The Real Purpose of Tears

I often ask people why they hate their tears as much as they do. Sometimes they apologize; at other times they might scrape them viciously from their faces. There are a thousand frustrated reactions.

Culturally, we don’t like to experience any kind of crying. We’re embarrassed, and when asked why, many say that it’s a “sign of weakness.” At the same time, working to stop tears can take a massive amount of energy.

But what are tears for, anyway? My experience suggests that tears tell us when we’ve found where grief and gratitude meet.

I reach this conclusion because of the ways in which tears come to us. Obviously, sadness brings them forward. But so does enormous joy. People cry at weddings, or when they win a significant sporting event, or when they see a family member they haven’t seen in decades. These aren’t sad occasions, but in each one, the joyful event evokes strong emotions.

Imagine an 80-year-old man who attends his grandson’s wedding. He watches the ceremony with interest, amazed at how such a young man could be entering into a marriage. Did I look that young? He sees the couple’s nervous anticipation, hears their laughter. And as they recite their vows and near the point at which they will be linked, the older man notes a tear tracking down his face.

Maybe he sees this ceremony through the lens of a 50-year marriage of his own. In that case, he would know the enormous highs and lows of the experience – the effort it has taken to traverse 50 years and somehow grow closer to the woman who stands next to him. He sees a brand-new couple and knows the challenges they’ll face, though he can’t possibly communicate those obstacles before the couple experience them for themselves.

Maybe he sees the ceremony through the lens of a life in which he had never married. In that moment, he may compare his own experience to the one the couple will now have – one that is less lonely than the one he’s lived.

Or perhaps his own wife has died, leaving him inevitably to remember her death even as the ceremony before him is in itself a birth.

In all of these cases, there is a powerful contrast between the positive event that’s occurring and some kind of struggle that the man knows specifically from his own life. I believe that it’s this contrast that creates tears – gratitude at the scene before him and grief in response to his history.

Tears are what’s squeezed out of us when these two powerful emotions meet. And when we don’t allow the tears, we’re trying to deny the presence of one or the other.

The reverse happens when we experience a tragedy. I’ll explain more in a later post.


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The Wise Woman at the Well

They happened by each other in ordinary life. They met each other in their thirst. They both needed each other.

Jesus asked for water, and she backed away. Then Jesus backed away. But the woman moved closer. Then Jesus moved close again, and they remained there. She saw the goodness in him and moved toward it. Her openness changed the course of events. Her openness was more important than any mistake she had made. Her ability to draw near to Jesus is what makes her life, is what defines her.

Her openness invited Jesus to more freedom and boldness. His goodness invited her to connection. She impacted him. He impacted her. Jesus wasn’t threatened by her strength and glory. She wasn’t intimidated by his goodness.

They created something special together.

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The Ever-Giving Vine

John 15:4

God is the gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. I have been interested in the relationship between the three of them. There are many references to the mutuality of the relationship:

“….Remain in me, as I also remain in you…”
“….you remain in me and I in you…..”
“….I am the vine; you are the branches….”
“….you remain in me and my words remain in you…..”
“….Father loved me, so I have loved you….”
“….love each other as I have loved you….”

The branch receives nutrients from the vine. It receives love. And by receiving love, it gives love back. The branch cannot do anything to make itself grow or live. How can a branch do more or be more? Can it make its soil nutritious? Can it make it rain? Can it make the vine give it what it needs and wants? It cannot succeed or fail. It lives. And God is the gardener giving the vine and branches what they need right when they need it. They receive it, and by receiving give love back.

What is the branch without the vine? What is the vine without the branch? What are the vine and branch without the gardener? And what is the gardener without them? The three are essential to each other. Working together. Giving and receiving. Abandoning, surrendering, trusting. Each gives and receives not knowing what will happen.

The gardener tends his vine and branches. He can’t not tend to them. The vine nourishes the branches. It can’t not nourish them. The gardener and vine are lavishly giving to the branches. Never stopping. Always tending, always nourishing. Always. Doing what they do because that is who they are. They cannot do otherwise. They do not need the branch to do anything.

There is a lot of shared enjoyment between a gardener and his garden. How he loves and enjoys his creation, and the creation receives, and in that gives so much back to him.

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The Ever-Loving Sower

So here is the lay of the land of Luke 8:4-15: The sower is God. The seed is the word of God. The soil is the people. Jesus describes the various situations that people can be in: the devil takes the seed, the rocks make the seed not take root, the thorns crowd out the seed, or the seed takes root in good soil.

Sometimes these soils are all parts of me at different times depending on life. Sometimes there is the devil trying to take from me, sometimes there are rocks, and sometimes there are thorns. But the thing that is always constant is that God continues to sow the seed regardless of the state of my heart and life. I can accept these states of my heart and trust that God will continue in his great love to sow the seed. He doesn’t evaluate my condition before he blesses me. He just loves. Always giving and loving that are not dependent on the state of my heart and life.

Because that’s who He is. Our gracious and generous God.

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Meditation is a good tool in dealing with stress, worry, and anxiety. It helps your body learn to be calm so that when you are dealing with something difficult, your body knows how to return to this place. Try some simple meditation exercises that don’t take much time.


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Married? Or “Not Really”?

Several weeks ago, comedienne Janeane Garofalo acknowledged that she had been married for 20 years and never knew it. Apparently, even the knowledge that you’re married, when it happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

While Ms. Garofalo was undoubtedly not constrained by a marriage she never knew she had, individuals and couples who bring their marriage concerns to us are in a very different situation: They consider themselves married, when in fact their marriages “stopped” some time ago. Partners grow into a state of chilly, occasional conversation punctuated by major arguments. This arrangement is highly constraining, as partners feel trapped in patterns of relating that seem impossible to change.

As therapists, our task is to understand how couples create these patterns. This goes beyond the usual “help with communication” that many cite as their primary need. It’s convenient to identify communication issues as the core problems in a couple’s relationship. But it rarely tells the entire story, because communication often isn’t the biggest issue. Spouses tend to benefit from their patterns, often without realizing it.

Maybe the emotional distance between spouses keeps them from facing deeper issues. Maybe the husband believes that if he cares for his wife differently, she will want more of his time, and he doesn’t want to give that up. Or perhaps the wife is more comfortable talking about how her husband doesn’t relate well with her than actually doing the relating.

Each couple has unique ways of developing their relationship, and it may require unique, and at times, surprising changes to move forward into something more fulfilling. The focus for each partner is on changing what he/she can change rather than on what the other can change. I’ve not interacted with a couple in which both partners didn’t have significant opportunities to create changes, as long as there is courage to do so.


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Becoming a Man

It’s startling to watch as an increasing percentage of men attempt to engage life without a sense of what it means to be men.

In many cultures, boys participate in highly intentional ceremonies that mark their transition into adulthood. But for most males in the U.S., it isn’t clear when they’re assumed to have become men. Is it when they’ve left high school? Reached drinking age? Earned a college degree? Become married? It must not be, because many men still don’t feel like men even after reaching these kinds of landmarks. In fact, even when they have kids of their own, men wonder how they got there and how to get on with life as fathers when they aren’t sure they’re fully grown up themselves.

Part of the dilemma is a lack of awareness of what it feels like to be a man. Nowhere have they been taught that there’s more to it than casual stereotypes. Men who rest on their physical prowess or their ability to initiate and take risks have difficulty translating their boldness to human relationships, and thus find themselves oddly lonely. Men who gravitate toward others and excel in relationship often shun their own physicality and find themselves deferring to others constantly–in an effort to be “nice.”

I don’t think that masculinity involves a choice between these two extremes. They both can exist in a single person, and each gives the other meaning. But embracing both usually means giving something up that seems very valuable. I’ll flesh this out more in a later post.


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I have been thinking about what “Christlikeness” means.  We tend to associate it with doing things well:  making good decisions, reading our Bibles, serving in the church, being a witness, and doing spiritual disciplines.  All of these things can be good things.  But many times we do them or feel pressure to do them, in order to receive favor with God, in order for our lives to go well.  We try our best and many times give up because we aren’t getting the result we want. We feel guilty; we feel as if we have failed ourselves and God.

Here are ways that I think we grow in being like Christ:

–  When we are at our worst (we have just yelled at our kids or disappointed a friend or made a mistake at work), we can begin to feel God’s love.

– When we think what we do will never be enough — never be good enough, we start to feel in our hearts God saying “It is enough.”

– When our kids haven’t had a vegetable in days, we know how deeply we are accepted and beautiful.

– When we feel it is up to us to make good things happen, we slowly begin to rest in knowing God will give us what we need.

– We start to feel treasured by God even when we feel broken,weak, and empty.

Being like Christ doesn’t mean having it all together; not working harder or trying harder or being better.  Being like Christ means surrendering in order to receive his love.  His love for us even when we are not at our best.  His love that says: depend on me not on what you can do or figure out on your own.

Our human poverty is the path to knowing how deeply we are loved.  Something that Jesus knew at the core of his being.  A love he could give because He first received.

May we grow in our experience of simply being human, and in that, being loved……..


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I’ve been thinking about how much we need space: to stare out the window; to ponder; to breathe.  To have even a couple of minutes where nothing is required of us right now.  Nothing we need to figure out, decide, work on, do.  Nothing.

Just being where we are.

Aware of our bodies and surroundings…….

of beauty —– in this moment.


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“When I had surrendered all belief in mercy, so mercy was granted me at last.”  (“March” by Geraldine Brooks). Robert March,  the husband and father in the story, Little Women, lies in a military hospital bed, tortured by guilt and helplessness, when he finds out his daughter Beth is going to live after she nearly dies of scarlet fever.

Can you feel his relief?  Can you imagine his gratitude?

Sometimes we think mercy and goodness are ours to find, ours to create.   If we believe correctly and act correctly, we will get the result we desire.  If painful things happen, it’s our fault.

The truth is that hard things happen because we live in a broken world.  And though there is darkness, there is mercy.  Mercy not because we have done the right things, but because God is merciful.

Mercy is given.

It is something we could never do on our own.  Something we can not figure out, manage, or make happen.  Something we cannot control.

Are you longing for mercy?

It (your salvation, your peace, your abundant life) does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.  Rom 9:16


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The Awkwardness of Entering Counseling

“I’m not sure how this works; I’ve never been to counseling before.”

My clients have lots of ways of letting me know that they’re uncomfortable entering the counseling process, but many tell me on the phone before their first appointment or within moments of sitting down in my office.

I have admiration for anyone willing to say that therapy seems intimidating. Why wouldn’t it be? You’re entering a situation with a person you don’t know at all, trying to decide whether it’s going to be okay to talk about what’s really important to you. For many, having a close friend with whom they share significant details of their lives seems like a fairy tale. Doing it with a state-licensed stranger can seem even more bizarre.

But when a person begins to acknowledge that it feels a bit out of control to enter counseling, I know that there’s hope for a good therapeutic relationship. The person has already stepped into a position of vulnerability by saying that it isn’t comfortable.

It can seem odd, but vulnerability – choosing to reveal what’s going on internally even when there’s a chance the other won’t respond in a helpful way – ultimately offers rest for a client. By letting the therapist in on what’s happening, the person now isn’t carrying that particular emotional burden alone. So there’s relief simply in saying where there’s discomfort. Most importantly, there’s much more relief when the therapist responds with understanding that’s respectful, not patronizing.

– Matt

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