Spiritual Practice: Lament

“Truly this is my hope and my only comfort – to fly to you in any trouble, to trust steadfastly in you, to call inwardly upon you, to abide patiently your coming and your heavenly consolations.” — From The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas á Kempis

Lament is a spiritual practice of prayer for when our spiritual journey with God is at a wall. The Wall is a stage in the life of faith described in the book The Critical Journey, by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich

The Wall is often precipitated by a life or faith crisis that turns our world upside down and for the first time, our faith doesn’t seem to work. Our experience of life and our beliefs aren’t matching up. We have more questions than answers. However, sometimes this stage is entered into gradually. Being at The Wall can lead to uncertainty about God, everything we thought we knew about the life of faith, shame, fear, and an urge to give up. It can be a dark and lonely time, and God seems absent.

Historical Christian writer St. John of the Cross (1542-1592), a Catholic monk who spent his life in the service of Catholic Reform, described this experience of God’s absence as The Dark Night of the Soul.

Contemporary writer Lee Beach, in his article “A Spirituality of Exile: Responding to God’s Absence”, describes the sense of God’s absence as feeling like being in a spiritual exile.

A few Biblical individuals who experienced a deep sense of loss and absence of God’s presence are Job, Naomi, and the Israelites when in Babylonian exile.

What we see in the life of the Biblical examples mentioned, as well as from St. John of the Cross, is that these individuals responded to God in a variety of ways.

Job grieved and lamented to his friends, who provided poor counsel. Eventually he approached God with his questions.  God responded. (Book of Job)

Naomi and her family moved away from the land of Israel to care for their own needs rather than rely on God when famine struck the promised land. After some years went by, which included many severe losses, Naomi’s return to the land of Israel represents her return to God, even as she recognizes her bitterness. Eventually she sees God’s care for her and her joy is restored. (Book of Ruth)

The Israelites when in exile, cry out to God in lament, mourning their losses, asking for God’s help. At times they even blame God for turning against them and allowing them to be overcome and taken into captivity. Yet they keep calling out to God to save them, and eventually recognize their sin. 70 years later, God restores their land to them. Examples of lamentes can be found in Lamentations, Psalms 44, 74, 89, 89, 102, 106, 137.

Through his own experience, St. John of the Cross invites us to consider that God is doing something new, inviting us to go deeper and to not turn away when His presence seems gone.  God is transforming us in a way we would not step into on our own.

Most of these individuals moved towards God in a new way, bringing their questions, confusion and pain to God. While they felt abandoned by God, they didn’t give up on God. In fact, their lament shows their determination to speak with God about their situation and question God about his action or lack thereof in regards to their plight.

When at Wall, the language of lament as found in scripture offers a paradigm for engaging with God in the midst of our experience of His seeming absence. This language of lament is one of struggle, doubt, frustration with God, and wrestling with where God is in the midst of painful experiences.

There are a couple of movements in the lament prayers of the Israelites as described by Beach that can help us as we approach God in our times of spiritual exile, Dark Night of the Soul, or Wall experience:

  • An honest description of the problem.
  • A request for God to act on our behalf and remedy the problem.
  • Confession of Trust. Remembering what God has done in the past and confessing trust in God for the present.
  • Vow of Praise. Praising God in anticipation of God’s new redemption action in the future.

Theological Reflection, or meditating on who God is and what He has done, is at the heart of Lament.  When we sense God’s absence it can seem like an exilic experience. We no longer feel at home with God as our normal life experience has changed. Rather, we feel that we are “cast into a foreign land.”

If this is where you are, let this experience be an impetus for prayer. Prayer and worship is how we make sense of our life. I invite you to write your own laments as described above, and follow the example of Job, Naomi, the Israelites in exile, and St. John of the Cross, by continuing to call out to God. He is a God who is far away and also very near. Some examples to work from are Psalm 13, 86, 142, Lamentations 3.

2 thoughts on “Spiritual Practice: Lament

    1. Thank you for your question. If I understand your question correctly, I believe that lament is an appropriate way to communicate with God when life is confusing and difficult. It is modeled to us in the Old Testament Scriptures in the Psalms and book of Lamentations, for example. The pattern of laments usually end with a declaration of faith in God who the writer trusts will work things out, but it is a form of prayer expressing our concerns and fears and deep emotions. Even Jesus himself lamented in the Garden and on the cross, for example. I didn’t really understand this type of prayer until I had a devastating loss in my life and as I turned to the Psalms, the laments gave me words to communciate with God and receive His comfort. God bless.

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