological factors responsible for exacerbating the sectional conflict.”[8] Preservation of a white paternalistic structure lay at the heart of the issues separating the regions. Slavery arose as the primary issue midway through the war, but in 1861 the regions conflicted over which system best provided the labor needed to support the power elite. Paludan observes the dichotomy from leaders of each region. Southern leaders defended slavery as a benevolent family system of interdependent Christian communities where owners behaved more like parents than masters. The North “was a world where so-called economic equality hid in base hypocrisy the self-centered idolatry of the race for wealth. In fact, free society denied God’s admonition to love one another by atomizing it into a race of each against all.”[9] Two systems of preserving wealth through oppression of labor, class, race, and gender conflicted.

The common soldier, however, fought for different reasons. Charles Reagan Wilson observes the motive of the common person in 1861:

For the mass of southerners, the war was about freedom, the freedom of whites to control local institutions, to resist government interference, and to pursue economic opportunity. For northerners, the war was about preservation of the Union as the protection of self-government that enabled Americans to pursue economic opportunity and self-rule.[10]

The common soldier in the South justified the war as an honorable defense against northern aggression. The average northern soldier justified the war as a means of preserving a God-ordained union. Both sides felt as if God sanctioned their cause.

Religious impasse frequently leads to violence. When two sides feel ordained by God little room exists for compromise, and America in 1861 quickly moved toward war. Noll describes the impasse as it arose from American hermeneutics: “The obvious crisis that bore directly on the fate of the nation was that ‘simple’ reading of the Bible yielded violently incommensurate understandings of Scripture with no means, short of warfare, to adjudicate the differences.”[11] Noll continues, “Constructive orthodox theology was the major loser when American believers allowed bullets instead of hermeneutical self-consciousness to determine what the Bible said about slavery.”[12] In the underlying religious split, power elites from each region drove wedges between two similar views of religion. The nature of the split, however, remained elusive to the average soldier who fought for defense of his home in the South and preservation of the Union in the North. Common soldiers on both sides saw their cause as righteous, and the soldier soon began looking to God to support his cause. Summers describes the environment surrounding the common soldier in1861 as “a ready made congregation of kindling in need of a religious spark.”[13]



Soldiers on both sides remembered the Second Great Awakenings, and the common people who made up both armies came from simple religious groups that gained influence in the previous decades. Woodworth observes the relationship between the Second Great Awakening and the Civil War Revivals: “The forms, methods, assumptions, and terminology of the Second Great Awakening provided the framework and trappings for the religious beliefs and practices of the Civil War soldiers.”[14] Camp meetings and experiential religion remained key to the soldiers’ religious expectation.


Immorality quickly arose during the start of the conflict as men assembled together in an environment without the restraining forces of mixed company and social expectations. Summers observes the state of the southern soldier: “While it was true that the vast majority of the Confederate Army came from a nominal Protestant Christian background, or at least were familiar with the language and themes of the Bible, the typical southern soldier at the beginning of the war could be stereotyped as a ‘backslider.’”[15] Soldiers during the first years of the war engaged in drunkenness, gambling, cursing, and other immoral practice. Religion remained in the minds of the soldiers, but the temptations and challenges of morality during war prevailed. Woodworth observes the limited effect of religion in the early years of the war: “The Americans, an overwhelming religious people, were at war with each other, but the religion they shared in common was still with them—still vital to them—a discordant note in the midst of civil strife.”[16] Both sides felt the war would end quickly. Two years into the war with no end in sight and the costs mounting thoughts turned from celebrating victory to coping with the effects of war.


The major conflicts of 1863 demonstrated carnage and horror past imagination, and the soldier found himself in a surreal world where faith would reenter his thinking. Both sides began taking chaplaincy seriously and the early chaplains who had joined the armies for an easy assignment had returned home. The few remaining chaplains exhibited genuine faith and zeal. Bible societies and colporteurs finally began producing materials related to the daily plight of the soldier. The protracted conflict also led both sides to proclaim national days of prayer and fasting to seek answers and God’s favor.

Victory at Chancellorsville for the South marked a decided turning point in the religious environment of the common soldier. General Jackson, the icon of religious piety and southern might, died in an accidental friendly fire, and the minds of the soldiers turned toward faith. Sidney Romero observes the religious fervor:

The revival tide flowed forcefully and rapidly throughout the armies of the Confederacy. Chaplain J. M. Stokes, Third Georgia Volunteers, expressed the belief that there never before had existed a greater revival spirit than the one that pervaded the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1863. It was said that protracted meetings were in progress in every regiment.[17]

  1. W. Bennett quotes chaplain A. D. McVoy in the spring of 1863: “I have never found men listen with more profound attention to the word of God. We seem to be upon the eve of a gracious revival and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, for which we are praying, watching, and struggling.”[18] Revival had begun in the southern army along the banks of the Rappahannock, but the victorious celebration of Hooker’s retreat from Chancellorsville would soon turn to deep questions surrounding the loss of General Jackson, the fall of Vicksburg, and the horrors of Gettysburg.

Both armies returned to the banks of the Rappahannock after Gettysburg, and more permanent camps formed in preparation for the coming winter. The permanent camps created environments on both sides where camp meetings could prevail. Benjamin Lacy describes the growing revival: “During the fall of 1863 and the spring and winter preceding Grant’s attack on May 5, 1864, the revival reached its greatest heights, spreading from company to regiment, from regiment to brigade, from brigade to division, from division to army corps, until the entire Army of Northern Virginia was seriously affected.”[19] John H. Worsham describes the scene at Montpelier after the retreat from Gettysburg:

The interest manifested was so great that the seats were taken in the afternoon by such men as were not on duty; and when night relieved from duty those who had been drilling, etc., the men stood up in immense numbers around those who were seated…The gathering, each night, of the bronzed and grizzly warriors, devoutly worshiping, was a wonderful picture in the army, and when some old familiar hymn was given out, those thousands of warriors would make hill and dell ring.[20]

Revival in the Army of Northern Virginia erupted into the familiar form of camp meetings, and thousands found salvation. Troy D. Harman describes the tone of the revival:

After Gettysburg the revivals occurred on a much larger scale. This was evident almost immediately upon the army’s return from Pennsylvania, as there was a general sentiment within the rank-in-file of the need for repentance. There was a sense that the losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were the results of God’s punishment for ongoing sins in both Lee’s army and the Confederate nation.[21]

A sense of repentance and expectation of renewal prevailed in both armies on either side of the Rappahannock. Some looked to God to advance their cause, but the revivals to the common soldier arose more from a need to seek religious solace in the horror of war than promotion of the corporate cause. Both sides demonstrated a growing sense of repentance for national sins.

Revivals appeared on both sides of the Rappahannock. Abundant reports of revival in the southern army exist within the works of witnesses who sought to promote the Lost Cause mentality during Reconstruction in the South. W. W. Bennett and J. William Jones provide extensive first hand reports of extended meetings in which thousands sought prayer and salvation. Jones relates one meeting in which 610 came forward for prayer and over 200 professed salvation. He estimates that over 500 found salvation each week in the late 1863 camps.[22]. J. F. J. Caldwell gives a typical description of the revival scene: “Now, however, almost everyone seemed to become concerned. The most ordinary preachers drew large congregations; scarcely a day passed without a sermon; there was not a night, but the sound of prayer and hymn singing was heard.”[23] Jones quotes Hugh Roy Scott concerning the peace of God felt in the late 1863 camps along the Rappahannock: “This was an evening never to be forgotten by any who were present. The Holy Spirit was evidently with us, working with power in many hearts; and Jesus was also there, manifesting His power and willingness to save.”[24]

The midpoint of the war and the lack of major conflict as winter approached created a sense of peace in God unusual for armies facing one another across a river. Bennett describes the unusual sense of peace from God found in the men remembering the horror and loss of war and facing the prospect of death and suffering in the coming year: “Such camp-meetings were never seen before in America. The bivouac of the soldier never witnessed such nights of glory and days of splendor. The Pentecostal fire lights the camp, and the hosts of armed men sleep beneath the wings of angels rejoicing over many sinners that have repented.”[25] Two armies faced each other while both felt the effects of revival.


At home, the people grew fatigued by the protracted war, and religious interest decreased. The soldiers, however, faced renewed carnage with religious expectation. The prevailing attitude arose that the war existed as a mystical judgment on the nation for its sins. Soldiers rarely saw slavery as the sin, but the soldiers faced mounting loss and suffering with a sense of religious penance. Woodworth observes: “The war was a punishment for sin, and the North felt that punishment as well as the South because the North had been part of a nation that had for four score and seven years tolerated slavery.”[26]

The revivals slowed due to renewed troop activity and the impossibility of large scale camp meetings, but the sense that God worked in the background to accomplish some unknown purpose through the horror of war prevailed on both sides.[27] Woodworth observes the mentality: “Sometimes the faith of the soldiers was simply that God was using the war to accomplish his purposes but that those purposes—not necessarily the emancipation or punishment of anybody—were probably unknowable at the present time.”[28] The war continued for two years after 1863, and the revivals allowed men on both sides to face death while increasingly helping the South to cope with mounting losses and destruction.

The Revial in General

Some observers today see the revival as a product of Lost Cause rhetoric in the South, but the effects of the revival and its impact on post-war life suggest that God moved among the common soldiers. Woodworth describes the revivals on both sides of the conflict:

The revivals in the armies, beginning in the summer of 1862 and continuing more or less through the end of the war, had been an amazing phenomenon. Such a thing never occurred in any other American war. Although it is customary to refer to what happened in the armies as a series of revivals, it is really more accurate to think of it as a single large revival, approximately two and a half years long, occasionally interrupted by military operations.[29]

Lacy calls the revivals in the southern armies “among the most unusual in history.”[30] He observes the revival alongside the immoral tendency of armies at war: “Therefore, to find a great revival maintained over a period of years in a body of troops spread throughout a large territory is an interesting and instructive phenomenon.”[31] Lost Cause supporters used the revivals to cope with southern defeat, but Bledsoe observes,

Unlike some elements of Confederate nationalism, revivalism was not a product of the elite or a tool for manipulation of the masses. It was, by most estimates, entirely sincere…the chaplains and the soldiers were mainly concerned with simple issues of personal salvation and repentance, and the message of the revivals remained sharply focused on these issues.[32]

In the history of American revivals, the Civil War revivals mark a continuation of the Second Great Awakening. Gene Brooks places the revivals historically within the Prayer Meeting Revivals of the 1850s and calls the revival the last of the nationwide revival movements.[33] Shattuck likewise places the revivals within the Prayer Meeting revivals of the 1850s: “The Army revivals of 1861-1865 did not arise in isolation from other religious trends in America. They were in fact, part of a greater revivalistic movement at work in the nineteenth century. The revivals in the Civil War armies were linked most closely to the so-called ‘businessman’s’ revival of 1857.”[34] The revivals arose as sincere men sought God amidst the prolonged horror of war. Most modern observers agree that 100,000 to 200,000 individuals found salvation on each side and that 5 to 10 percent of participants in the war found salvation.

Modern revisionist historians who paint the southern soldier as a racist defender of slavery obscure the revival in the southern armies. The common soldier fought for other principles. Bennett observes, “Whatever may be the judgment of the world as to the principles on which the southern people entered into strife, it must be admitted that they brought with them into it, and carried with them through it, a deep and strong religious element.”[35] A genuine move of God never occurs for the promotion of political agitators. The salvation of the common soldier facing death and horror forms the primary effect of the revival. Bennett observes, “Christianity visits and reforms every grade of human society; and some of its greatest miracles of grace are wrought upon the most wicked subjects, and in the worst localities.”[36] Thousands found salvation and entered eternity during the conflict.

The Civil War revivals provide an example of God’s grace to common men under distress. Bledsoe observes the nature of the revival as it arose from common men without prominent revival leaders: “Confederate revivalism was profoundly influenced by the personal nature of southern Christianity, and as a result its origins and momentum lay primarily with the common soldiers.”[37] Chaplains, evangelists, and colporteurs on both sides certainly aided the revival, but the revival itself sprung from the common participant. Lost Cause rhetoric focuses on religious influence from Confederate leaders, but the truth remains that most prominent leaders found religion in the war rather than bringing religion to the soldier during the war. General Lee, General Jackson, and J. E. B. Stuart expressed faith before the war, but most prominent leaders including Generals Ewell, Anderson, Bragg, Pender, Paxton, Hood, Hardee, and Joseph Johnston along with Confederate President Jefferson Davis expressed religious conversion during the revival. The revivals on both sides arose from common soldiers who influenced leaders and eventually the nation as the converted soldiers returned home. Woodworth observes the spontaneous move of God:

The Great Revival, as it came to be called, grew and flourished in nearly all the armies, North and South, East and West. It had no particular birthplace, and though religious awakening might spread from one regiment to another, it is impossible to trace any particular geographic flow or progression in a movement that seemed as spontaneous as the blooming of prairie wildflowers in the spring.[38]

He continues, “The revivals in the various armies were the sum total of a great many personal revivals in individual soldiers.”[39]

The significant obstacles to revival on both sides arose from troop movements, weather, lack of Bibles, lack of chaplains, and weak organization. Troop movements and engagements prevented the camp meetings. The final two years of the war involved almost constant movement and engagement, but the revival persisted as each soldier personalized their faith. The revival obviously ended with the war, but the effects of personal faith in the returning soldiers influenced religion across America in the coming decades.




The obvious immediate effect of the Civil War revival appears in the salvation and comfort of hundreds of thousands of suffering soldiers facing death. Although estimates of conversions range from 200,000, the number of marginal Christians who found faith in the revivals remains undocumented. Bennett estimates that one third of the Confederate Army became “praying Christians” during the conflict.[40] Many of the converted soldiers died and entered eternity before the conflict ended. The revivals also influenced American society. Bledsoe points to the societal effects: “The Great Revivals represent a profound influence upon the spiritual and social experiences of Confederate soldiers during the war.”[41] The stratified social structure of America that led to the conflict changed through the egalitarian and ecumenical nature of the revivals. Common men who had submitted to social stratum discovered power to influence their world.

After the revivals of 1863 along the Rappahannock the South seemed resigned to defeat and accepted defeat as part of a God ordained penance for societal sins. While most never admitted slavery as the sin, the concept of submission to God’s unknowable plan emerged. The observer might speculate that General Lee’s choice to surrender at Appomattox rather than enter a guerilla conflict stemmed from resignation to God’s chastisement of society as it arose in the revival. The sounds of prayer arising from opposite shores of the Rappahannock in 1863 certainly influenced southern ability to admit defeat to the North and the North’s later desire to reconstruct the nation rather than punish the defeated South.

Although the nation struggled for more than a hundred years to face the racism that both sides denied as the underlying cause of the war, the revivals prepared both sides to allow God to accomplish higher purposes in the nation than personal salvation or support of political interests. After the war, issues of national morality and equality rose to the surface. Women’s suffrage, prohibition, labor relations and unions, and national unity around larger purposes necessary for two subsequent world wars established their foundation in the underlying purposes of God in the revivals among opposing armies during the Civil War. Faust observes the effect on later American society:

And just as the Civil War brought a ‘moment of truth’—to borrow Genovese’s apt phrase—to master-slave interaction and to the evangelically based doctrines of paternalism, so too its social dislocations forced other groups to explore their social and spiritual identities, to look anew at their lives and experiences within the context of meaning that religious belief had always provided.[42]

Women in the South, for example, through the demands of war began “to see their identities and interests as distinct from those of their men.”[43]

Many men returning home from the war had faced horror and death and found strength in God. Prior to the war most saw religion as feminine, but after the war the masculine image of the warrior Christian prevailed. The returning men carried their newfound faith across America. The effects prove difficult to document as they arose from common and nameless persons, but the influence of 200,000 returning Christians would arguably affect American religion for decades. The South, for example, gave birth to the Bible Belt, an influential force today. The spiritualized church of the antebellum South transformed into a new center for American Christianity and social influence. Bledsoe observes the lasting effects of the struggle for faith in the Confederate revival: “At its heart, Confederate revivalism was a movement based upon the most fundamental issues touching the lives of individual soldiers; questions of providence, assurance, and redemption are as valid today as they were in the 1860s.”[44]

Many returning soldiers went on to lead churches and influence their communities. Summers observes, “For while the Civil War was a great harvest of death and destruction, it also brought a harvest of souls to the church. Many of the men who survived the war continued to lead churches and revivals themselves after the guns were finally silenced.”[45] The concept of acceptance of God’s will in temporal defeat arose in the Confederate revival also. Shattuck observes, “Religion in the South made its most useful contribution to Southern culture only after the war ended, when it emerged as a convincing symbol of the value of spiritual victory in the midst of earthly defeat.”[46] The Church in America emerged as a transformative agent in both the North and the South, and later missionary movements might trace their origin to the personal piety of the soldier as he returned home to transform his community. The ecumenical and egalitarian nature of the revival led to a national sense of faith and social justice that influenced America profoundly over the next century.



God works in the horror of human destruction to accomplish purposes that go past immediate understanding. America in the 1860s failed to deal with underlying inequality and exploitation of an entire racial class. Polarized and dichotomist views of history or of current social conflicts rarely reveal the actual sin underlying the issue. The Civil War in a way functioned as a national release of guilt for both northerners and southerners, and God’s concern for the individual soldier points to His ultimate plan. The revivals of 1861-1865 formed a unique move of God that influenced America in many ways. God works in the horror and pain of human society within a fallen world in the darkest of times, and the Civil War revival points to hope for a move of God today when Christian leadership seems hopelessly compromised and politics seem likewise hopelessly polarized. Hopefully, the move of God arises without the painful loss of war.




Bennett, William W. A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies During the Late Civil War Between the States of the Federal Union. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1976.

Bledsoe, Andrew Scott. “‘We Are a Spectacle to God’: The Phenomenon of Confederate Revivalism.” Academic Forum 23 (2005-2006): 37-59.

Brooks, Gene. “The Revivals in the Confederate Armies as Part of the Great Prayer Meeting Revival 1858-1865.” Sunday in the South, 2008. Accessed July 11, 2015.

Caldwell, J. F. J. The History Of A Brigade of South Carolinians: Known First As “Gregg’s” And Subsequently As “McGowan’s Brigade.” Marietta, GA: Continental Book Company, 1951.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “‘Without Pilot or Compass:’ Elite Women and Religion in the Civil War South.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 250-260. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Days of Judgment, Days of Wrath: The Civil War and the Religious Imagination of Women Writers.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 229-249. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Frederickson, George M. “The Coming of the Lord: The Northern Protestant Clergy and the Civil War Crisis.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 110-130. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Genovese, Eugene D. “Religion and the Collapse of the Union.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 74-88. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Harman, Troy D. The Great Revival of 1863: Effects Upon Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Edited by Kurtis Toppert and Walter Seager. Damascus, MD: Penny Hill Press, 2013. Kindle.

Jones, J. William. Christ in the Camp: The True Story of the Great Revival During the War Between the States. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1986.

Lacy, Benjamin. “Revival in the confederate Army.” Heart Cry Journal 15 (2001). Accessed July 11, 2015.

McPherson, James M. “Afterword.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 408-412. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Michels, William. Beneath the Wings of Angels: Religious Revivals in the Army of Northern Virginia. N.p.: Amazon Digital, 2015. Kindle.

Miller, Randall M., Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson. “Introduction.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 3-18. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Noll, Mark A. “The Bible and Slavery.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 43-73. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Paludan, Phillip Shaw. “Religion and the American Civil War.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 21-40. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Romero, Sidney J. Religion in the Rebel Ranks. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.

Shattuck, Gardiner H. A Shield and a Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.

Stout, Harry S., and Christopher Grasso. “Civil War, Religion, and Communications: The Case of Richmond.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 313-359. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Summers, Mark. “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army During the Civil War.” Religion and Liberty 21, no. 3. (2015). Accessed July 11, 2015.

Wilson, Charles Reagan. “Religion and the American Civil War in Comparative Perspective.” In Religion and the American Civil War. Edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, 385-407. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Woodworth, Steven E. While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Worsham, John H. One Of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry. New York: Neale, 1912

[1] Mark A Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford, 1998), 46-47.

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] George M. Frederickson, “The Coming of the Lord: The Northern Protestant Clergy and the Civil War Crisis,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford, 1998), 119.

[4] Gardiner H. Shattuck, A Shield and a Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987), 2.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, “Introduction,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford, 1998), 7.

[7] Phillip Shaw Paludan, “Religion and the American Civil War,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford, 1998), 21.

[8] Shattuck, 1.

[9] Paludan, 22.

[10] Charles Reagan Wilson, “Religion and the American Civil War in Comparative Perspective,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford, 1998), 396.

[11] Noll, 49.

[12] Ibid., 66.

[13] Mark Summers, “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army During the Civil War,” Religion and Liberty 21, no. 3 (2015), accessed July 11, 2015,

[14] Steven E. Woodworth, While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 8.

[15] Summers.

[16] Woodworth, 4.

[17] Sidney J. Romero, Religion in the Rebel Ranks (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983), 114.

[18] William W. Bennett, A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies During the Late Civil War Between the States of the Federal Union (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1976), 275.

[19] Benjamin Lacy, “Revival in the Confederate Army,” Heart Cry Journal 15 (2001), accessed July 11, 2015,

[20] John H. Worsham, One Of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1912), 182.

[21] Troy D. Harman, The Great Revival of 1863: Effects Upon Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, ed. Kurtis Toppert and Walter Seager (Damascus, MD: Penny Hill Press, 2013), 9, Kindle.

[22] J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp: The True Story of the Great Revival During the War Between the States (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1986), 338.

[23] J. F. J. Caldwell, The History Of A Brigade of South Carolinians: Known First As “Gregg’s” And Subsequently As “McGowan’s Brigade” (Marietta, GA: Continental Book Company, 1951), 112-113.

[24] Jones, 289.

[25] Bennett, 323.

[26] Woodworth, 263.

[27] Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address presents the best example of the prevailing attitude that God’s purpose in the war was unknowable.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 253.

[30] Lacy.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Andrew Scott Bledsoe, “‘We Are a Spectacle to God’: The Phenomenon of Confederate Revivalism,” Academic Forum 23 (2005-2006): 42.

[33] Gene Brooks, “The Revivals in the Confederate Armies as Part of the Great Prayer Meeting Revival 1858-1865,” Sunday in the South, 2008, accessed July 11, 2015,

[34] Shattuck, 83.

[35] Bennett, 9.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Bledsoe, 37.

[38] Woodworth, 214.

[39] Ibid., 217.

[40] Bennett, 413.

[41] Bledsoe, 39.

[42] Drew Gilpin Faust, “‘Without Pilot or Compass:’ Elite Women and Religion in the Civil War South,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford, 1998), 251.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Bledsoe, 51-52.

[45] Summers.

[46] Shattuck, 12.

Peter Cartwright and Sustained Revival


In a town called Rogues’ Harbor, because of its many rogues and outlaws, Peter Cartwright found salvation from a life of debauchery. He experienced conviction of sin and redemption during the Kentucky Revival in the early 1800s. The revival itself faded due to infighting and influence from outside groups such as the Quakers, but Cartwright managed to live a life that brought revival to frontier America for the next sixty-five years. He stands as a giant in his influence in the Methodist Church and in American religion in general. His ability to sustain the fire of revival throughout his life provides an example to those seeking to sustain revival in the church today. W. S. Hooper in his introductory statements at a jubilee celebrating Cartwright’s unprecedented fifty years as a Methodist presiding elder observes Cartwright’s influence: “The whole West recognized his superiority, his supremacy. He was the primate of all Prairiedom. For two generations he ruled that realm.”[1]

Once while staying in a hotel in New York City, the clerk placed the elderly Cartwright in a shoddy room on the top floor. Cartwright took offence to the slight and began ringing the bell for the steward. He summoned the poor steward up the stairs several times and finally asked him for a hatchet. The poor steward inquired for Cartwright’s need for the woodsman’s tool and Cartwright replied that on the frontier when a man feared losing his way in the wilderness he would blaze the trees with a hatchet mark. Cartwright wanted to blaze the corners of the hotel corridor in case a fire started and he needed to escape. The clerk promptly moved Cartwright to a better room on the second floor. Cartwright blazed many trails in his life, and he constantly used frontier manners and wit to promote his primary cause—Jesus. In this paper, I will explore Cartwright’s success in extending the Kentucky Revival to three states and the next two generations of Americans. His motives and methods provide insight into sustaining revival to the current generation.



Peter Cartwright used his fists, politics, biting rhetoric, tent revivals, and home meetings to advance his cause. He sustained the revival fires of his conversion in the face of many critics of his methods because he never wavered on the motive behind his bold methods. He always sought to promote Jesus among those who desperately needed Christ. Phillip M. Watters, a key Cartwright biographer, observes Cartwright’s unyielding motive:

We find one central source dominating all these activities, as the life had its energy from one supreme source. Christ was its fountain, its wellspring of power; and to reveal Christ to others, to proclaim the good news of salvation to lost men—this was the central purpose, the controlling motive of Peter Cartwright’s career.[2]

Cartwright sustained the revival for two generations because he never lost sight of the source and purpose of revival.

Advancement into New Territory

Peter Cartwright was born on September 1, 1785 in Amherst County, Virginia, to an agnostic father and a Methodist mother a year and a half before their marriage. At his birth Indians still attacked the frontier settlers of Amherst County. His family moved to the edge of the frontier again in 1791 to what would eventually form the state of Kentucky. In 1793 they moved to an area called, due to its outlaw activity, Rogues’ Harbor. Cartwright adopted the life of the rogue and used playing cards and a racehorse to make a living in his early teens through gambling. God convicted him of his sin at seventeen through a sermon by John Page during James McCready’s Kentucky Revival in the early 1800s. He sold his racehorse and allowed his mother to burn his playing cards. Cartwright found salvation and determined to live a life in the wild frontier that honored Christ.

His family soon moved again into new and uncharted territory in 1802 to the mouth of the Cumberland River. The new territory had no Methodist churches, and Cartwright inquired as to the possibilities for faith in the new land. His leaders surprisingly gave him a license to exhort (a lay credential in the Methodist church) and papers authorizing him to explore the establishment of a circuit in the new territory. He found himself an eighteen year old with the authority to establish a new work in a new territory. Cartwright managed to establish the Livingston Circuit with seventy new members. The legendary Bishop Asbury ordained Cartwright as a deacon (a Methodist credential that allowed him to be a circuit riding preacher and establish churches) in 1806. Four years later Bishop McKendree ordained him as an elder (the highest credential level). In 1812, Bishop Asbury appointed Cartwright a presiding elder, a key leadership position that Cartwright would hold for an unprecedented fifty years. He spent the remainder of his life establishing circuits and churches in the emerging frontier eventually moving to Illinois. He was part of the formation of three conferences: Tennessee (1812), Kentucky (1820), and Illinois (1824).

Cartwright never found satisfaction in sustaining existing saints; he constantly advanced into frontier places where people most needed Christ. Watters describes Cartwright’s missionary zeal:

He gloried in the opportunity of speaking to men who were never seen in church or class meeting—men out of touch with the gospel—aliens from the truth and outcasts from society—infidels, mockers, profligates, ruffians; and he caught them and held them and swept them before him as the wind sweeps the dry leaves in autumn. His own soul kindled with the flame of the message; sinners fell before him like men slain in battle; and the multitudes of believers lifted up their voices in a shout of victory which could be heard for miles around.[3]


Cartwright once stayed in a rough tavern in which local young people congregated for dance parties. The young people behaved much like Cartwright in his early teens, and the dancing drew him back to an activity he once enjoyed. A young attractive girl asked Cartwright to dance, and Cartwright accepted the invitation. As the fiddler tuned his instrument for the dance, Cartwright asked if he might pray for his forthcoming dance. He began praying so fervently that the young girl fell on her face before God and the assembly soon followed. Cartwright organized the dance party into a church of 32 persons and sent a pastor to the new congregation.

Cartwright proved fearless before humans and constantly pushed the cause of Christ without cultural compromise. He once escaped the weather by staying in a house filled with ungodly persons, asking if he might pray before bed. The owner of the house shuffled him into a back room to pray. Cartwright observed the thin walls in the house and began a loud all-night prayer session heard throughout the house. When he returned a few months later the house had found revival. Cartwright organized the home into a Methodist meeting.

Cartwright never lost sight of the mission and used any available means to save the lost. Benjamin Newman summed up Cartwright’s method and mission in an address at Cartwright’s fifty-year jubilee: “What is the sum and substance of pioneer preaching? First of all, it is going in advance of thickly populated towns and cities, and the announcement of personal experience, rich and fresh every day, that will thrill the heart with profound emotions.”[4]

Bringing Grace through Force

Many persons criticized Cartwright for his tendency to use force if necessary to advance his message. He ministered in a rough environment and at times had to fight. Don C. Seitz observes the climate in which Cartwright labored: “Americans took their religion like their whisky—straight. There were no fancy frills, no trifling with the temperature in hell. Satan was fought in the open… . Chief among them in militancy were the circuit riders of the Methodist Church.”[5] Cartwright walked among rough men as an equal. He writes about his pugilistic methods in his autobiography: “It was a part of my creed to love every body, but to fear no one; and I did not permit myself to believe any man could whip me till it was tried.”[6] He once gave the following advice to a young circuit rider newly given charge of the Cumberland Mission Circuit: “They must be converted somehow; and if you can’t convert them with the Gospel, do it with your fist.”[7]

Again, Cartwright never lost sight of the mission. His methods never found motivation in a desire to fight but by a desire to bring the message of Christ to violent persons. Robert Bray, a contemporary biographer, observes the motive behind Cartwright’s method: “We have seen Cartwright’s eccentricity in his impulsiveness, his pugnacity, his readiness to break heads and break with the Discipline in order to overcome impediments to getting the word to the people and the people to the word.”[8] His knack for mixing the message of Christ with the rough nature of the men and women to whom he preached is illustrated in a story in which a young and prominent gentleman challenged him to a duel. Cartwright accepted the challenge and chose, by right as the challenged party in the duel, cornstalks as the dueling weapon. He said to the challenger, “But thank God you can’t whip me; but don’t you attempt to strike me, for if you do, and the devil gets out of you into me, I shall give you the worst whipping you ever got in all your life.”[9] His perseverance and tenacity led to laughter from the challenger, and the challenger accepted Cartwright as an equal and went on to accept Christ.

Acceptance of his message and conversion of the challenger formed the motive behind Cartwright’s pugilistic method. One of the most famous stories of Cartwright’s tenacity involves a ferry operator spouting insults about Cartwright, then a well-known political candidate. The operator did not recognize Cartwright and said he would whip him if ever he saw him. Cartwright identified himself, but the operator did not believe him. Halfway across the river the operator began spouting insults again, and Cartwright seized him and threatened to baptize him in the name of Satan if he did not recant his insults. Some accounts claim Cartwright actually held him in the water until he recited the Lord’s Prayer and promised to give free passage to any Methodist minster and attend any Methodist meeting within five miles. The operator accepted Christ and voted for Cartwright in the next election.

Ruffians frequently disturbed Cartwright’s camp meetings. He confronted any challengers and often used force to bring order to the meeting. One particularly violent disturbance turned into a mob of fighting involving even the gathered preachers. The battered preachers felt unable to preach. Cartwright, however, felt justified in the violence and went on to preach. He used as his text Mathew 16:18: “The gates of Hell shall not prevail.”[10] Cartwright reports that the meeting went on without interruption for several more days and three hundred fell under the power of the Spirit with two hundred saved and added to the church. Cartwright used violence when necessary, but never used violence for self-promotion. He used whatever means necessary to advance the mission.

The Life and Cost of a Curcuit Rider

The life of a Methodist circuit rider on the frontier involved travelling through a vast and rough territory with little provision. Few married and most lived in poverty. Cartwright, however, endured the hardship longer than any circuit rider to this day. He, unlike most riders, married a young lady named Francis Gaines in 1808. His leaders assumed he would locate and assume a traditional pastoral role over one congregation. Cartwright replied that he had “resolved not to locate until the abdication and location of Beelzebub.”[11] Francis Cartwright, a heroin in her own right, remained at home to raise many children and forge a frontier farm from the wilderness of Illinois while Peter Cartwright advanced the mission.

Sustained revival meant paying any cost. Gerald F. Ensley observes the motive behind Methodist circuit riders: “Field preaching, which was the trademark of original Methodism, was a going forth of Christian evangelists to reclaim men and women in the mines and factories of the profane order, rather than waiting for men to come into the sacred precincts of the church.”[12] His motive remained clear, and Cartwright accepted the cost. T. M. Eddy in a letter presented at the Cartwright’s 50-year jubilee describes the cost of mission to the circuit rider:

To do that (describe the itinerant pioneer preacher) were to transcribe chapters from the Book of Acts, of Peter I and II—Cartwright and Akers—men who threaded forests to tell hardy woodmen and squatters how to become plants of the Father’s right hand, trees of righteousness; who along sinuous and malarious rivers searched scattered settlements to speak of ‘the river that maketh glad the City of God;’ men of Christly daring, who cut loose from the base of temporal supplies, and plunged into roadless wastes, guided by the stars of heaven, that wondering men and women in gloom and grief might see ‘the bright and morning star,’ and seeing, live![13]

Cartwright paid the price of sustained revival as a travelling circuit rider longer than anyone in Methodist history, and he brought revival to thousands as a result of the price he paid.

Apostolic Annointing

Cartwright ministered in Spirit-led anointing. Watters quotes Cartwright’s description of a typical camp meeting on the frontier:

Triumphant shouts of glory ascended by hundreds, and many sinners were seen with streaming eyes and even exulting shouts giving glory to Jesus Christ. The vast multitudes fell almost in every direction, and I sat down under a deep sense that God was there…There was no more preaching for that day and the next. The cries of the penitents and shouts of the young converts and old professors went up without intermission day and night. Two hundred professed religion, and one hundred and seventy joined the Methodist Episcopal Church before the close of the camp meeting.[14]


Cartwright feared no human, and he boldly allowed the Spirit to lead him into any territory needing revival. According to Watters, Cartwright observed the decline of Methodist passion in his later years:

In the agency of the Holy Spirit of God I have been a firm believer for more than fifty-four years, and I do firmly believe that if the ministers of the present day had more of the unction or baptismal fire of the Holy Ghost promoting their ministerial efforts, we should succeed much better than we do, and be more successful in winning souls to Christ than we are.[15]

For sixty-five years Cartwright brought the fire of the Spirit to uncharted regions and to those who desperately needed God. He never found satisfaction with ministry to the established regions but in true apostolic anointing pushed against the frontier.




The Kentucky revival in which Cartwright discovered faith soon became a battleground of extreme positions. The Shaker and New Light influence promoted ecstatic experience through visions and apocalyptic rhetoric, and the extreme Calvinists promoted a polarizing position that eventually divided the revival. Cartwright took an unpopular mediating position in most controversies that emphasized the priority of Christ’s mission over winning a polarized debate. Cartwright fearlessly engaged and confronted polarized positions, and many critics assume he stood at the opposite pole. Cartwright, however, valued the mission more than winning arguments or joining an extreme position.

Cartwright and Ecstatic Experience

Revivals, including the Kentucky Revival, generally involve various expressions of ecstatic experience. Cartwright assumed a position that prevented his meetings from dissolving through excesses, personal promotion, and misuse of spiritual gifts. People often fell on their faces before God’s power in Cartwright’s meetings, but Cartwright viewed the occurrences as part of a sinner’s acceptance of Christ. Watters observes Cartwright’s ability to maintain missional purpose while allowing for spiritual manifestations:

But the sturdy common sense of Peter Cartwright enabled him to distinguish between the healthy and the unhealthy, the true and the false; and his fearless leadership saved the converts from many a wild excess and mad delusion. He loved to see an unbeliever changed into what he called a “happy, shouting Christian.”[16]

Cartwright remained focused on life change in the person to whom he ministered rather than various expressions of spiritual power.

Cartwright rejected the visions and over-realized eschatology of the Quakers while accepting many manifestations that remain controversial today. For example, he accepted an experience called “the jerks” in which people twitched or convulsed violently. Cartwright describes his position on “the jerks”: “I always looked upon the jerks as a judgment sent from God, first, to bring sinners to repentance; and secondly, to show professors that God could work with or without means, and that he could work over and above means, and do whatever seemeth him good, to the glory of his grace and the salvation of the world.”[17] To Cartwright, ecstatic expressions proved perfectly acceptable as long as they brought sinners to repentance. He subtly emphasizes that manifestations do not promote the individual as one acted upon by God. Manifestations promote God in a person who desires God.

Cartwright accepted manifestations that promoted God’s mission, and he proved willing to confront self-serving behavior masquerading as spiritual manifestation. Cartwright describes his mediating position on spiritual manifestations:

But right here I wish to say, that in most of our revivals many men and women of bad habits and ill-fame become operated on, profess religion, and join the Church. This has long been, and now is, a great objection by many to these revivals, and it has been the cause of considerable persecution to the Church. But it should be remembered that the economy of the Church, in saving souls, is compared by Jesus Christ himself to a fisherman casting his net into the sea, and enclosing a multitude of fish, both good and bad. But who ever condemned the fisherman, because his net gathered bad as well as good fish? or (sic) who ever drew the erroneous conclusion that the net was bad, because there were some bad fish enclosed in it? The net is to be thrown, the fish, bad and good, are to be inclosed (sic), and then the net is to be drawn to the shore, on dry land, and all alike, both good and bad, taken from their element. Then, and not till then, the process of assorting them is to commence.[18]


Cartwright managed to sustain a revival for sixty-five years by sorting things only after he could discern their purpose or origin.

Cartwright and Social Involvement

Cartwright felt strongly about many social issues of his day, particularly slavery. Sangamon County elected him twice to the Illinois State Legislature, and he lost in a congressional election to a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. His sought political position to bring godly principles to politics and to oppose slavery in the State of Illinois to which he had fled Kentucky partly to shield his children from slavery’s influence. Ensley observes Cartwright’s political involvement: “Its purpose has been not to erect a theocracy but to leaven the secular order through the conversion to the Christian life of the men who make it.”[19] In social activism, Cartwright maintained his missional focus and believed that social transformation came from the conversion of individuals.

In the divisive issue of slavery Cartwright took a middle position that proved unpopular with the extreme positions of both slaveholders and abolitionists. Cartwright describes his middle position: “I was opposed to slavery, though I did not meddle with it politically, yet I felt it my duty to bear my testimony against the moral wrong of slavery.”[20] He placed the conversion of slaveholder and slave above the extreme and polarizing position of the radical abolitionist while prophetically speaking about the coming national disaster resulting from the growing polarization on the issue: “I am perfectly satisfied that if force is resorted to, this glorious Union will be dissolved, a civil war will follow, death and carnage will ensue, and the only free nation on the earth will be destroyed. Let moral suasion be used to the last degree for the sake of the salvation of the slaveholders, and the salvation of the slaves.”[21] The eternal state of humans proved far more important to Cartwright than the issue of slavery. He saw slave states through the eyes of a missionary rather than polarized politics: “Surely here is missionary ground that ought to be occupied with, great care, for the salvation of the perishing thousands of the south, and for the final overthrow of slavery, under the benign influences of the Christian religion.”

Cartwright would not subvert God’s mission to a polarizing political issue, but Cartwright remained clear that conversion brought social change. He did not expect social change to occur before revival or for ungodly humans to act godly. For Cartwright the solution to social evil remained Christ. He trusted the activity of the Spirit to purge social evils from the faithful. On slavery, he refused to alienate the slaveholder and subsequently the slave from salvation through radical abolitionism. Cartwright describes his tactics: “Let us now henceforth use Christian weapons, and Christian weapons alone, and the mighty monster will fall.”[22] The monster of slavery needed felling, but Cartwright would only attempt its destruction through the conversion of men and women to Christ.

Cartwright’s mediating position proved unpopular as both polarized camps viewed him as part of the other camp. The Methodist church violently split in 1844 over the issue of slavery, and Cartwright lamented the loss of missional potential as he took the unpopular middle ground. The Methodist split soon expanded to the nation as the nation divided in 1862. Cartwright, after the succession of the South, ardently supported the Union. His mediating position, however, remains an interesting position in which much division and pain could have been averted. Cartwright still speaks today to the church’s involvement in polarizing political issues such as homosexual unions.

Cartwright’s mediating positions did not rise from compromise or weakness. He strongly defended the essentials, but he mediated positions not ranked as highly in his thinking as the essentials. For example, the mission of Christ to all humans ranked higher in Cartwright’s thinking than slavery. He plainly expressed his opposition to slavery, but equally expressed the need for salvation in all humans. Cartwright took a strong mediating position and refused to allow polarizing forces to intimidate him. Ensley observes the influence of Methodist preachers like Cartwright on America: “The Methodist preachers for a century and a half have helped to keep freedom alive in America simply by refusing to be intimidated.”[23] Cartwright observes his own tenacity: “In general I have made it a rule not to back down to the devil or his imps, whether he appears in male or female form. But sometimes it requires backwoods courage to stand our ground.”[24]

Cartwright, however, refused to allow the devil to distract him from the mission. He would not lose the war for human souls for a victory in a small skirmish over a particular social issue. Newman in an address to the Cartwright Jubilee in which he compares Peter Cartwright to the Apostle Peter describes Cartwright’s ability to mix muscle and the Holy Spirit:

(Western) indifference to restraint as well as licentiousness of action, which required a second Peter to grapple with them—a Peter who had an arm of flesh as well as a word of power, and who at times, believed in a dispensation of muscular Christianity as well as a dispensation of the Holy Ghost.[25]

Cartwright demonstrates strength in submission to Christ.

Cartwright fiercely defended the Methodist brand of Christianity as he saw the brand as effective in his mission. He often defended his new converts against sects that attempted to steal the new believers from Methodism. He placed Calvinists, New Lights, Campbellites, Shakers, and Mormons in the same category and rigorously defended his young believers against their perceived heresies. Many stories exist of Cartwright marching into a meeting to which his new Methodists had been enticed and powerfully reclaiming his new believers. Cartwright took no mediating position concerning doctrine. One of the most interesting pieces of Cartwright’s communication preserved today is a reply to some ultra-Calvinists who had written anonymously to Cartwright pretending to be the devil thanking Cartwright for his work. Cartwright writes a lengthy reply in which he takes apart Calvinism and accuses his accusers of cowardice and residing near the devil themselves.[26] Cartwright worked with many non-Methodists on the mission field of camp meetings, but he refused to allow doctrinal divides to polarize his followers or for those he saw as heretics to steal his new believers.




The American frontier formed an environment uniquely suited to the method behind Methodism. The structure of episcopal government combined with the freedom of the circuit rider ensured an environment in which revival flourished without losing its center. Jaroslav J. Pelikan describes the unique fit of Methodism to the American frontier: “A church that had been forged in the heat of one man’s search for such vigor and power and in his rediscovery of the essence of evangelical Christianity was ideally suited to the demands of the frontier.”[27] Methodism, according to Ensley, emerged from three forces: the gospel of Jesus, the “activist temperament of John Wesley,” and its ability to “habituate to the American frontier.”[28] Cartwright readily embraced the structure of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a means of organizing his revival activities and retaining its converts. He frequently spoke at the Methodist Episcopal convention. His conference elected him as delegate in almost every convention. He supported the church’s structure even at its lowest moments such as the division of the church over slavery in 1844.

To Cartwright, structure expanded revival. The circuit riding method proved uniquely able to bring together a scattered populous under the necessary controls of the church. Ensley observes one key strength of the circuit riding method: “By their circuit system they added enough parishes together to guarantee a livelihood, and their polity assured that every church would have a minister and every minister a church.”[29] The circuit riding elder established a work then appointed exhorters to maintain the work. The elder would visit every six to eight weeks and encourage or correct as needed. Once the work grew larger it might have a located pastor or remain under the leadership of the travelling elder. The church divided into classes much like today’s small groups that provided relational support and encouragement during the week. Cartwright used the methodical system of the Methodist Episcopal Church to sustain a revival and organize the fruits of revival.

The organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church forms part of American culture. Pelikan observes the influence of the system on America: “Because the spirit of the frontier has been shared by colonists and settlers, pioneers and immigrants, the Methodist way of faith and obedience has become embedded in the American experience.”[30] Cartwright, in his sixty-five years as a travelling preacher, witnessed a profound change in frontier culture and Methodist polity. He lived to see his organization begin a descent into an organization with a mission rather than an organization for a mission. Pelikan observes the effects of the changing environment at the end of Cartwright’s life:

If anything, it was the loss of the frontier spirit rather than its retention that gradually alienated Methodism from elements of American society that had been its traditional concern, and caused the Methodist Church to be replaced in their loyalties by forms of Christian witness and obedience that seemed to breathe more of a Wesleyan spirit than the respectable Wesleyans did. Such, at least, has been the judgment of Pentecostal and Holiness churches, which even in their opposition to Methodism represent a Methodist movement, and even in their urban setting belong to the spirit of the American frontier.[31]


Frontier Methodism springs from a missionary spirit in which many movements have taken part. Cartwright’s use of the organization to sustain revival provides an example to those seeking lasting revival today, and it is a warning to the organization to remain organized for mission and not make the organization the mission.




Cartwright died on September 25, 1872, shortly after retirement. He remained a presiding elder for fifty years and spent sixty-five years as a circuit rider. No Methodist preacher has come close to his tenure. Cartwright modestly estimates the fruits of his labors at twelve thousand baptisms, ten thousand added to the church, and over 14,600 sermons preached.[32] He sustained the revival fires in which he found salvation for the remainder of his life. He never lost his missional focus and used mediating positions and structure to add strength to his mission. In a feeble voice at his fifty-year jubilee Cartwright describes his life and focus:

And now I retire from the regular work, not because I do not like it, for I say to you one and all, to the young preachers and to the old, that with the losses and crosses, labors and sufferings peculiar to the life of a Methodist traveling preacher, I would take, if it was left to my choice, the same track over again with the same religion to bear me up, rather than be the President of the United States. Glory to God, there is a religion that sustains a man and will bear him on, and up, and through. I have never tried to feel that pasteboard religion that will not allow a man to say amen or shout glory. I have no friendship at all for that kind of Christianity. A Christian still-born into the family of heaven is an anomaly. I love that religion that a man can feel and know for himself, that can support us under trials, that can bear any thing and every thing while God gives us love in our hearts.[33]





Bray, Robert. Peter Cartwright: Legendary Frontier Preacher. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005.


Cartwright, Peter. The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright: The Backwoods Preacher. Edited by W. P. Strickland. N.p: Jawbone Digital, 2014. Kindle.


———. Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder. Edited by W. S. Hooper. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871.


Eddy, T. M. “The Itinerant Path-Finder.” In Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder. Edited by W. S. Hooper, 258-261. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871.


Ensley, F. Gerald. “American Methodism: An Experiment in Secular Christianity.” In The History of American Methodism in Three Volumes. Vol. 3. Edited by Emory Stevens Bucke, 615-630. New York: Abingdon, 1964.


Grant, Helen Hardie. Peter Cartwright: Pioneer. New York: Abingdon, 1931.


Hooper, W. S. “Introduction: Being a Sketch of Dr. Cartwright’s Life.” In Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder. Edited by W. S. Hooper, 7-38. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871.


Newman, Benjamin. “The Address of Rev. Dr. Newman.” In Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder. Edited by W. S. Hooper, 248-258. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871.


Pelikan, Jaroslav J. “Methodism’s Contribution to America.” In The History of American Methodism in Three Volumes. Vol. 3. Edited by Emory Stevens Bucke, 596-607. New York: Abingdon, 1964.


Seitz, Don C. “Peter Cartwright—Evangel of the Backwoods.” In Uncommon Americans: Pencil Portraits of Men and Women Who Have Broken the Rules, 71-87. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925.


Veglahn, Nancy. Peter Cartwright: Pioneer Circuit Rider. New York: Scribner, 1968.


Watters, Phillip M. Peter Cartwright. New York: Eaton and Mains, 1910.


[1] W. S. Hooper, “Introduction,” in Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder, ed. W. S. Hooper (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871), 29.

[2] Phillip M. Watters, Peter Cartwright (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1910), 25.

[3] Ibid., 31-32.

[4] Benjamin Newman, “The Address of Rev. Dr. Newman,” in Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder, ed. W. S. Hooper (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871), 258.

[5] Don C. Seitz, “Peter Cartwright—Evangel of the Backwoods,” in Uncommon Americans: Pencil Portraits of Men and Women Who Have Broken the Rules (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925), 71.

[6] Peter Cartwright, The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright; The Backwoods Preacher, ed. W. P. Strickland (n.p: Jawbone Digital, 2014), 1432, Kindle.

[7] Peter Cartwright, Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder, ed. W. S. Hooper (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871), 83.

[8] Robert Bray, Peter Cartwright: Legendary Frontier Preacher (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 89.

[9] Cartwright, Autobiography, 2629, Kindle.

[10] All scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the King James Version.

[11] Cartwright, 50 Years, 243.

[12] F. Gerald Ensley, “American Methodism: An Experiment in Secular Christianity,” in The History of American Methodism in Three Volumes, vol. 3, ed. Emory Stevens Bucke (New York: Abingdon, 1964), 616.

[13] T. M. Eddy, “The Itinerant Path-Finder,” in Fifty Years as a Presiding Elder, ed. W. S. Hooper (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1871), 259.

[14] Watters, 32.

[15] Ibid., 42-43.

[16] Ibid., 34.

[17] Cartwright, Autobiography, 452, Kindle.

[18] Ibid., 5471, Kindle.

[19] Ensley, 618.

[20] Cartwright, Autobiography, 1875, Kindle.

[21] Ibid., 1911, Kindle.

[22] Ibid., 4945, Kindle.

[23] Ensley, 623.

[24] Cartwright, 50 Years, 79.

[25] Newman, 253.

[26] Cartwright, 50 Years, 94-198.

[27] Jaroslav J. Pelikan, “Methodism’s Contribution to America” in The History of American Methodism in Three Volumes, vol. 3, ed. Emory Stevens Bucke (New York: Abingdon, 1964), 602.

[28] Ensley, 618.

[29] Ibid., 619.

[30] Pelikan, 603.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Cartwright, Autobiography, 6137, Kindle.

[33] Cartwright, 50 Years, 219.

Codependency in Church Systems

Codependency in Church Systems


In spite of the prevalence of methods and literature devoted to church health, many churches remain plateaued or are declining. Some churches ignore reality and base their worth and identity on things less than biblical identity and Christian mission. Many declining churches demonstrate an environment similar to the codependency seen in addictive family systems. The published literature has expanded the understanding of the concept of codependency that was traditionally applied to family systems affected by alcohol and substance abuse by applying it to dysfunctional organizational structures. Some dysfunctional churches exhibit dynamics similar to codependent family systems. To investigate this idea I adapted the Spann-Fischer Scale for Codependency, and in a pilot study of nine churches, developed two scales: Church Health (a = .891) and Church Codependency (a = .745). A moderate negative correlation (r = -.431) between these scales supported the hypothesis that codependency can be measured and that is has a corollary relationship to church heath. The concept of codependency possesses elements that could assist church leaders to better understand dysfunctional churches. The idea suggests a new approach to church health in certain environments and provides a new lens through which those desiring to help the local church grow might view their work.


Codependency in Church Systems:

Many churches decline each year in spite of efforts to revitalize. Others exist in a state of frustration, and the leaders of these churches likewise feel frustrated. The church fails to grow and resists outside assessment, and the church as a system functions in a way that perpetuates the church’s poor health. Pastors and leaders feel a sense of shame and loss of identity, and the dysfunction escalates. Some churches exist in a state that resembles addiction in that the church resists health and maintains dysfunctional and unhealthy behavior. The problem perpetuates as a systemic dynamic within the overall relational structure of many dysfunctional churches. A solution might lie in addressing the dysfunction in a manner similar to addiction intervention and recovery.

Within relational systems, codependency develops through dysfunction and perpetuates as a misapplied identity through feelings of shame. Similar to addiction to a substance, codependency manifests as a relational addiction where individuals seek identity and self-worth from relationships that prove unable to establish a person’s worth. In the classic alcoholic family system, the codependent members seek worth from the substance addiction of the alcoholic and base their identity on the addicted person. Current research suggests systemic codependency in various corporate environments, and the possibility that the ecclesiastical environment likewise manifests some measure of codependence seems likely. The church in a manner similar to substance addiction or the relational addiction dynamics of codependency may seek its worth and identity from sources unable to provide worth and healthy identity. Foundations of many forms of dysfunction within the ecclesiastical environment may exist within the addicted family system and in some commercial environments.

The church as a family system forms an environment in which the possibility of relational dysfunction similar to traditional codependency in a substance-abusing environment might exist. Through dysfunction introduced from various persons within the environment it seems likely that the system of relationships making up the church might experience corporate shame and misapplied identity that manifests similarly to the traditional addicted family system. Traditional addicted family systems ignore reality and shun outside help or intervention in a spiral of dysfunction that increases the unhealthy dynamics of the family system and damages the individuals within the system. The toxic environment resists change and descends further into toxicity. Many churches likewise demonstrate traits similar to the addicted family system. Dysfunctional churches seem to resist outside help as they clings to dysfunctional or damaging behaviors and outdated methodology. The dysfunctional church in many ways resembles the addicted family system. Codependency describes the underlying dysfunction in the addicted family system, and it might likewise underlie much of the brokenness of the dysfunctional church.

Many current church health assessments ignore underlying relational health and create shame based results that might actually create further relational dysfunction in the system that manifests later as church splits or dysfunction. The identity of the church as a relational system becomes tied to numerical indicators rather than healthy relational identity in Christ. Shame and loss of identity in leadership and in the church as a system leads the church further from missional effectiveness and health in the long term. Addictive tendencies within the system that seek health from sources less than God forms the core of the issue.


Toward a Biblical View of Addiction

A biblical theological approach to the issue provides a lens through which a church can find wholeness and missional effectiveness in a culture bound in addictive patterns. Wine provides a lens through which other addictive behaviors such as codependency can be addressed. As the motif unfolds in the covenants of the Bible, wine typifies relational wholeness through the Holy Spirit. The motif unfolds in two threads: (1) a type of joy, fruitfulness, and relief in a fallen world and (2) a type pointing to judgment. The church able to discover the wholeness to which the type of wine points can renew its effectiveness to a culture bound by addictive behavior and human attempts to seek spirituality apart from God.[1]

The Bible begins with God’s command to be fruitful and subdue the Earth in relational unity with God (Gen. 1:28). God conditions His blessings with a command to refrain from eating one particular fruit of the Garden while remaining in a dependent relationship with God as the superior party in the covenant (Gen. 2:17).[2] The serpent, however, approaches the first couple with the idea that the blessings of creation reside in a created substance rather than a relationship.[3] God extends His blessing conditioned by human choice to remain in a relationship with God as the source of life, but the humans choose to seek life on their own terms.[4] The source of blessing forms the core of the issue. Humanity must choose between God as the source of wisdom, fruitfulness, and blessing or the substance of the fruit as the source. Pride rests at the center of the choice. Humanity can remain in humble submission to God’s command or seek self-exaltation apart from God’s command. Seeking a source outside the relational covenant for fulfillment results in separation from the blessing of the covenant.[5] Similar to addiction in which humans seek results from a substance or behavior that actually separates from the desired results, humanity looks to ever-increasing doses of rebellion and descends into further separation.[6]

Human tendency to strive continually for the blessings of covenant relationship apart from the relationship forms the core of addiction. Wine in the biblical record points to life in covenant relationship through renewed fruitfulness in relationship with God.[7] Drunkenness, however, reveals humanity’s tendency to seek the substance of the typological object rather than the fulfillment of the type. The same action points in two opposite directions depending on the motive of the user. Humans tend to seek a temporal source of joy and spiritual satisfaction rather than the eternal source that provides deeper eternal fulfillment. The substance provided by God often takes the place of God as the object of worship and draws the human further into the illusion of control and away from the God who demands control.

Drunkenness forms one of the Bible’s clearest images of sin and judgment. David, for example, laments the judgment brought by surrounding nations and states that God has given Israel “wine to drink that made us stagger” (Ps. 60:3). Jeremiah similarly uses wine in a pronouncement of judgment against Moab (Jer. 48:26) and equates drunkenness with judgment (51:39). Wine confuses the ungodly and represents God’s judgment on those who ignore Him. Leland Ryken observes that drunkenness in almost all cases appears as an image of God’s judgment and “an awesome picture of human confusion and helplessness brought upon themselves by their God-defying arrogance.”[8] Drunkenness also appears as judgment in the image of the cup as a “special horror” that implies a “humiliating progression” as something a “person does deliberately.”[9] Judgment appears in the image of the cup of wine in Psalm 75:8.

The typology of wine confuses if one does not consider the antitype. Wine points to judgment but also often relates to blessing from God.[10] Isaiah’s picture of restoration includes the image of wine as a blessing from God (Isa. 25:6). Solomon portrays wine as a type of relational wholeness (Song of Sol. 1:4, 4:10). The Psalms portray wine as a symbol of relief from distress (Ps. 104:14-15). Ecclesiastes describes wine as something that “gladdens life” (10:19). Wine leads to destruction and serves as a strong metaphor for judgment from God, but it also carries the expectation of gladness and relief from distress. Wine numbs the senses and relieves those surrounded by the sorrow of life in a fallen world, but wine also points to a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit as the ultimate Comforter.

Drunkenness can seem spiritual. Those alienated from God and seeking spiritual salve for the pain and judgment experienced in a fallen world often look to wine for relief. God promises complete spiritual salve and healing in an outpouring of His Spirit. Isaiah points to the promise: “Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink!” (Isa. 29:9). Jeremiah describes an experience of intoxication without wine, “I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of his holy words” (Jer. 23:9). God sees the pain of life in a fallen world and brings relief and victory. Wine points to relief in the presence of the Spirit and drunkenness points to judgment. The Spirit brings an experience similar to intoxication, but the experience leads to God’s blessing. Wine serves as a gift from God to soothe the fallen soul in a former age in which the Spirit is not yet poured out on all flesh. Wine may temporarily sooth the heart, but the temporary nature of wine easily leads to drunkenness and further separation from God.

The two threads of judgment and promised blessing intersect at the Cross. Jesus uses the metaphor of a cup to describe His obedient submission to God’s will (John 18:11).[11] The cup of fellowship motif at the Last Supper carries through to Gethsemane and the motif of the cup as judgment. Jesus offers the cup to the disciples at the Last Supper as fellowship and promise while He takes upon himself the cup of wrath and judgment. The two threads of the type of wine involving both judgment and restoration separate at the Cross. Jesus endures the judgment and gives His followers the restoration. The image of wine carries further as Jesus endures the Cross. He accepts suffering and judgment while refusing the relief of wine (Matt. 27:34, Mark 15:23). Sinful humans seek to alleviate the suffering of a sinful world through wine, but Christ endures the Cross without the numbing effect of wine. He takes the full effect of pain and judgment so fallen humanity can have the full effect of joy through grace.

Addiction is a futile attempt at restoration through the application of more of a substance in spite of the fact the substance brings the user into further isolation from God. Efforts to find spiritual wholeness on human terms and in human control form addictions.

The type of wine reaches completion at the Cross and fully appears in the believers at Pentecost (Acts 2). Observers of the outpouring of Pentecost, however, fail to separate the blessing and judgment and immediately interpret the event as mere drunkenness (2:13). They fail to understand the work on the Cross as Christ taking their judgment on himself. To the observers the threads of judgment and blessing remain linked. At Pentecost the blessing of God is poured out, and Jesus takes the judgment on himself. The fulfillment previously sought in human effort flows freely without the judgment and addictive tendencies.[12]

Many approaches to the issue of alcohol pull Scriptures from their context without understanding that the addicted person seeks spiritual fulfillment through his or her addiction. The addict may simply fail to realize that what they seek in the imperfect substance of wine is available in the presence of the Spirit. The church must model spiritual wholeness in terms of joy, relationship, fruitfulness, and missional effectiveness. The addict may well be more spiritual than the legalist Christian as the addict at least still searches for something more. The addict and the legalistic Christian are both addicted to substances or methods that fail to bring the promised results. The addict seeks more wine, and the legalist seeks more rules and control while attempting to force others into their addiction to rules and control.

The passages of Scripture relating alcohol use and the life of those in the church prove difficult to understand apart from a typological view of alcohol. When the type finds fulfillment, the type ceases to be useful.[13] Once the destination is reached, a map is useless. If spiritually fulfilled through the infilling of the Holy Spirit, the believer has no use for wine. Paul instructs deacons and elders, for instance, not to be “addicted to much wine” or “slaves to much wine” (1 Tim. 3:8; Titus 2:3). A person under the control of wine cannot lead others to fulfillment in the Spirit as they would still be searching themselves. The use of alcohol among leaders as a moral issue is not the point of the text; the direction of the believer who seeks fulfillment in wine or the fullness of the Holy Spirit is the issue.

Paul warns that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21). Since fulfillment of the Kingdom begins at the Cross and realizes in the believer in the overflowing experience of Pentecost, a person still under the addictive pattern of alcohol has failed to encounter the fulfillment of the Kingdom. They fail to inherit the Kingdom because they do not seek the Kingdom. They seek the benefits of the Kingdom in their own control through the illusion of control in a substance. Addiction carries the person further from the desired effects and deeper into the use of the substance. Whether the substance is alcohol, legalism, or any idolatry the issue is that the person has not repented or turned from their sinful desire to discover spiritual wholeness on their own terms and in their own illusion of control.

Paul portrays the drunkard as a person still in darkness: “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (1 Cor. 15:34). He describes drunkenness as something done at night or in incomplete revelation (1 Thess. 5:7).[14] The addicted person is a spiritual person who in many cases is simply in darkness concerning the completeness offered in a relationship with Jesus through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. The church that fails to reveal the light of a renewed relationship in an active infilling of the Holy Spirit lives as much in the dark as the chemically addicted. The non-Spirit-filled church may free someone of chemical addiction, but they will likely replace the chemical addiction with other addictive behavior. Gossip, legalism, gluttony, and many other behaviors simply become sinful replacements for chemical addiction if the church community fails to meet the inner need for spiritual fulfillment.

Paul’s focus on wine and the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 5:18 provides the centerpiece of the issue. A believer has no need for wine that leads a person further from the source of life. He or she should observe the spiritual desire typified by wine and recognize that the Spirit makes a far superior means of fulfillment available. Through the continual infilling of the Holy Spirit the believer has no use for the inferior type of wine. The Spirit makes the antitype freely available and the type is obsolete as the type only points to the need for fulfillment. Pleasing God through abstinence as a moral issue does not form the main point of the passage. Paul emphasizes acceptance of God’s plan rather than consuming the fruit of prideful and fallen human effort.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus[15] in order to encourage power over darkness demonstrated in the believer’s walk in the light of Christ’s power. The message communicates to the struggling person that hope for something better than the darkness of the present world exists in the light of God’s active presence. Paul addresses those who were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1-2). Humans by nature seek some form of spiritual wholeness. Apart from Christ humans seek wholeness in terms of the “course of the world” or the pattern set forth by the “prince of the power of the air” (v. 2). The pattern of addiction reveals humanity’s broken spirituality. Alcohol, sexual immorality, codependency, and the like provide some sense of spiritual salve for fallen humanity, but they become patterns in which the human spirit is further damaged and drawn into deeper despair.

The downward spiral of addiction appears frequently within American churches. Spiritual seekers attempt to find spiritual wholeness through pragmatism or quick-fix experience rather than in God’s plan. Addictive patterns of seeking spirituality in human terms and human control form the foundation of spiritual experience for many. For example, traditional Pentecostal altar services began as a means of relational connection to God through the Holy Spirit. The altar services, in many cases, became a pragmatic tool in which the substantial elements of the service are manipulated and controlled to provide an experience in which spirituality becomes more like a purchased experience than a relational encounter in God’s control. As a result, persons often seek further control and manipulation of the experience rather than the Spirit. Codependent relationships in which another’s spirit defines someone else’s spiritual condition frequently appear in religious environments. Pastors, for example, often base their self-worth on the number of seats filled or the pragmatic results of their efforts. Pride of self replaces the authentic spirituality of the Holy Spirit, and the result resembles an addictive spiral as it seeks pragmatic results through methodology.

Humans have a God-given thirst for deeper spirituality and restored relationship. Pride causes humans to seek spirituality on human terms and in human control. The thirst, however, comes from God to draw fallen humans to the restoration of His presence paid for at the Cross. The substance abuser seeks a salve for the pain of fallen humanity. The salve proves temporary and leads the user further into the spiral of addiction in which the user seeks more of the substance in ever more futile attempts to ease the pain of the world. The addicted simply have never encountered the Spirit of God to which wine points in the Bible.

Humans try many things to control their spiritual journey such as consumerism, accumulation of wealth, popularity, or power. Humans by nature are prone to the spiral of addiction. When seeking to control their own future and spiritual condition, humans often seek more of the substance sought for spirituality in an addictive spiral rather than face the futility of the effort. Apart from forgiveness, repentance, and the infilling presence of the Holy Spirit, there will always exist some form of addiction whether to a substance or to power, popularity, and possession. Similarly, churches often seek to form human controlled spiritual community and measure the community through pragmatic efforts and results rather than in the power of the Holy Spirit.[16] The fruit in the Garden provides the first example of human effort leading to decline and isolation, but each human in some form seeks his or her own forbidden fruit for spiritual fulfillment rather than the presence of God.[17] Rather than seeing the addicted as weak and morally corrupt, perhaps the church can see itself as sharing in the thirst for authentic spiritual presence.

Biblical Solutions for Addiction

Churches must not address addiction as a simple moral issue. The drunkard seeks spirituality in the only known source in many cases. Mark R. Laaser, George Ohlschlager, and Tim Clinton observe the addict’s hopeless search for fulfillment: “Addicts don’t know a better life. In most cases addicts don’t know true love and intimacy—they don’t know a true relationship with God. Addictions are embraced as the perverse substitutes—false love and false intimacy.”[18] The addict or codependent organization may simply seek the same thing the Spirit-filled believer has found except they are unaware of the greater antitype of the Holy Spirit and have accepted the lesser type of wine. A church must provide more than moral imperative to the addict concerning wine or drug use; it must demonstrate the completeness of a relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit-filled community of the church should freely offer everything the addict looks for in addiction.

The addict and many who attempt to live Christianity as a religion and not a relationship share many common characteristics.[19] Moral imperatives can become means of seeking spirituality on human terms rather than relationship. Religious addiction may well be a more absurd contradiction than substance abuse.[20] Churches who seek dogmatic morality and exhibit codependent relationships have little ability to reach the addicted in their community.[21]

The community living in the contradiction found in seeking works-based spirituality in restrictive religion will fail to reach the addict. The solution for human religious contradictory efforts, which always lead to further addictive behavior whether legalism or substance abuse, is to look to the Spirit as the ultimate end to which all human efforts point.

Paul describes the struggle between addiction and Spirit, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). Paul uses the most common and stereotypical of addictive behaviors in contrast with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Both actions focus on continual action on the part of the person.[22] Stop continually seeking spiritual wellness or salve through addictive behavior as in drunkenness because it only leads to debauchery or further spiritual alienation from God.[23] Instead, continually seek the presence of God through the infilling of the Holy Spirit which leads to the imperatives listed subsequent to verse 18. Fee observes the passage’s emphasis: “Paul is not so much telling them not to get drunk—that is assumed under walking in the light and thus walking wisely—as he is urging them continually to live in/by the Spirit.”[24] Continual focus on the infilling presence of the Holy Spirit breaks the pattern of systemic codependency and addiction.[25]

Paul’s contrast of drunkenness and the infilling of the Holy Spirit reveals the heart of the issue.[26] Both lead to different results through continual action motivated by spiritual longing.[27] Andrew T. Lincoln observes that the shift to the contrast between wine and the Spirit is a contrast between wisdom and folly involving the person coming under “the control of external power.”[28] Ernest Best describes the contrast as one between the anesthetizing response to darkness of wine and the response of light in the presence of the Holy Spirit.[29] Paul looks past moral imperative to the essential nature of addiction contrasted with life in the Spirit. Wine as a salve for the soul in turmoil and a builder of relationship remains a common theme even in current culture. Rather than a simple moral imperative, Paul references a new revelation or biblical mystery that he unfolds in the passage. Wine in past times and cultures represents a form of spirituality now replaced by the complete revelation of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Persons have the ability to choose their source of filling.[30] Paul’s subsequent description of life in the Spirit illustrates relational wholeness rather than addictive and broken relational systems.

For example, the exhortation to put on the “armor of God” is a community discipline for strength against the enemy (Eph. 6:11). The strength itself comes from the continual infilling of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the believers in community. Paul’s letter from this perspective contrasts the imperfect form of spirituality seen in addictive and codependent behavior with the completed work of Christ extended through faith by grace and made alive through the continual infilling of the Holy Spirit. The power of the letter to the Ephesians is perhaps found in the realization that those descending into addictive patterns seek what the Holy Spirit provides.

Through the unfolding motif of wine and its fulfillment in the Holy Spirit churches can observe God’s promise to the person seeking spiritual wholeness. The fullness of the Holy Spirit manifested in the community of the local church provides the only effective solution for an addicted culture. Likewise, churches must ensure that their systemic environment is not addictive through codependent tendencies to discover wholeness through any means other than the Holy Spirit’s activity.


Current Literature on Codependency

Codependency[31] originally described those affected by another person’s alcoholism. Over time the concept has emerged to describe the condition underlying all addictive behavior. Codependency has also emerged as a concept to describe dysfunctional behavior in an organization. Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier call codependence an “epidemic of staggering proportion” and estimated that 100 million Americans are affected by the condition.[32]

Most definitions focus on the loss of self or identity in the codependent as he or she looks to someone or something outside of his or herself to establish self-worth. Nancy Groom, for example, observes, “Codependency is a self-focused way of life in which a person blind to his or her true self continually reacts to others being controlled by and seeking to control their behavior, attitudes, and/or opinions, resulting in spiritual sterility, loss of authenticity, and absence of intimacy.”[33] The codependent has low self-worth and high levels of shame and looks to a source outside of self that is insufficient to restore worth or counter shame.

Virginia Curran Hoffman defines codependency as misplaced focus: “Codependence is an unhealthy pattern of relating based on low self-esteem and on the belief that one’s worth depends on attachment to, or the approval of, some other person or group.”[34] June Hunt observes the codependent relationship as one in which “you allow someone else to take the place that God alone should have in your heart.” She calls codependency a “misplaced dependency.”[35] Codependency exists when a person or organization relies on a substance, person, or other group for identity.

Codependency as a concept evolved rapidly from the spouse of an alcoholic to the concept of a systemic condition that might underlie all addiction. Use of the term expanded to include relational systems. Codependency forms a useful construct for viewing relational dysfunction, but much danger remains in overuse of the term or in popularized and fuzzy definitions of the term that strip the term of any real meaning. Part of the problem may stem from attempts to isolate codependency as an individual phenomenon that can be diagnosed as a medical illness. Codependency exists as a social phenomenon and only manifests within relationships. The underlying needs and motivations might prove assessable in the individual, but assessment of codependency must include the system in which it manifests.

From a religious perspective codependents look to something less than God to gain worth and self-definition. Jeff VanVonderen provides an example of a religious-focused definition: “Codependency is an addiction that results from an idolatrous relationship with someone who is chemically dependent. A codependent person turns to something other than God for his source of well-being.”[36] The codependent person places the dependent in the place of God.

Earlier definitions define codependency in terms of reaction to the dependent; however, emerging definitions establish codependency as a shared condition in which the codependent and dependent both depend on sources of self-worth unable to establish worth. The resultant society perpetuates the dysfunctional in an addictive spiral. An idolatrous search for significance in substances, persons, or organizations unable to meet the needs of the searcher further separates the searcher from significance and contributes to a societal downward spiral similar to the classic addictive spiral of the alcoholic.

The Characteristics of Codependency

The codependent problem is a relational problem best seen in relational systems. Confusion exists, however, when solutions to the problem center on repairing the relational problems rather than the underlying systemic issue of codependency.

Pia Mellody provides a list of symptoms of codependency: difficulty expressing appropriate levels of self-esteem, often appearing grandiose, trouble setting appropriate boundaries and expressing reality, failure to take care of personal needs and wants, too dependent or anti-dependent, often fails to moderate, and will see relationships and needs dichotomously.[37] Mellody’s list focuses on the individual, but most of the symptoms are only observable within a relational system. However one views the symptoms, the essential nature of the disease involves the codependent seeking self-worth and elimination of shame through something unable to bring the desired result. The symptoms all relate to subsequent lies, denials, and manipulations in order to maintain the illusion that the unmet needs can somehow be met. The illness seems in every way similar to classic addiction, and addiction itself may well be seen as a symptom of the broader concept of codependency. Classic views of codependency often see codependence as an addiction to people, but in most current views it appears as the underlying factor in all addiction to substances, processes, and people.

In the emerging view of codependency as a systemic relational dysfunction assessment and identification require viewing the symptoms in relationship to each other and within the context of the broader relational system. Within the relational system codependency can emerge with several characteristics. James V. Potter and Paula M. Potter provide a list of common systemic characteristics: conflictual and enmeshed relationships, group identity that overrides individual identity, poor personal boundaries, rigid rules, control and manipulation, guilt, shame, violence, and abuse.[38] Within the system the individual experiences interpersonal and intra-personal conflict, external focus at the expense of personal care, low self-identity, low self-confidence, self-hate or self-loathing, corporate identity that overrides personal identity, and the inability to express his or her real personality within the relational system.[39] Philip St. Romain provides a list of the systemic characteristics of codependency using family system theory: many covert rules; little freedom to talk about feelings; secrets; rigid rules enforced through extreme punitive measures; shamed individuals; feelings of tiredness, tenseness, and anger; attempts to present a picture of “having it all together” to the world; and emotional bonding primarily occurs through negative feelings.[40]

In summary, some form of codependence exists in almost all humans as any person to some degree displays symptoms. The symptoms point to a deeper issue in society. Many illnesses, compulsions, defective systems, relational dysfunctions, and the other larger issues in society resemble codependency. Individuals, organizations, or society as a whole might show characteristics. It may be best to say that a person is involved in a codependent system rather than that the person is a codependent. From an organizational standpoint, family systems theory would indicate codependency in an organization such as a church relates equally to the primary leader, the system itself, and the dynamic of every relational interaction within the organization. Sin and shame permeate every area.

A common theory of causation of codependency emerges from a spiritual view. The twelve-step recovery standpoint forms much of the theory and the underlying causation comes from efforts of individuals within the system to be God. VanVonderen argues that the “heart of all harmful dependencies is the issue of idolatry.”[41] Where there is care, unawareness, and shame, harmful codependent relational patterns will emerge.[42] From the spiritual viewpoint, the person who introduces codependency into the system proves less important than the original problem of shame and idolatry shared by all humans. Every person, to some degree, contributes to the codependent system as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22).[43] Whether introduced to the child as early a six months old or introduced in a system through leaders, the system itself, or all within the system, the issue is one of coping with sin and separation from God through substances or persons that actually draw the person or system further from relational wholeness. Paul’s words to Ephesus come to mind. An addicted person must choose to break the addictive cycle of drunkenness which leads to further isolation and encounter the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18).[44]

Codependency in Systems

The idea of organizational addiction is a fairly new concept. Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel provide a primary observation of the tendency of organizations to behave similar to individuals in addiction: “Organizations themselves function as addicts, and because they are not aware of this fact of their functioning, become key building blocks in an addictive society, even when this dramatically contradicts their espoused mission or reason for existence.”[45] They define addiction as “any substance or process that has taken over our lives and over which we are powerless.”[46] An addictive organization possesses many characteristics: denial, confusion, self-centeredness, dishonesty, perfectionism, scarcity models, crisis orientation, depression, stress, abnormal thinking processes, forgetfulness, dependency, negativism, defensiveness, projection, tunnel vision, fear, and ethical deterioration.[47] Schaef and Fassel believe the organization can form more than just the setting for addictive behavior; it can form the actual substance of addiction.[48]

From this perspective issues in many organizations may stem from addictive tendencies in that they continue to focus on a methodology unable to produce the results desired. Focus increasingly shifts to lofty visions while denying the reality of systemic dysfunction. The focus, for instance, may remain on numerical results while the organization ignores inherent weaknesses in their core product or leadership. Schaef and Fassel conclude: “We feel that there is no real possibility for change and transformation in the organization unless those involved recognize that they are addictive and function the same as an active addict. In fact, we believe that the key to organizational transformation lies in this truth.”[49]

Codependent behavior appears similar to an alcoholic seeking relief through the substance of alcohol rather than true relief through emotional health. Instead of submitting to the lengthy process of working for emotional health, the alcoholic seeks instant relief through alcohol in spite of the fact that it creates the opposite of the desired results. Systemic addictive tendencies damage the organization through overreliance on previous models and denials of current reality.[50]

Churches often use religion as escapism. VanVonderen observes religious escapism that fails to confront reality: “If a relationship with Christ does not drive us into the events that have caused us pain in order to face them, but instead serves as an escape which enables us to avoid problem relationships, then it has become as much of an escape to reality as chemicals.”[51] Hoffman likewise observes the tendency to use religion to escape reality:

If our desire is to escape from reality into a warm haze where we can avoid what we do not want to face and where we can feel reassured that we are safe but helpless children, we may be using religious ritual the same way some use alcohol or drugs, for mood-altering, anesthetizing, making the world go away.[52]

Religion used as escapism fosters a denial of reality promoting dysfunction within the system. Churches often reduce Christianity to a familiar formula that brings a spiritual high through music and dramatic preaching. It seems lively, but at heart it may form the substance of addiction and codependency in the congregation. Schaef and Fassel observe the common tendency to substitute religious practice for authentic spirituality: “Whenever we confuse religion with spirituality, we are opting for the structure, control, and rules of an addictive system.”[53] Schaef and Fassel link the church to an addictive substance that may actually prevent relational wholeness: “We recently began to realize we were seeing something more than the organization as a setting for addictive behavior: in many instances, the organization was itself the addictive substance. It was both setting and substance.”[54] A codependent church spends its time distracting members from the obvious underlying faults in a way that is similar to the denial and delusion of the addicted person.

A common intervention in plateaued or declining churches involves emphasizing mission and vision statements. Schaef and Fassel however conclude that overemphasis on mission and vision may actually prevent an organization from confronting the issues that form the actual dysfunction: “When organizations function as the addictive substance, it is in their interest to keep promoting the vision of the mission, because as long as the employees are hooked by it, they are unlikely to turn their awareness to the present discrepancies.”[55] Future health in declining or plateaued churches may come from looking to Jesus for personal identity formation rather than the latest programs or the next mission initiative.

Differentiation between healthy spirituality and dysfunctional codependency proves difficult in religious environments. St. Romain points out that “Ministry is about helping, serving, and giving—all of which codependents do in a distorted manner.”[56] Characteristics of codependent ministers include over-responsibility, self-neglect, unassertiveness, inability to set boundaries, non-confrontive leadership, approval-seeking, people-pleasing, controlling behavior, rigidity, defensiveness, distorted teaching, comparing, niceness, resentfulness, emotional numbness, depression, and loss of self.[57]

The end result is that “the life of ministry becomes a dessert of narcissistic searching for one’s own reflection rather than striving to be one of the true representatives of the Christ of God.”[58] A primary differentiator between healthy serving and codependent attachment appears in self-differentiation among ministers. A minister must take identity in his or her relationship with Christ through the Spirit rather than the descent into debauchery that results from false identity in substances or persons, even if the ministry appears to be successful in terms of human compassion.

Assessment Instruments for Codependency

Codependency’s existence systemically in the church requires a means of assessing the level of codependency within the systemic environment. A congregation seeking health must face the reality of dysfunction, and an adequate testing instrument would help the struggling congregation to begin the process of discovering healthy relational dynamics. The Spann-Fischer instrument provides a widely accepted assessment instrument for codependency in individuals. Adaptation of the Spann-Fischer from an individual assessment instrument to an instrument for evaluating systemic relations may prove useful for assessing codependency in systems.

It seems reasonable that systemic codependence might exist in the church environment and that there may be a correlation between church health and the concept of codependence. The existence of codependency and a correlation between its existence and overall church health would indicate that a new approach to church health might be warranted in many churches. The underlying relational system forms the primary focus in the codependent system, and formation of identity and alleviation of shame through repentance might best help the codependent church.

In a survey conducted in 2015 using an adapted Spann-Fischer scale and a church health assessment a statistically significant corollary relationship between the two scales were demonstrated (r=-.431). The church health scale demonstrated internal consistency with an overall reliability coefficient of .891 (as measured by Cronbach’s Alpha). The codependency scale demonstrated internal consistency with a Cronbach’s Alpha of .745. The data suggests that the two constructs of this instrument (Church Codependency and Church Health) provide a measure of construct reliability. The data seems to support the primary thesis that codependency exists and can be measured in the systemic church environment. The moderate negative correlation suggests that an inverse relationship exists between church health and codependency. In other words, when church health increases, codependency decreases.

Toward Solutions

As in recovery from addiction, recovery from codependence emerges from a step-by-step journey done in relational system. Wegshcheider-Cruse and Cruse observe that recovery from the relational dysfunction of codependency must be done in relational systems: “It is difficult to recover from codependency in secret.”[59] Recovery for individuals or institutions involves confronting delusion with new information, creating safe atmospheres where feelings can surface, and creating environments where detoxification and detachment can occur.[60] Addressing the issue and discovering genuine identity and health for individuals and the church system require the development of teaching that can reveal the entrenched denials and delusions keeping the codependent stuck. The church should model counter-cultural life in Christ, and assuming the statistic that over 90 percent of Americans manifest codependent tendencies, the church must prevail against the culture of codependency.[61]

Recovery means acknowledging powerlessness and embracing God’s control. Church leaders must acknowledge any codependent tendencies and teach the church through example that personal identity comes only from relationship with Christ. The present reality for the American church involves powerlessness, compromise, and missional ineffectiveness. Acknowledging the pain of the church’s present situation and the possibility that the church can often function as an institution that actually prevents formation of Jesus’ identity in believers forms the first step toward wholeness. Rather than modeling new life in Christ, the church has often simply reflected the prevailing codependent culture.

Discipleship, for example, must shift from creedal memorization and cultural conformity to a prevailing church culture of Christ formed identity. Worship, likewise, must shift from performance that often celebrates common false identity to a genuine relational encounter that forms true identity. A healthy pastor must lead the process and examine his or her identity in Christ. Church life must aim for a life lived in interdependence with God and each other rather than the extremes of codependent enmeshment or counter-dependent disengagement.

VanVonderen observes that recovery from dysfunction is an intentional process: “Individuals and families become dysfunctional by accident. But they get well on purpose.”[62] Recovery involves embracing life. VanVonderen continues: “The way to have life is not by trying hard not to be dead. It is by coming to what can give life.”[63] Pastors must lead their churches in recovery from false identity and shame as they embrace new life in identity with Christ. Accurately identifying codependent tendencies within the church organizational system forms the first step in addressing the problem and bringing health to affected churches.

Addictive thinking disempowers the organization. Enemies outside always seem to prevent success. Ineffective behavior wastes energy and hurts the organization. Lies, cover-ups, denials, and the demands of the addictive organization leave the members of the organization tired and disheartened. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan observe, “A bad organization will defeat a good person every time.”[64] Organizations or individuals should gladly leave addictive patterns and thinking for new ideas filled with the possibility of effectiveness. For many reasons, people dogmatically persist in their addictive behaviors and organizations do likewise. Senge describes a possible reason for resistance: “Systems thinking is especially prone to evoking defensiveness because of its central message, that our actions create our reality.”[65] Most refuse to change until forced to change by the consequences of their addictive behavior. Unfortunately, the change often comes too late. In order to transform the church from addictive thinking to systems thinking, the church must accept the consequences of actions and accept responsibility for the future. Once the church accepts responsibility for its own future and accepts that its actions have consequences, the shift to a learning environment can begin.

Honesty and authenticity form the essence of the change to systems thinking from addictive thinking. A church must honestly assess present realities that prevent it from achieving the desired future. Senge states that the essential skills are “seeing interrelationships rather than cause-effect chains” and “seeing processes rather than snapshots.”[66] A healthy church needs vision that extends further than simply fixing the current problem. Likewise the vision cannot loom so large that it forms a foil to honestly looking at the shorter-term vision and its possible execution. Both simple problem solving and elevated vision separate the church from the reality of the present and the steps required to actually accomplish an attainable vision.

Systemic solutions must replace short-term fixes that serve as a foil for the change actually needed. Marquardt suggests developing the skills of systems thinking, using mental models, personal mastery, self-directed learning, and dialogue to develop systems thinking in the organization.[67] Dialogue must open between diverse leaders as the church seeks new perspectives. Robert E. Quinn describes the organization that dies the slow death of attempting to preserve the “normal state” as externally-driven, internally closed, self-focused, and comfort-centered.[68] Each of these describe the condition of a dysfunctional church driven by seekers outside the organization, closed to internal growth, focused on its own preservation, and centered by the desires of many members who seek comfort or personal preference over growth. Quinn describes the well-led learning organization as other-focused, externally open, internally directed, and purpose centered.[69] Healthy change process involves the organization as a whole working through a recovery process that begins with acknowledging its own powerlessness and looking to God to restore sanity and health. Accurate assessment of codependency in the church system is a necessary first step in empowering the church to discover health.



[1] Karl Barth calls God the “genuine Counterpart” and points to God as the fulfillment of all human longing. He states, “God is indeed the genuine Counterpart which alone can finally and primarily satisfy human beings and all creation as such.” Karl Barth, “Selections from Church Dogmatics (1932-1967),” in Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, ed. Clifford Green, 171-264 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 171.

[2] Dumbrell describes the nature of the pre-fall covenant as entailing “the obligation to understand the nature of the relationship and the duty to maintain it by exercising a God-centered life.” Dumbrell, 36. The Fall therefore is a denial of God-centered living and a descent into forming identity on other basis than God.

[3] The fruit had no substantial consequence inherent in itself, and sin is in no way a substance. Adam and Eve, however, believe there was some substantial benefit within the substance of the fruit. They look to a substance rather than God. They, like the chemically addicted, look for spirituality in a substance. Grenz describes something as “substantial” if it “‘stands under’ or goes into the making of a person.” Grenz, 155. Adam and Eve looked to the substance of the forbidden fruit to establish their identity apart from God.

[4] Paul Tillich makes the case that any object can be sacramental as long as “the transcendent is perceived to be present.” The distinction between holy and demonic, to Tillich, is found in God’s “unconditional demand.” Adam and Eve, to Tillich, would be attempting to make an object sacramental in that it imparts life apart from God’s command. Paul Tillich, Paul Tillich: Theologian of the Boundaries, ed. Mark Kline Taylor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 91.

[5] Grenz defines sin as “our failure to reflect the image of God.” Grenz, 187. Since the image of God is in the context of “life in community” sin is a failure of community both in fellowship with God and with fellow humans. Ibid., 179. Grenz continues, “In its essence, sin is also whatever disrupts and seeks to destroy the community God seeks to establish. Summarily stated, sin is the destruction of community.” Ibid., 187.

[6] Original sin may best be seen as a community phenomenon. The image of God denied in Adam and Eve’s sin manifests in the community through division and murder. Grenz writes, “What ought to drive us to a quest for God and the fulfillment of our destiny to participate in the community of God degenerates into a search for a humanly devised substitute. We thereby miss the mark and suffer the consequences.” Grenz, 206.

[7] Leland Ryken, “Wine,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), 953-954.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] Leyland Ryken, “Cup,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), 186.

[10] Grenz describes the interrelation of love and God’s wrath and judgment, “The possibility of experiencing love as wrath arises out of the nature of love itself. Bound up with love is protective jealousy.” When wrath is missing from love “love degenerates into mere sentimentality.” Grenz, 73.

[11] See also Mark 10:38.

[12] Tillich describes Pentecost as the centering of humanity. Having lost their centeredness at the Fall, Pentecost reestablishes through ecstasy the centered unity of God through faith, relational unity, and universality expressed through mission. Tillich, 279-280.

[13] Anderson observes the new structure necessary; “The effects of sin are not overcome through a more rigorous form of spirituality but through a renewed structure of sociality.” Ibid., 168. The Spirit redeems the community from dysfunction, and in the redeemed community the sinner finds salvation and holiness.

[14] E. Earl Ellis reminds that Paul is “not concerned to lay down rules for society.” Paul instead “directs his apostolic teaching only to the Christian community.” E. Earl Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 54.

[15] While Pauline authorship is debatable, the inclusion of Ephesians in the canon is generally not debatable; therefore, Pauline authorship is not essential to this chapter’s argument. This chapter will refer to Paul, however, as the author of Ephesians and include the epistle in Pauline epistles.

[16] Frank D. Macchia observes the common tendency to focus on human effort; “Materialism, social influence, political agendas, social movements, or anything human, even things noble in themselves, can be made into destructive idols if granted the absolute significance that belongs alone to the triune God.” Frank D. Macchia, The Trinity: Practically Speaking (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), 164.

[17] Duffield and Van Cleave observe the results of focusing on the wrong source for spiritual fulfillment; “The world’s spirits give a lift with a let-down; the believer’s anointing with oil and wine brings inspiration without desperation.” Duffield and Van Cleave, 117.

[18] Mark R. Laaser, George Ohlschlager, and Tim Clinton, “Addictions,” in Caring for People God’s Way: Personal and Emotional Issues, Addictions, Grief, and Trauma (Nashville: Nelson, 2005), 268.

[19] Victor Paul Furnish points out that the essential nature of Paul’s ethic derives from “the experience of being ‘in Christ.’” Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul. 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 19. Furnish describes Paul’s focus and states that he “is not a philosopher-moralist addressing ‘secular’ men, but an apostle bearing a gospel to men who have been baptized ‘into Christ.’” Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 89.

[20] Roger Stronstad describes the church that sees itself as a didactic community “where sound doctrine is treasured above charismatic action” or as an experiential community where “the focus is on experience rather than on service” as churches that have left their prophetic heritage “for the pottage of self-seeking experience and blessing.” Roger Stronstad. The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Cleveland, TN: CPT, 2010), 121.

[21] Anderson the underlying cause of the problem leading to ineffectiveness in mission; “The problem comes when any principle is made into a normative criterion and imposed as a rule or law that excludes the Spirit of Christ as the criterion that upholds the normative teaching of scripture.” Anderson, 98.

[22] A. Skeyington Wood observes the possibility that en pneumatic in 5:18 refers to the locus of the filling. Paul is in his view telling the reader where to be filled with the Spirit. The person with a broken spirit is to be filled in the human spirit with the Holy Spirit rather than addictive substances or dysfunctional relational patterns. A. Skevington Wood, “Ephesians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, ed. Frank A. Gæbelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 72. William Hendriksen in contrast emphasizes en pneumatic as Spirit contrasted with drunkenness rather than the locus of the filling. In either case the Spirit is contrasted with the emptiness the person seeking wholeness through something less than the completeness of the infilling of the Spirit. William Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians in New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1967), 239. Peter O’Brian states that understanding the passage as an instrumental dative indicating the means by which believers are to be filled (by the Holy Spirit) “is preferable and makes better sense.” He translates the imperative as “be filled by the Spirit in the spirit.” Peter T. O’Brien, “The Letter to the Ephesians” in Pillar NT Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 391. Harold W. Hoehner states that understanding en pneumatic as simply human spirit is unlikely as Paul refers to spirit as something from outside a person thirteen times in Ephesians (1:13, 17; 2:2, 18, 22; 3:5, 16; 4:3,4,23,30; 6:17, 18). Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 702. He further observes that wine and the Spirit are contrasted two other times in the Bible (Luke 1:15; Acts 2:13-18). Both instances refer to the Holy Spirit and not the human spirit. Ibid., 703.

[23] John Muddiman states that the word asôtia has the same root as sôtêria and implies general unhealthiness. John Muddiman, The Epistle to the Ephesians in Black’s NT Commentaries (London: Continuum, 2001), 247.

[24] Fee, 720.

[25] Macchia calls the infilling described in 5:18-19 as a “charismatically interactive experience.” Macchia, 254. Spirit infilling is a community experience that must affect the systemic dysfunction in the community as much as it must affect any individual within the community.

[26] Ernest Best observes that the contrast in the passage is not between two entities (Spirit and wine) but between two conditions (drunkenness and Spirit possession). Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians, The International Critical Commentary, ed. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton (Edinburgh: T and T, 1998), 506.

[27] Hendriksen the use of alcohol to both alleviate pain and seek spiritual wholeness; “By the ancients, moreover, an overdose of wine was often used not only to rid oneself of care and to gain a sense of mirth but also to induce communion with the gods and, by means of this communion, to receive ecstatic knowledge, not otherwise attainable.” Hendriksen, 240.

[28] Andrew T. Lincoln. Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary 42, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word, 1990), 344.

[29] Best acknowledges Barth’s view of wine as a reference to the Dionysus cult but uses the reference to point to darkness in general as a response to human pain. Best, 507. John Muddiman states that the direction of Ephesians 5:22 derives from 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 and Romans 13:12 and points to worship direction as either the dysfunction of the Dionysus cult or genuine worship in the Holy Spirit. John Muddiman, The Epistle to the Ephesians in Black’s NT Commentaries (London: Continuum, 2001), 247.

[30] Stephen E. Fowl observes human power to choose; “If Paul admonishes the Ephesians to be filled by the Spirit, there must be some sense in which this is in their power.” Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 177.

[31] The current accepted spelling for “codependency” does not include a hyphen. Older works and some who want to emphasize the relationship to the dependent use a hyphenated spelling for the term. This chapter will use the non-hyphenated spelling except in quotes to preserve the author’s spelling.

[32] Robert Hemfelt Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier, Love is a Choice: The Definitive Book on Letting Go of Unhealthy Relationships (Nashville: Nelson, 1989), 8.

[33] Nancy Groom, From Bondage to Bonding (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 21.

[34] Virginia Curran Hoffman, The Codependent Church (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 15.

[35] June Hunt, Codependency: Balancing an Unbalanced Relationship (Torrance, CA: Rose, 2013), 9.

[36] Jeff VanVonderen, Good News for the Chemically Dependent and those Who Love Them (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1995), 92.

[37] Pia Mellody, Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes From, How it Sabotages Our Lives, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 2003), 4.

[38] James V. Potter and Paula M. Potter, Conquering Codependence: Restoring Your Self-Identity (N.p.: AFS, 2011), 30.

[39] Ibid., 38-39.

[40] Phillip St. Romain, Freedom from Codependency: A Christian Response (Wichita, KS: Contemplative Ministries, 2010), 21.

[41] VanVonderen, 17.

[42] Ibid., 65-66.

[43] All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version.

[44] For a controversial but interesting view of codependency and human initiative in holiness see Leo Booth, The Happy Heretic: Seven Spiritual Insights for Healing Religious Codependency, N.p.: HCI, 2012. Booth advocates a Pelagian view of holiness which emphasizes human initiative in holiness. He points out that complete reliance on God for growth may be simply another external focus for a codependent person.

[45] Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel, The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss, and Perpetuate Sick Organizations (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 54, Kindle.

[46] Ibid., 57.

[47] Ibid., 62-68.

[48] Ibid., 118.

[49] Ibid., 138.

[50] Bowen Theory provides a useful lens for looking at systemic codependency. Bowen’s early works analyze codependency in systems and emerge to describe dysfunctional systems and their traits. For useful discussions of Bowen systems theory, see Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 2006); Peter L. Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 2006); Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership and Congregational Life (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996); and Ronald W. Richardson, Polarization and the Healthier Church: Applying Bowen Family Systems Theory to Conflict and Change in Society and Congregational Life (Toronto: CreateSpace, 2012).

[51] VanVonderen, 37.

[52] Hoffman, 134.

[53] Schaef and Fassel, 67.

[54] Ibid., 118.

[55] Ibid., 125.

[56] St. Romain, 81.

[57] Ibid., 81-83.

[58] Ibid., 41.

[59] Wegscheider-Cruse Cruse, 109.

[60] Ibid., 125-126.

[61] Weinhold and Weinhold, 3.

[62] VanVonderen, 13.

[63] Ibid., 18.

[64] Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (New York: Crown Business, 2002), 177.

[65] Senge, 220.

[66] Senge, 73.

[67] Marquardt, 24.

[68] Robert E. Quinn, Building the Bridge as You Walk on It (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2004), 19.

[69] Ibid., 22.

Tears: Toward a Biblical Theology

Tears: Toward a Biblical Theology


  1. Wesley shortridge



CONTENTS……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… ii

INTRODUCTION……………………………………………………………………………………………………… 1


Religious Views…………………………………………………………………………………………………… 4

Tears in Hebrew Tradition………………………………………………………………………….. 4

Tears in Other Religious Traditions……………………………………………………………… 5

Tears in the Christian Tradition…………………………………………………………………… 7

Tears in Contemporary North American Evangelicalism………………………………… 7

Universal Views of Tears…………………………………………………………………………………. 9

HUMAN TEARS IN THE BIBLE……………………………………………………………………………… 11

THE TEARS OF GOD……………………………………………………………………………………………… 16

God’s Grief and Judgment in the Bible………………………………………………………………….. 16

Jesus as the Expression of God’s Tears………………………………………………………………….. 19

The Relational Nature of Tears…………………………………………………………………………….. 22


TEARS AND CHURCH PRACTICE…………………………………………………………………………. 28

Tears and Worship………………………………………………………………………………………………. 29

Tears and Fellowship…………………………………………………………………………………………… 30

Tears and Discipleship………………………………………………………………………………………… 30

Tears and Mission………………………………………………………………………………………………. 31

CONCLUSION……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 33

SOURCES CONSULTED………………………………………………………………………………………… 34





Tears universally exist across cultures and throughout history. The Bible records many examples of tears both from humans and from God. In this paper I will explore tears in culture and in various religious traditions. I will explore tears in theology and describe some possibilities for improving churches based on a theology of tears. This work is not an exhaustive view of tears in the Bible or in theology. It will, however deal with the key ideas and theological conflicts concerning the subject. Specifically, I will provide a biblical hermeneutic of crying to assist the church to minister to those who cry.



Humans enter the world with tears, and tears provide a primary means of communication for the early parts of life. Kimberly Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley observe, “Among the very earliest expressions of distress in the infant’s range, tears remain a profound existential signifier at all stages of human life, particularly in the face of fear, loss, or despair. Crying is a response of the parasympathetic nervous system that helps return the stimulated organism to homeostasis.”[i] While some primate infants exhibit behavior similar to human crying to summon parental care, humans are the only animals able to cry as adults.[ii] From an evolutionary viewpoint, adult crying manifests as a means of signaling defenselessness and surrender or of summoning help from others within the crier’s social network.[iii] Adult human tears appear as a uniquely human behavioral phenomenon.

Humans often repress tears. Most cultures view crying as weak behavior and gender crying as female. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observes, “Tears are one of the many ways we release our sadness, one of our many wondrous built-in healing mechanisms. Unfortunately, too often we try to stop this necessary and primal release.”[iv] Repressed tears prevent a person from expressing his or her feelings of helplessness and summoning help from others. The result of repression of tears manifests in unhealed persons and in destructive behaviors including addictions and harming others. Ernest Becker observes the human tendency to deny painful realities and replace the healthy processing of reality with destructive behaviors. He writes, “Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death. His banality may protect him, but all through history it is the ‘normal, average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.”[v] Humans cry as an involuntary behavioral response to inner conflict involving feelings of helplessness and the need for social support. Unfortunately many persons repress tears due to social mores or gender expectations. Society usually genders tears as feminine, and subsequently views tears as a sign of weakness in males. Crying seems to signal the surrender of the crier, or crying appears childish. Unfortunately, the repressed tears of those desiring to appear powerful result in the infliction of pain on the weak.

Human adults experiencing inner pain and conflict normally cry. Repression of tears results in deeper feelings of pain. Kübler-Ross writes,  “Unexpressed tears do not go away; their sadness resides in our bodies and souls.”[vi] Socially, however, many equate tears with weakness, and they remind those observing the tears of their own ambiguities and finitude. Humans in modern society almost universally repress tears. The repression of tears results in a society that refuses to be healed. Society transfers its inner hurt onto others, and a cycle of grief begins and the pain increases. The process of grieving and lament as expressed in human crying could intervene. Crying serves as an involuntary response to overwhelming stimuli and ambiguity resulting from overwhelming problems of injustice and death. Crying involves releasing illusions of control and acknowledging ambiguities and denials. Crying subsequently summons and acknowledges powers greater than the crier. These greater powers may be others within a person’s social network, or God. A crier admits powerlessness and calls for power from outside self. Crying recognizes personal finitude and summons the transcendent. Tears require a hermeneutic of interpretation from the crier, the observer, and from society.

Religious Views

Religion as a social phenomenon emerges from the human tendency to explain the unexplainable and summon power greater than self or a person’s immediate social network. Most world religions view tears as a sign of personal surrender and summoning of power greater than self. For this reason, it seems reasonable to assume secularization under Modernity, which exalts personal power and denies any higher power, drives much repression of tears and mourning rituals. Tears, however, serve as a universal human expression and the benefits of the expression diminish when repressed. Secular humanism in its view of humanity as the highest form of existence leaves society weak through its denial of any power able to transcend its pain. Patton and Hawley observe,  “Often tears seem an expression of surrender before the inexorable, but myth and tradition repeatedly point in the opposite direction, stressing the view that weeping can actually transform what had seemed fixed forever.”[vii] Tears point firmly to the unexplainable and transcendent. They acknowledge ambiguity. Humans desiring to exalt humanity to godlike status would reasonable repress tears. Herbert W. Basser writes, “The mystery of crying is that through tears the outside world and the interior worlds merge deep inside the human spirit. That is why tears are the medium of a theology that must remain unspoken. To explain tears is to explain them away.”[viii] God acknowledges the unexplainable and finite nature of life and gifts humans with tears to express their finitude and anxiety.

Tears in Hebrew Tradition

Hebrew concepts of tears divide into two concepts: weeping as an uncontrollable behavior and crying as a behavior resulting from many causes including controlled response to an external stimulus.[ix] To the Jewish mind, Humans cry as a sacrifice to God. God stores a person’s tears in order to resurrect the mourner along with his or her righteous tears.[x] Tears relate to worship. The notes of the shofar used to summon Jews to worship mimic the sounds of weeping.[xi]

Hebrew worship centered on the temple. After the destruction of the temple, tears replaced temple sacrifice as an expression of worship. Jewish pilgrims at the modern Wailing Wall provide an example. Post-temple worship involves God joining the worshipper in tears rather than temple ritual. Basser observes, “While tears signal exile and destruction, they have come to replace that for which they mourn. The substitution of the sacrificial system by tears is a very important theme.”[xii] Unexplainable loss and sorrow form a core concept in Jewish religion that acknowledges the ambiguities of life in light of God’s yet unfulfilled promises. Nancy Van Dyke Platt and Chilton R. Knudsen observe,

In Jewish practices of spirituality, even in the happiest moments of life, there is a reminder of sorrow and pain: “We were slaves in a foreign land.” Rituals such as the crushing of a glass at a wedding remind us of the pain and suffering of life. Christians say the same thing as they hold crucifixion in tension with resurrection, and in the traditional marriage vows with addition of the words, “for better or worse” and “until death do us part.”[xiii]


Expressions of grief and loss appear throughout Jewish practice.

Tears in Other Religious Traditions

In Buddhist practice tears signal spiritual enlightenment. Gary L. Ebersole observes, “Some tears lead to deep religious understanding, some marked the person shedding them as having achieved a specific spiritual state, and still others functioned as signs of spiritual indebtedness to another person or of another karmic connection.”[xiv] To the Buddhist, tears fulfill the core needs of reaching for the transcendent and for social support. Tears themselves indicate transcendental enlightened experience.

In Greek tradition platonic dualism creates sharp distinctions between ideals and experienced reality. Tears function as a bridge between the ideal world of the gods and human life. Gary Ord Pollock Lynch states that tears in Greek tradition  “cross the boundaries between the visible and invisible worlds and make possible the contact between the living and the dead.”[xv] Human emotion, especially grief, transcends the unexplainable and acknowledges that things are not as they should be. Tears acknowledge human weakness and point to the perfect forms in Greek ideology.

Kay Almere Read observes the tribal traditions of the Mexica Indians. They viewed tears as “honorable or good speech” able to call forth good things by moving the deities to assist the crier if crying was done properly.[xvi] Tears provided a powerful expression of worship that summoned the assistance of the gods. The crier sacrificed before the gods and the gods empowered the crier through the sacrificial expression of weakness.

The Gopī Krishna tradition in India provides a view of religious tears in which a person chooses to cry in order to summon the help of the gods.[xvii] Tears in the Gopī tradition occurred as a response to death or the severing of society. Tears marked a call to transcendence. The Gopī tradition did not see tears as a block to communication but an actual means of communication. The crier crafted numerous elaborate expressions of as communication to a crier’s society and to the gods.

In Islamic tradition tears appear as a uniquely human expression of submission to Allah. Human tears on Earth lead to laughter in heaven while laughter on Earth leads to tears in the afterlife.[xviii] Allah in Muslim tradition cannot cry as he exhibits no weakness. To the Muslim, tears express Allah’s greatness and human weakness. William C. Chittick observes, “Nowhere does Islamic literature, so far as I know, suggest that God weeps.”[xix] Tears in Islam function as in other religions as an expression of human finitude and the hope of transcendence.

Tears in the Christian Tradition

Christian history provides several examples of tears as religious speech. The writings of the Patristic Fathers (John Chrysostem, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea) suggest that tears moved in Christian tradition from their original purpose as a response to God’s grace to an expression of human finitude and loss.[xx] The Dessert Fathers viewed tears as a grace from God and a tribute to God.[xxi] Tears joined prayer as a core expression of faith under the Desert Fathers. Bishop Kallistos Ware observes that Paul prayed without ceasing while the Dessert Fathers wept without ceasing.[xxii]

Later expressions of Christianity further linked tears with prayer. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona observes the Rule of St. Benedict initiated the concept of gratia lacrimarum in which tears occurred as a gift from God to the church.[xxiii] Under Benedict’s rule, tears must accompany effective prayer. Benedict’s rule evolved into the medieval cult of tears in which tears formed a primary religious expression indicating the piety of the crier. Many, for example, attributed St. Francis’ blindness in old age to excessive crying rather than old age.[xxiv] Tears in Christian tradition expressed human finitude, the fellowship of believers, and the hope of a transcendent God.

Tears in Contemporary North American Evangelicalism

Current expressions of faith in North American Evangelical churches frequently deny grief and tears as a legitimate expression of faith. Perhaps secularization and modernity has influenced religious practice and replaced transcendent longing with triumphalism. Douglas John Hall observes much of the Evangelical attitude toward tears. He writes,  “The purveyors of electronic religion urge us to submit to their gods and their formulas, all of which promise slightly differing versions of the same pain-free life.”[xxv] He further observes disconnect between North American Christianity and ancient tradition. He writes,

As Christians in the North American situation we are obligated to consider this issue very carefully; for, being a society whose foundational assumptions are those of modernity—whose fundamental “religion” has been identified with “the religion of progress”—we must face the prospect of there being a radical incompatibility between our cultural presuppositions and the ancient faith-tradition we blithely claim as our own.[xxvi]


Hall observes the tendency to remove emotion from current expressions of Christianity as a move toward religious triumphalism and away from biblical faith. He continues,

Given the biblical testimony to at least a thousand years of such religious longing, now complemented by almost two thousand additional years of Christian triumphalism, we ought to need no further reminder of the basic distinction between religion and faith. It is the propensity of religion to avoid, precisely, suffering: to have light without darkness, vision without trust, and risk, hope without an ongoing dialog with despair—in short, Easter without Good Friday.[xxvii]


Tears as an expression of faith seem lost in most contemporary practice. Tears reveal human weakness and many refuse to acknowledge personal weakness in the current environment of self-empowering religion.

Hall observes several consequences of the tendency to repress expressions of suffering: difficulty in articulating personal suffering, inability to enter into the suffering of others, and a search for an enemy.[xxviii] The issues of weak discipleship, healing, relationships, and evangelism in contemporary churches may relate directly to the repression of authentic emotion. Rather than address human weakness in the midst of the worship service through tears, the church seems more content looking for a political enemy. Blind triumphalism has repressed human authenticity at the cost of healing, discipleship, fellowship, and mission. Tears in North American Evangelicalism seem to be more equated with modernity’s blind faith in human triumphalism than authentic expression of faith in a transcendent God. The church tragically ignores many within the church and community in their suffering. Hall concludes,  “Thus, we have come upon a moment in history in which not suffering as such but the incapacity to suffer—including the incapacity to acknowledge, accept, and articulate suffering—may be the most terrifying social reality, the thing that determines the fate of the earth.”[xxix]

The current practices of singing happy songs and preaching self-help messages seem far away from the traditional practices of lament that signal human frailty in light of God’s transcendence. Triumphalist expressions that deny current reality have replaced genuine connection with a transcendent God in many cases. The contemporary church often defines God’s grace as material blessing and the absence of suffering rather than God’s fellowship with suffering believers. Fellowship among believers has diminished and the missional effectiveness of a church has declined as the church has failed to connect with culture through shared suffering. God gives the church the gift of tears to express fellowship with a transcendent God who is present in suffering, fellowship among believers, and fellowship with a suffering world.

Universal Views of Tears

Humans communicate through tears. Communication requires a hermeneutic. Throughout history humans have primarily interpreted tears as transcendent longing in which humans acknowledge frailty and summon the transcendent. Apostolos-Cappadona observes,

Our interpretive as well as our communicative skills are critical here, as the exteriority of tears connotes one message to the viewers of the tearful individual while the interiority denotes a different message to the person engaged in shedding tears. Therefore a hermeneutic of tears becomes necessary, as distinctive messages are sent when one views another person’s tears and when one sheds one’s own tears. What may prove to be most significant is that the visible arousal of fluid from the human eye accompanies an internal feeling or emotion to which the viewer of another’s tears responds with empathy, embarrassment, helplessness, or disdain. The reality of tears for the weeper is a transcending experience, as her attention is shifted away from the intellect to the fused external and internal reality of her body while the multiplicity of emotions, feelings, and ideas is embodied within the metaphor of tears; most significantly, that is, within the visual metaphor of tears.[xxx]


Many current hermeneutics of tears in North American Evangelicalism interpret tears more like modern secular humanism than biblical or other world religions would interpret them. In failing to live within the ambiguity of faith that looks to God while hoping for eschatological fullness, the Church has often substituted triumphalism and pretending for authentic faith. The North American Church seems to value human autonomy over summoning the help of God through tears. Culture increasingly acknowledges ambiguity in Postmodernism, but the Church clings to triumphalism and Modernism that suppresses tears. Logic and humanism replace emotion and faith. Most cultures and religions acknowledge human frailty. Tears summon the gods in most cultures.




The tears of humans appear throughout the Bible. Human tears generally represent humility (Ps. 80:5, Acts 20:19), frustration (Jer. 9:1), and disappointment (Lam. 1:16).[xxxi] The primary Hebrew terms used to express tears are “bakah” meaning weeping or bemoaning and “dim’ah” meaning the physical act of crying.[xxxii] The word “dim’ah” specifically means tears already shed or actively being shed.[xxxiii] The Hebrew terms reflect the concept of weeping as an uncontrollable act of emotion and crying as a more controllable or even conscious choice for the crier. The New Testament primarily uses the term “dakruo” for tears. The term encompasses both the idea of weeping and physical tears.[xxxiv]

The Bible first mentions human crying in Genesis 4:10. The concept of human suffering, however, appears in some form throughout creation. The Fall in Eden resulted in much human suffering, but the primary elements of suffering and tears appear in Eden prior to the Fall. Douglas John Hall points out that suffering existed in a limited form prior to the Fall as the loneliness of Adam before Eve, the limits of creation, the temptation represented by the fruit, and the anxiety of the possibility of transgressing God’s limits.[xxxv] The essence of the emotion expressed by tears manifests in Hall’s observations, and it seems reasonable to assume the original humans expressed anxiety and loneliness through tears. Humans exist as limited creatures dependent on God, and tears express the human condition from the start. Life involves suffering. Hall observes, “Life without any kind of suffering would be no life at all; it would be a form of death. Life—the life of the spirit like the life of the body—depends in some mysterious way upon the struggle to be.”[xxxvi] The “struggle to be” forms the essence of the emotion expressed in tears.

The Bible first mentions human tears specifically with the tears of the blood of the slain Abel crying out to God. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10).[xxxvii] The blood of Abel calls to God from injustice and brings God’s intervention with the murderous Cain. Patrick Miller observes, “So at the very beginning of the human story and of the biblical story—and they really are one and the same story—the voice of the suffering one, the brother, who cries out for help, is what brings God on the scene, what initiates a divine response.”[xxxviii] In Genesis 4 crying expresses hopelessness and summons God to work for the hopeless. Miller describes the voice of the already dead Abel as a voice “that warns us against assuming that the only laments that matter are those where there is still possibility of help, that once the suffering has destroyed the human creature it is too late, nothing can be done, God cannot and will not help.”[xxxix] The Bible first mentions tears as a clear human expression of powerlessness and of longing for God’s intervention.

The poetry of the Book of Job expresses the concept of human suffering and longing for God’s righteous intervention. Job cries out from the ash heap of ruin in the clear context of undeserved suffering. To some extent the suffering results from God’s work in his life, and the suffering in human perspective seems the ultimate of injustice at the hand of God. Job’s friends attempt to explain the suffering and stop Job’s lament, but Job cries out nonetheless. Kathleen O’Conner observes, “The real subject of the Book of Job and the crux of the human problem for Israel is not human suffering, but human relationship with God in the midst of suffering.”[xl] Tears to Job express his relatedness with a God he does not comprehend. The tears themselves express the righteousness of Job in the face of an overwhelming and incomprehensible situation. Ultimately, “Lament grants Job admission to a dialogue with God.”[xli] Provisional dualism exists within the story of Job that permits “the negating dimension an independent role in the service of the positive.”[xlii] Provisional dualism expressed as good and evil exists from the Gardens of Eden and Gethsemane. Provisional dualism provides the tension driving human tears. Job’s story expresses the biblical concept of eschatological longing expressed in tears. Hall writes, “Like Satan in the poem of Job, that which threatens and negates life is intended, in the wisdom of the Creator, for the service of a more abundant life.”[xliii] Tears express and call forth the promise of abundant life. Job’s tears eventually call forth God’s response and restoration. Ellington observes, “While Job’s friends tried to insulate and distance God (and themselves) from Job’s pain by speaking correctly about God, Job spoke what was right to God, with the result that he received not an answer to his questions, but a fresh encounter with his creator.”[xliv] Tears in the religious practice of Job form righteous speech before God expressing longing for God’s presence and justice. Job’s friends express longing for answers and control while Job longs for God in cries of lament.

Human cries find fuller expression in the Psalms. Lament Psalms express human discontent as they cry out for God’s intervention. Nancy J. Duff observes the primary characteristics of Psalms of lament as they commonly “challenge our inability to acknowledge the intense emotions that grief entails, free us to make a bold expression of grief before God and in the presence of others, and allow us to rely on God and the community to carry forth hope on our behalf when we ourselves have no hope with us.”[xlv] Like Job’s laments the Psalms express human longing and finitude that calls God alongside suffering. The act of crying in lament calls forth God. The biblical record provides many examples of crying patriarchs, kings, and common people expressing the tension between reality and life as God promises.

Crying in prophetic literature expresses another dimension of tears. The prophets express the heart of God’s longing through tears. God commands Isaiah to cry as a prophetic act. “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:6-8). Isaiah prophetically stands between God and men and expresses his position as intermediary through tears commanded by God. Men appear weak and fading but God stands eternal. The tears of Isaiah express both the longing of humanity for God and of God for restored relationship with humanity. The tears stand as a common expression of longing for both God and man. Jeremiah likewise expresses his position as prophetic intermediary through tears. He asks for more tears as a further expression to the people that God stands alongside their suffering. “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1). To the biblical prophet tears express prophetically the shared grief between God and humanity.

Jesus stands as the great prophetic intermediary between God and humanity. Rachel’s inconsolable tears herald His arrival. Matthew draws from the words of Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18). Human tears herald and complete Jesus’ mission. Jesus questions Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (John 20:15). Kimberly Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley state that Mary Magdalene’s tears express “the central existential challenges of human existence: how to deal with both the presence and absence of God.”[xlvi] Jesus lives life alongside human tears seeking to navigate the presence of God in the human condition.

The Early Church in scripture encounters suffering and expresses the ambiguity of suffering through tears. The Early Christians were called “people of the way.” The temporality and nature of Christianity finds expression as a journey involving tears. Peter, for example, expresses Christianity in terms of certain suffering in both First and Second Peter. Much of the Epistles deal with the tension between the eschatological promises of God and the reality of suffering. Tears serve as a primary expression of the reality of Christian existence in the “now and not yet.” Tears express the longing for eschatological completeness paid for on the Cross and promised in Revelation. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Those who have endured great tribulation will experience newness with God. Saints cry real tears that express longing for complete relational restoration. God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17). Until that day, tears express the longing of sincere persons of faith for completeness as they live in the reality of the present. Patrick D. Miller observes, “Theologically the cry to God and the response of God are the fundamental theme of the whole of scripture.”[xlvii] Miller continues, “It is only in that eschatological transformation that the Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth that the pain and tears of suffering are wiped away and death is no more. Until then, human beings will cry out and God will hear. This is indeed the primary mode of conversation between God and the human creature.”[xlviii] God gracefully gives humans tears to express the longing common to humanity and call forth His presence in the midst of current suffering.




World religions almost universally view human tears as an acknowledgment of human suffering and longing for transcendent power in suffering. The Judeo-Christian tradition however demonstrates a unique view of God as sharing in suffering and expressing the shared suffering through tears. Nicholas Wolterstorff states, “The tears of God are the meaning of history.”[xlix] He continues, “Every act of evil extracts a tear form God, every plunge into anguish extracts a sob from God. But also the history of our world is the history of our deliverance together.”[l] Human tears universally express finitude and longing. The idea that an infinite and omnipotent God could cry raises several interesting theological challenges.


God’s Grief and Judgment in the Bible

The reality of Christian existence involves numerous tensions. God’s omnipresence conflicts with His hiddenness. God’s omnipotence conflicts with the reality that suffering exists even among the righteous. God’s transcendence and immanence conflict in human reason. Tears express the mystery of the conflicting tensions of God as He exists and as He appears to humans in the present. The Bible reveals part of the mystery of God’s complete existence and as He exists as a God involved in His creation. “God is revealed to us as the involved one already in Genesis 1:2 with his spirit brooding over the face of the waters.”[li] The tension between formlessness and creation evokes brooding in God. As in human longing, God’s longing appears from the start in God’s creative work.

God expresses grief over creation early in the biblical narrative. “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6) God appears in the narrative as a God who “is disappointed and angry at the beings whom He has created but still is actually pained at their condition and possibility of the idea of hurting them.”[lii] God does not appear as a wrathful God but as a God who longs for relationship with humans who have rejected Him. Judgment of humans grieves God. The nature of human free will presents the possibility of a God who suffers in the face of rejection by His creation. God’s involvement with humans provides the possibility of divine suffering. The tears of God present a central theme in the ontology of creation. Jürgen Moltman states, “A God who cannot suffer is poorer than any human. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved.”[liii] The tension between God’s involvement with creation and His hiddenness from creation drives the suffering tears of God. Ellington writes, “For God to be both present and active in history would be to destroy the wicked without hope of repentance and to eliminate free will.”[liv] God painfully maintains some separation from rebellious humanity because His complete presence would destroy the object of His love. The tragedy of creation evokes the tears of God. His hiddenness causes His pain. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa. 45:15).

The Old Testament frequently points to God’s regret and repentance. The concept presents another aspect of God’s tears. Ellington writes that the terms relate to God’s lament and grief over the constraint necessary in His relationship with humans and in the loss of the relationship He desires.[lv] The Bible frequently uses the Hebrew term “hamah” to express God’s grief. The term is frequently translated as murmur, growl, groan, or roar.[lvi] An example of grief in tension with judgment expressed by God occurs in Jeremiah, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:20). God’s grief appears in the tension between transcendence and immanence that maintains some relationship with His creation while preventing the utter destruction of creation through His direct presence. God cries because of the necessary veil between Him and humans.

God addresses the tension by establishing covenants with His people. Within the boundaries of covenant God hopes to establish renewed relationship. Ellington observes, “By entering into a covenant, God chooses a closer relationship with his people, while at the same time surrendering somewhat of his freedom and opening himself to constraint and hurt.”[lvii] Those in covenant with God sadly still choose to violate God’s covenants. God reveals Himself to His people through covenants, but the covenant people choose to reject the relationship sought by God. In the metaphor of a marriage covenant, God accepts the risk of loving a creature with free will and finds the pain of rejection. Ellington points to the tears of God as the power for rebuilding relationship. He states,  “After the betrayal of adultery, Israel’s marriage can only be salvaged and rebuilt by the tears of God.”[lviii] God’s wrath towards humanity is restorative not punitive. Ellington continues, “Wrath that is born of pain carries with it the hope that the relationship can be repaired and continue. The cry of lament on the lips of God is a creative word…”[lix] God’s tears demonstrate His desire to restore relationship. They express the same longing as human tears.

The fact that God experiences emotions presents a mystery for further exploration. The mystery finds its revelation in the person of Christ. Biblically, “God suffers because God would be with us, and suffering is our condition.”[lx] Many traditional theologies emphasize the immutability of God at the expense of His emotions. The traditional assumption that emotions represent possibility conflicts with the idea of an eternal God who does not change. God in many views must transcend human emotion. An emotionless God, however, fails to be a living God dwelling with His creation. Joseph M. Hallman observes,  “To be absolutely at rest is to be dead. God is eternally alive and never at rest in the divine governance. Therefore God is not corrupted by emotions, but God is a living God precisely because of them.”[lxi] The tears of God point to a living God who longs to dwell in relationship with a rebellious people.

Jesus as the Expression of God’s Tears

Christian theology presents Jesus as the exact representation of God on Earth. The tears of Jesus therefore represent the tears of God. Jesus cries in John 11:35 as He stands outside Lazarus’ tomb facing human loss and death. Jesus weeps over the rebellion and coming destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). He cries out to God with “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7). Isaiah describes Him as “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus stands in scripture as the bridge between man and God, and the bridge firmly rests on the shared tears of both God and man in the person of Jesus. Patrick Miller states, “The human lament on the lips of Jesus is one of the primary incarnational clues in all of scripture.”[lxii] Lament itself in Miller’s view is part of the work and person of Christ and the chief clue that “Christ died not simply as one of us but also as one for us, both with us and in our behalf.”[lxiii]

Greek influence on Christian thought left the church with many debates that distract from the core message that Jesus suffers with humanity. The mystery of the incarnation transcends Greek philosophy however and points to a God capable of suffering with and for humans. Hallman presents many early Christian debates on the nature of the incarnation in light of suffering in the person of Christ. The errors of Arius, Docetism, and the like represent attempts to explain suffering in the person of Christ in the framework of the Greek ideal of the impassability of God.[lxiv] Hallman concludes that contra Greek philosophy the paradox of the church’s theology results from the suffering and tears of God. He states, “In spite of the divine attributes of perfect changelessness and the incapacity to suffer, God’s divine Word did somehow suffer with us and for us.”[lxv] Hall observes that past the historical debates of homoousios and theotokos lies the truth that “God identifies with humanity.”[lxvi] Hallman explains the mystery by stating that the incarnational suffering of Christ involve a change of quality (morphē) that was a proslēpsis or addition to rather than a metabolē or transformation of nature.[lxvii] In other words, the tears of Jesus and the emotion of God add to His nature rather than transform His nature. God has, through His relationship with humans, demonstrated perfect love through the possibility and genuine expression of grief over the loss of human fellowship. The suffering of Christ in a unique way bridges the gap between fallen humanity and a perfect God as fallen humanity finds forgiveness through a perfect God who experiences the emotion of loss.

Liberation theology addresses human suffering. In liberation Christology “The hermeneutical key to understanding the death of Jesus is the identification of the Crucified One with the crucified peoples.”[lxviii] A God who cries with His people forms an essential concept to the oppressed people of liberation theology. Sammy Alfaro continues,

On the cross, the Jesus of history reveals a suffering God who fulfills his purposes in history through weakness and love, and not retribution and force. Through the cross, God participates in the suffering of the world and it is this act of solidarity that the crucified peoples can find a hope for the future. The hope for the crucified peoples is faith in the resurrection of the crucified One.[lxix]


Unlike triumphalist western theology, the essential nature of many theologies in oppressed culture forms around the shared suffering and tears of Christ. Latin American feminine Mujerista theology establishes a Christology that emphasizes shared suffering in the “kin-dom” of God, the “Familia de Dios.” Mujerista Christology focuses on the compassionate suffering Brother, the faithful Companion of the suffering. Latinos frequently merge Jesus’ name into “Jesucristo” a blending of the human Jesus and the anointed Christ that emphasizes daily walking with the suffering. God appears as both human and divine sufferer.[lxx] The Roman Catholic emphasis on the suffering Christ on the crucifix reminds followers of Christ’s fellowship in suffering.

God shares human emotion and cries with humanity. Jesus appears as the ultimate expression of God’s desire for relationship with humans. Ellington observes, “The death of the impassable and passionless God has made room for a God who raises others from the dead, but only after he himself has laid down and died.”[lxxi] The Cross “makes suffering integral to the divine nature.”[lxxii] Jesus represents both the answer of God to human tears and the response of God to His own tears. Humans, like Job, cry out for answers and instead find the Person of Christ. Douglas John Hall writes, “The only satisfying answer is the one given to Job—the answer that is no answer but is the presence of the Answerer. It does not matter that the Answerer brings more questions than answers; for the answer is not the words as such but the living Word—the Presence itself.”[lxxiii] Jesus answers human tears by entering human suffering. Calvin Miller writes, “Jesus did not leave the world a get-well card, he got sick with it. He didn’t exempt himself from the pain he would later have to heal. He is in this hellish life with us, and further has guaranteed that his victory over all things negative has foreshadowed and guaranteed our own ultimate victory.”[lxxiv] Jesus wept with the mourners outside Lazarus’ tomb, He wept over Jerusalem, He wept over the cross, and He weeps with those who weep today.

The Relational Nature of Tears

Platonism and Aristotelian thinking influenced early Christianity in its concept of the “unmoved mover.” An omnipotent god could not actually suffer as the deity could simply address the cause of suffering. A suffering deity implies a deity less than fully god, as the deity is less than omnipotent. Greek thinking stresses the omnipotence of God at the expense of the omnipresence of God. To the Greek mind, a god must demonstrate infinite transcendence and remain untouched by humanity or emotions as an expression of the god’s limitless power. In human grief, Greek thinking creates tensions and problems. Tears on the face of an omnipotent God who could alleviate the suffering and longing causing the tears leaves the suffering person facing a God who cruelly will not address the suffering. The idea of shared tears presents either a God who is less than omnipotent, cruel, or in the case of Christianity a God who desires omnipresence more than omnipotence. God desires to know humans and be known by humans through shared presence. Moltmann observes, “A God who is only omnipotent is in himself an incomplete being, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlessness…A man who experiences helplessness, a man who suffers because he loves, a man who can die, is therefore a richer being than an omnipotent God who cannot suffer, cannot love, and cannot die.”[lxxv] When God does not powerfully address human suffering, He seeks to be known in the situation. He remains omnipresent in that He remains present in the suffering as a fellow sufferer. The attributes of omnipresence and omnipotence can at times in this world create a mystery of mutually exclusivity.

The Greek concept of knowing appears primarily in the word “ginoskein” which means to stand back from something or someone and know it objectively.[lxxvi] The primary Hebrew concept of knowing stands in contrast to the Greek concept. The Hebrew word “yada” expresses knowing through experience or relationship.[lxxvii] To the Greek mind and much of contemporary society knowing God equates with knowing about God. God’s desire to know humanity proves absurd to the Greek mind, as He would already know all about any individual. His omniscience compromises His omnipresence. Hebrew thought presents a God who wants to know humans in a voluntary relationship. He wants to experience life together with His creation. Suffering and tears do not indicate a weak God but a relational God. Tears shared between God and humans lead to deeper relationship. Suffering and tears therefore fulfill the purpose of addressing both human and divine longing for relational wholeness. Paul addresses the aspect of shared suffering with God as relational wholeness. He writes, “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).

Tears in Christian theology place God, humans, and the relationship between the two in the mysterious place of living theology rather than analytical and dogmatic theology. The answer to the problem of God’s tears appears in shared suffering rather than triumphalist dogma that fails to explain human reality. God desires relationship so much that He allows the object of His relational desire to suffer, and He desires to enter the suffering with His creation. Ellington writes, “It is the nature of belief to be constructive, it is the nature of suffering and loss to prevent those constructs from becoming monolithic. And it is through the practice of lament that the fluidity and flexibility of our beliefs are maintained.”[lxxviii] Tears keep theology from becoming an academic science. No matter how objectively the theologian approaches God he or she encounters the subjective reality of pain and loss that drives him or her to shared tears with God. A hermeneutic of tears requires a living theology that stresses encounter. Robby Waddell observes, “A Pentecostal theological hermeneutic has less to do with Greek philosophy than with theophany, a divine encounter, a revelation, an experience with the living God.”[lxxix] Ellington concludes, “When we lift the platonic veil, we find a God who willingly risks relationship, with all its awkwardness and uncertainty.”[lxxx] God lays aside omnipotence for omnipresence in the suffering of humanity. God enters into human suffering and longs for relationship with those He has allowed to rebel. God cries with humanity.



Pentecostalism rose from the margins of society and still finds much of its growth among the suffering and marginalized. Unlike liberation theology, which simply addressed the presence of God alongside human suffering, Pentecostalism both placed God alongside suffering and promised power for alleviating the condition of humanity in the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism firmly addresses the ambiguities of life with the active presence of God. It addresses the ambiguity of human suffering and God’s presence and the mysterious balance between omnipotence and omnipresence. Andrew Davies observes, “Pentecostalism requires a God on the loose, involving himself with the fine details of our earthly existence and actively transforming lives. I think Pentecostal theology, in both its systematic and more popular forms, requires a degree of uncertainty.”[lxxxi] North American Pentecostalism, however, has often embraced Evangelical thought and promoted pragmatic results rather than relational wholeness. The upward mobility of North American Pentecostals may present the greatest danger to a message that balances God’s presence with God’s power to the weeping margins.

Tears and glossolalia share some common linguistic characteristics. Tears are a unique form of linguistics. They communicate complex meaning and can be interpreted. The emotional nature of tears suggests a communication theory that transcends spoken language. Elaine Scarry observes,  “To witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre-language of cries and groans is to witness the destruction of language; but conversely, to be present when a person moves up out of that pre-language and projects the facts of sentience into speech is almost to have been permitted to be present at the birth of language itself.”[lxxxii] John Stratton Hawley observes that tears “communicate precisely because they are not rhetorical strategies.”[lxxxiii] To Medieval Christians tears formed a “para-language…distinguished as a mysterious yet meaningful ‘language’ that transcends words and gestures.”[lxxxiv] Similar to glossolalia in the Early Church or in current Pentecostalism, tears express worship and longing transcending speech. In classical Pentecostalism altar services involved a complex interchange between tears, glossolalia, and celebration. Tears and glossolalia represent longing for something more than currently experienced, and both point to the hope of restored relationship.

The issue of subsequence, a common debate in Spirit baptism, also appears in historical theologies of tears. The Eastern Orthodox tradition generally viewed tears as a “second baptism.” The issue of tears in Eastern Orthodox tradition raises a question similar to the issue of subsequence in Pentecostal doctrine. Bishop Kallistos Ware asks concerning tears in the Eastern Orthodox tradition,  “Does this second baptism of tears confer a new grace, distinct from the grace bestowed through sacramental baptism in the font, or is the grace of the second baptism simply the realization and fulfillment of the grace originally received in sacramental baptism?”[lxxxv] Through the lens of tears the issue for both Eastern Orthodox criers and Pentecostals might be addressed. Tears express a deeper longing for something not currently experienced. On Earth, the longing for completeness remains. The religious seeker looks for wholeness in a deeper encounter with God. In tears and in glossolalia, humans acknowledge frailty and seek God. The crier admits human weakness and summons the transcendent God. Crying and tongues both acknowledge God’s continued work in humans and the need for His presence. Tongues and crying may form from the same human needs and may both lead to the same deepened relationship with God. The question of why a Christian would cry and why a Christian should seek a heavenly language may both come from the same human longing for God and from God’s longing for human relationship.



Tears function as a gift operating within the church. Albert Y. Hsu observes, “In lament our raw emotions are ordered, disciplined, and transformed.”[lxxxvi] Tears express reality within a community. Ellington writes, “Prayers of lament function to adjudicate the tension created between beliefs about God and experiences of God’s silence and abandonment that call those beliefs into question.”[lxxxvii] He continues, “Lament declares boldly that everything is not all right, that God has not delivered, and that he has hidden his face from his people.”[lxxxviii] Tears lead the church to acknowledge the reality of its place between God’s promised future and present reality. The emotionalism of tears presents difficult to explain reality. The subjective breaks through the objective illusion.

Tears secondly function to call out to God. When emotional tears move past fear and hurt they move toward prayers of lament that turn the crier toward the God who joins the crier in his or her tears. Tears summon the gods in most religions, and in Christianity they likewise turn the crier towards God and allow the crier to experience God through shared tears. Hsu writes, “Lament also focuses our grief in the proper direction—it turns us toward God.”[lxxxix] In God’s presence tears become the relational bridge between the crier and God in spite of the fact that God chooses not to address the crier’s petition with His power. He addresses the petition of the crier with His presence before His power. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “My pain over my son’s death is shared by his pain over my son’s death. And, yes, I share in his pain over his son’s death.”[xc] Tears mingle human and divine pain. Wolterstorff continues, “Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.”[xci] Without the tears of loss a person cannot encounter the God who suffers.

Tears finally initiate a change process in the crier. In lamenting a loss, the possibility of newness appears. Ellington writes, “To risk both the loss of the old and the uncertainty of the new requires an act of faith and courage; it requires the act of lament.”[xcii] Ellington calls lament “risky” because it “abandons all pretense of excuse, denial, or cover-ups.”[xciii] Lament therefore leaves the old behind and seeks the new. All change requires lament. Ellington concludes, “The language of lament does that which is impossible for ordinary language; it destroys one world while laying the groundwork for the birth of another.”[xciv]

The Church renews through acknowledging present realities, calling to God for His presence and power in the tension between reality and vision, and managing the change process. Tears form an essential part of each step in renewal for individuals and for the church.

Tears and Worship

Tears call God alongside suffering. As a grace to believers they, like tongues, can function to promote worship in the church community. The church worships when it acknowledges realities and shares God’s suffering. Worshippers must worship in Spirit and truth. Western Christianity, however tends to favor the upbeat expressions of worship that tend to deny the present reality of many struggling somewhere in the faith journey. The practice of shared suffering with humans and God in a worship setting presents many possibilities for renewal. Hall writes, “Suffering is necessary for the body of Christ—and is one indispensable mark of its authenticity—because there is still suffering in God’s beloved world, and God would still be involved in it.”[xcv] Perhaps, the traditional liturgical expressions of confession and acknowledgment that we as humans have failed to live in God’s standards provide an expression of lament that could reenergize worship. The celebration so often sought in North American churches proves incomplete without the process of shared lament as a community and seeking God’s presence alongside congregational tears. Celebration comes after lament. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes,

Sometimes when the cry is intense, there emerges a radiance which elsewhere seldom appears: a glow of courage, of love, of insight, of selflessness, of faith. In that radiance we see best what humanity was meant to be. That the radiance emerges from acquaintance with grief is a blessing to others is familiar, though perplexing: How can we treasure the radiance while struggling against what brought it about?[xcvi]

Tears and Fellowship

Tears function in Psychology as a “social lubricant” that helps to “ensure the smooth functioning of community by helping people communicate.”[xcvii] Tears often communicate much clearer than words, and they tend to draw observers into the grief of the crier. Tears within the church function to draw people into shared humanity and shared searching for God’s presence in the tears. They serve to acknowledge the common journey and common hope felt by all humans. They transcend church programs that help suffering people and simply call people to share the suffering. Stanley Hauerwas observes that Christians have no “solution” to the problem of suffering; they have “a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations.”[xcviii]

Tears and Discipleship

Repentance precedes discipleship. Repentance involves sorrow over past transgressions. Often the church functions more as an excuse maker for past errors as it tries to place blame on a person’s past or social environment. The church in this case functions more like a psychologist than a community of faith. At the other extreme appears the tendency towards cheap grace that fails to acknowledge the reality of broke humanity and places salvation in terms of contractual obligation on the part of God rather than on relationship. Relationship involves ambiguities and growth. Both result in sorrow over the tensions and the failings of the past. Tears form an essential part of the discipleship process. Ellington writes,  “Until pain is exposed and grief expressed, there can be no move toward renewal.”[xcix] He continues, “Experiences of suffering are a crucial part of our maturation both as human beings and as covenant partners with God.”[c]

Relationship with God and other believers produces discipleship. The community of discipleship lives as more than simply recipients of grace. The community lives as ones who look together to God for relationship that actively transforms. Hall writes,

It is possible, however, to err also on the side of the principle of differentiation, and to make Christ so transcendent, so discontinuous with his “body,” that Christians come to conceive themselves as recipients of grace rather than participants in grace…It is the danger precisely of  “cheap grace”—grace as theory, as principle, as doctrine: a grace which not only implies no inherent praxis but functions exactly to discourage participation.[ci]


The tears of the faith community allow it to live in the delicate balance of relationship that acknowledges past sin but seeks renewal.

Tears and Mission

Alister McGrath identifies six points of contact between the gospel and culture: a sense of unsatisfied longing, human rationality, the ordering of the world, human morality, existential anxiety, and the awareness of finitude and mortality.[cii] Triumphalism and fundamentalism emphasize the separation of the church from its world. Tears, however, allow the church to share the suffering of the world’s sense of longing, existential anxiety, and awareness of finitude and mortality. The world cries and will see God best in the church unafraid to reflect God’s tears for the world in its practice. Lament draws the outsider into the presence of the God who weeps with them. The church has often focused on solving the world’s problems in triumphal proclamation of God’s power when in many cases the church simply needs to come alongside the world’s tears and be present in the tears. The church has often avoided hurt in society for which it has no pragmatic solution. Evangelism to the margins requires boldly entering into other’s suffering and allowing the sufferer to experience the God who cries with them in the presence of the church.



The church that understand the relational nature of tears will be better equipped to minister to the suffering persons in its community. The Christian that understands tears will also be better able to connect with God when the time comes for their own tears. This paper has explored some primary themes related to tears. Further exploration on the primary theological conflicts related to God’s tears and further work in applying the theology to church practice would be beneficial to the church community. While I did not specifically deal with suffering and tears, further research could be done to the specific issues related to suffering and evil as they relate to the human and divine response of crying. This paper begins an exploration of the phenomenon of tears and will equip readers with basics for the certain time in their future when their own tears overwhelm their thinking.




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[i] Kimberley Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley, Introduction to Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 1.

[ii] Mark Van Vught, “Why Only Humans Weep: The Science Behind Our Tears,” Psychology Today, (accessed May 12, 2014).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss (New York: Scribner, 2005), 42.

[v] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973), 187.

[vi] Kübler-Ross, 45.

[vii] Patton and Hawley, 1.

[viii] Herbert W. Basser, “A Love for All Seasons: Weeping in Jewish Sources,” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 184.

[ix] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, “Tears” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 845.

[x] Basser, 180.

[xi] Ibid., 193.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Nancy Van Dyke Platt and Chilton R. Knudsen, So You Think You Don’t Know One?: Addiction and Recovery in Clergy and Congregations, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2010, 34.

[xiv] Gary L. Ebersole, “The Poetics and Politics of Ritualized Weeping in Early and Medieval Japan” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 41.

[xv] Gay Ord Pollock Lynch, “Why Do Your Eyes Not Run Like a River?: Ritual Tears in Ancient and Modern Greek Funerary Traditions,” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 77.

[xvi] Kay Almere Read, “Productive Tears: Weeping Speech, Water, and the Underworld in the Mexica Tradition,” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 52-53.

[xvii] John Stratton Hawley, “The Gopīs’ Tears” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 94-95.

[xviii] Patton and Hawley, 19.

[xix] William C. Chittick, “Weeping in Classical Sufism,” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 138.

[xx] Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, “Pray with Tears and Your Request Will Find a Hearing: On the Iconology of the Magdalene’s Tears,” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 203.

[xxi] Ibid., 205.

[xxii] Bishop Kallistos Ware, “An Obscure Matter: The Mystery of Tears in Orthodox Spirituality,” in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 243.

[xxiii] Apostolos-Cappadona, 205.

[xxiv] Ibid., 206.

[xxv] Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 21.

[xxvi] Ibid., 38.

[xxvii] Ibid., 126.

[xxviii] Ibid., 45.

[xxix] Ibid., 46.

[xxx] Apostolos-Cappadona, 203.

[xxxi] Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, III, 846.

[xxxii] Warren Baker, ed. The Complete Word Study Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG, 1994), 2455.

[xxxiii] Willem A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1997), 1:975.

[xxxiv] Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Complete Word Study New Testament (Chattanooga; AMG, 1991), 1250.

[xxxv] Hall, 54-55.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 60.

[xxxvii] All Scripture unless otherwise noted is from the English Standard Version.

[xxxviii] Patrick D. Miller, “Heaven’s Prisoners: The Lament as Christian Prayer,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, eds. Sally A. Brown and Patrick D. Miller (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 16.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Kathleen O’Conner. The Wisdom Literature (Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1988), 104.

[xli] Scott A. Ellington, Risking Truth: Reshaping the World through Prayers of Lament (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2008), 113.

[xlii] Hall, 62.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ellington, 118.

[xlv] Nancy J. Duff, Recovering Lamentation as a Practice in the Church,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, eds. Sally A. Brown and Patrick D. Miller (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 4.

[xlvi] Patton and Hawley, 14.

[xlvii] Miller, 16.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 90.

[l] Ibid., 91.

[li] Ellington, 41.

[lii] Richard Elliott Friedman, The Hidden Face of God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 104.

[liii] Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 222.

[liv] Ellington, 18.

[lv] Ibid., 42-43.

[lvi] Ibid., 44.

[lvii] Ibid., 41.

[lviii] Ibid., 47.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Hall, 117.

[lxi] Joseph M. Hallman, The Descent of God: Divine Suffering in History and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 69.

[lxii] Miller, 20.

[lxiii] Ibid., 21.

[lxiv] Hallman, 84.

[lxv] Ibid., 78.

[lxvi] Hall, 108.

[lxvii] Hallman, 98.

[lxviii] Sammy Alfaro, Divino Compañero: Toward a Hispanic Pentecostal Christology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010), 105.

[lxix] Ibid.

[lxx] Ada María Isasi-Díaz, “Christ in Mujerista Theology,” In Thinking of Christ: Proclamation, Explanation, Meaning, ed. Tatha Wiley (New York: Continuum, 2003), 159.

[lxxi] Ellington, 40.

[lxxii] Ibid., 34.

[lxxiii] Hall, 118.

[lxxiv] Calvin Miller, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 76.

[lxxv] Moltmann, 223.

[lxxvi] Jackie David Johns and Cheryl Bridges Johns, “Yielding to the Spirit: A Pentecostal Approach to Group Bible Study,” in Pentecostal Hermeneutics: A Reader, ed. Lee Roy Martin (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013), 36.

[lxxvii] Ibid., 35.

[lxxviii] Ellington, 23.

[lxxix] Robby Waddell, “Hearing what the Spirit Says to the Churches: Profile of a Pentecostal Reader of the Apocolypse,” In Pentecostal Hermeneutics: A Reader, ed. Lee Roy Martin (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013), 184.

[lxxx] Ellington, 40.

[lxxxi] Andrew Davies, “What Does it Mean to Read the Bible as a Pentecostal?” in Pentecostal Hermeneutics: A Reader, ed. Lee Roy Martin (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013), 252.

[lxxxii] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford, 1985), 6.

[lxxxiii] Hawley, 106.

[lxxxiv] Apostolos-Cappadona, 203.

[lxxxv] Ware, 251.

[lxxxvi] Albert Y. Hsu, Grieving a suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (Downers Grove, IVP, 2002), 45.

[lxxxvii] Ellington, xiii.

[lxxxviii] Ibid., 3.

[lxxxix] Hsu, 45.

[xc] Wolterstorff, 67.

[xci] Ibid., 81.

[xcii] Ellington, xii.

[xciii] Ibid., 3.

[xciv] Ibid., 26.

[xcv] Hall, 140.

[xcvi] Wolterstorff, 96.

[xcvii] Lorna Collier, “Why We Cry: New Research is Opening Eyes to the Psychology of Tears,” Monitor on Psychology, February 2014, 47.

[xcviii] Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 53.

[xcix] Ellington, 46.

[c] Ibid., 65.

[ci] Hall, 139.

[cii] Alister McGrath, Bridge-Building: Effective Christian Apologetics (Leicester, England: IVP, 1992), 51-73.