It seems as if toddlers cry about anything. Their tears are unpredictable and comprehensive. Seat belts, suppertime, a new shirt, the color of their cup—things that pleased them yesterday can grieve them tomorrow. These tears are a sign of immaturity, symptoms of both low self-control and self-centered priorities. Generally, children grow out of them. A ten-year-old looks forward to suppertime and doesn’t really care about the color of the cup. They cry about more serious, appropriately sorrowful things.
Looking at children, it’s easy to think that simple age will mature tears into the correct channels. But have you ever noticed when old people cry? Not bitter old people, but elderly saints?
They don’t cry when they’re scared. They don’t cry about personal slights or disappointments. They rarely cry out of frustration. Instead, they tend to cry about two things: sin and its effects on others, and grace and its effects on others.
Maybe you’ve been in a situation where someone’s sin was exposed, and you felt anger rise in you, only to realize that a retired pastor was crying. Perhaps you’ve heard a happy announcement that brought smiles to everyone while the old, godly woman had tears streaming down her cheeks.
It’s often taken me aback when a grandparent or older person in the church cries at something when I am dry-eyed. It’s almost disturbing to have strong, wise believers cry when we’re not crying ourselves; we realize that something is happening of which we’re not aware. There’s a spiritual angle that we don’t get. Our church culture can associate crying with weakness or immaturity. But crying is only weak and immature when it’s self-centered. And we’re only taken aback by godly tears because of our immaturity.
The tears of old saints are a sign of maturity, symptoms of Spirit-control and selflessness. Their scope is much greater than the tears of younger saints. It is that scope that makes their tears the inverse of toddler tears.
Such tears don’t come with mere age. There are old people, even Christians, whose tears spring from disappointment, frustration, or anger. But holy tears are the result of lifelong, Spirit-wrought sanctification. They are the fruit of a life lived under the motto “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). They are evidence of submission to God’s most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions (Westminster Shorter Catechism 11).
With sanctification, old age makes people’s souls strong and tender, not bitter and brittle. And the holier the saint, the more tender they are to sin and grace. Christlikeness makes them tender to the same things that Jesus is tender to. As we grow closer to the Lord, wisdom allows us to accurately identify “a time to weep” (Eccl. 3:4). Those are tears that honor the Lord even as they teach younger Christians about God’s economy: let’s weep for this broken world and God’s grace in it.