This article was originally published on my first blog (2013). It still gets a fair amount of traffic! It is a bit controversial – but see what you think? I believe that how we perceive crying and spirituality is sometimes a cultural habit rather than doctrinal.
I’m hoping some of you will make up your mind to forgive me ahead of time – because this will be new for a few of you. The first time I heard this, it was a bit of a surprise for me and I punched back at it, so I understand anyone reacting the same way.
“Crying is not spirituality.”
I thought about this statement as I listened to a professor present his topic at BYU Ed week this last summer. It’s not the first time I heard someone clarify this. At a prior BYU Ed week, another professor repeated the same idea – and again, every so often in religion classes this topic comes up.
It was a bit abrupt the first time I heard this – it was not how I understood testimony bearing and spiritual moments to work. Over the years I have come to understand the wisdom of teaching this principle.
Consider these quotes from the “Teaching, No Greater Call” lesson manual (lesson 9):
Recognizing the Spirit
Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught:
“We should recognize that the Lord will speak to us through the Spirit in his own time and in his own way. … We cannot force spiritual things.
“In most cases, ‘his own way’ is not the thunderous interruption or the blinding light, but what the scriptures call ‘the still small voice’ (1 Kgs. 1 Kings 19:12; 1 Ne. 1 Nephi 17:45; D&C 85:6). … We need to know that the Lord rarely speaks loudly. His messages almost always come in a whisper” (“Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 10–12).
When the Lord speaks to us through the Spirit, He may occasionally “cause that [our] bosom shall burn within [us]” (D&C 9:8). This burning, Elder Oaks explained, surely “signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity” (Ensign, Mar. 1997, 10–12). Most often we will feel enlightenment, joy, and peace (see Romans 15:13; Galatians 5:22–23; D&C 6:23; 11:13).
President Howard W. Hunter explained :
“I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself.”
If crying were spirituality – the prophet and apostles would be sobbing through boxes and boxes of tissue at General Conference.
They don’t. They shed a tear here or there – but not a lot considering all the time they put into speaking.
Having said all this, crying has its place and is a very good thing. Please don’t think I’m against it! It serves an important purpose in our personal lives. We all need a good cry now and then.
Why? It cleanses us. It shakes deep down, pent-up feelings loose so they can surface and we can face them. It builds resolve. It gives vent to grief, guilt, anger, fear and frustration as well as joy and happiness.
Our broken heart and contrite spirit cries. Our tender mercies cry. Sometimes when the Spirt touches on the crusty, hardened parts of our heart and we soften up – we cry as a result.
Now and again when the Spirit shows me my true self – I find plenty of reason to cry.
Spiritual experiences do bring us tears and often they are present – but by themselves, they are not a sure sign of the Spirit. It’s important to understand this. I’ve seen people bear tearful, heart-felt witness of false teachings and precepts – it happens.
Some people are very good at manipulating with emotion, and a few of those unfortunately are at church. Evoking emotion and bringing the Spirit in are not the same.
So what is crying not? A moniker of true or dedicated spirituality or that the Spirit is really present. This can only be discerned by a witness from the Spirit to the heart and mind together.
As one sister expressed in Relief Society last Sunday, “Some people use crying to show they are spiritually superior.”
I was terrifically glad when this sister was brave enough to say such an observation out loud because I’ve seen it too – but wasn’t courageous enough to frame it quite like that.
Truthfully, when I can see someone is really impressed with themselves for crying while talking from the pulpit or teaching – and they make a big show of it – that’s about when my mind wanders and I quit absorbing what is said.
What is spirituality then? How can we tell when the Spirit is present?
The effects of the Spirit are uplifting. The Spirit pours in light, knowledge, truth, peace, strength, confidence, solidness, wisdom, calmness and a sense of well-being. When one experiences a really heightened manifestation of the Spirit like the powerful burning from head to toe – it dries tears, it does not produce them. The Spirit influences people to action, to kindness, to forgiveness. The Spirit propels us forward in all aspects of our life. As Lorenzo Snow put it, “As long as there is a step forward to be taken, it should be taken.”
Here are some examples of what the scriptures say will happen if we have the Spirit:
24 And see that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works. (Alma 7:24)
27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness… (D&C 58:27)
As a young adult, I was forever influenced by a statement from Marvin J. Ashton – one of my favorite apostles of all time. He said, “Spirituality is not piety…it’s how many people are glad when you walk into a room.” He also said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) “Spirituality are the acts of kindness not everyone sees.”
I never forgot the enormous impact this had on my soul and my understanding. Almost three decades later, I still remember the instant his description of true spirituality laser-guided it’s way right to the center of my heart.
This can all be summed up with a simple question: In the end, will we be judged for how much we cried or for how much we did and how much we gave?
Spirituality is the same way – crying doesn’t mark it, but the amount of charitable works and kindness does.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
21 ¶Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 7:20-21)
Importing one comment and response – Please remember the above article is my best understanding to date. I believe every opinion and perspective matters:
From a reader: “I agree that crying does not signify spirituality every time, but people are different. I never cry, but recently a sister gave a talk and said, “I apologise if I cry, I’ll try not too, but I’m a cryer.” Some people cry when they experience or talk about experiencing deep emotion, others don’t. I think we need to accept that we express our deep feelings differently, and when the Spirit manifests itself to you, that is a very special feeling. If we say you shouldn’t cry when bearing your testimony some people may be afraid to bear their testimonies in case they can’t control the tears. That would be very sad.”
Reply: “Great points. I hope the article doesn’t convey crying is wrong. If it does, I apologize! I do hope that the distinction between evoking emotion and bringing in the Spirit are understood to be two different operations which may or may not appear together. Have you ever been to a girls camp testimony meeting? Have you ever witnessed evangelical preaching? They are both very strong on evoking emotion. I had an investigator tell me she felt the spirit at another church because the preacher made everyone cry and so she decided not to get baptized. We need to be careful with equating strong emotional experiences as spiritual. The world is full of emotional moments but not full of the Spirit. I hope that makes sense.”
Please feel free to leave your comments and insights below.