Lament as a Spiritual Discipline

Dr. Sachi Nakamura,
JCFN Board Member, Christian Books Translator, and Spiritual Director

There are many sorrowing and trying things in this world. Maybe someone has done something hurtful to you, or you have done something hurtful to others or to yourself. Or, as unfortunate as they are, some things just seem to happen where there is no one to be blamed for. Maybe those are the result of systematic injustice . 

Sadly, there are more than a few things in this world that bring pain to our lives. What shall we do when we are feeling pain and sadness? We often taught on the topics of praising God and thanksgiving, but what about on lamenting?

Lament is a Biblical action. About a third of the Psalms are called Lament Psalms, which describe one’s pain and sadness. Michael Guinan, a Catholic priest said, “Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith. We cry out to God directly because deep down, we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.” We do not build up and despair at the sadness within us, but we cry out to God. We can do so because we know that God loves us and cares for us, hears our cries and is with us always. However, lament does not guarantee that God will give an answer to our cries and pleas. Rather, it may bring us to come to terms with the fact that there is no reasonable answer. In other words, to lament is to acknowledge that there is no one who can ease our pain, comfort us and ultimately fulfill us, other than God Himself. 

God sees our sufferings and pain. He hears our cries of sorrow. Crying out loud does not necessarily take away the pain. There is no guarantee that we will find solace about the injustice we are facing. However, God will meet us through the tears we shed and He will cry with us. Our tears and God’s tears will become like a stream that waters the dry land, from where a new life that belongs to the Kingdom of God will come to sprout. 

The Bible surely tells us to give thanks and rejoice always. However, I don’t think that it means that we should simply accept the evil and injustice of our world as something good or insignificant. Rather, we can give thanks and rejoice because we know that God will ultimately make things right and redeem what was lost and broken. Thanksgiving and rejoicing that keep out lament is like the false prophets saying, “Peace, peace!” Jeremiah said, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14).” However, God is not someone who will treat our wounds in a careless way. Therefore, I would like to share about lament as a spiritual discipline.  

Lament is mentioned a lot in the Bible. One-third of the book of Psalms is composed of lament, and the entire book of Lamentations is about doing that. The book of Job also mentions lament a lot. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and his cry from the Cross can also be understood as lament.  

Let’s take a look at some psalms of lament (for example Psalm 6, 10, 13, 17, 22, 25, 30, 31, 69, 73, 79, 86, 102, etc.,). It is amazing how openly the authors bring up their cries and pleas to God. When we look at those Psalms of lament, we will notice that there is a basic format to them. 

 

  1. ProtestThe author starts out by bringing their current situation, a painful event in the past, emotional pain, or a plea before God. The author protests to God by saying, “This horrible thing or that sad thing happened to me. I am going through a really hard time now. I am in so much pain. God, what are you going to do about it?” If there is something or a complaint to state to God, the author does not hold back from bringing it up openly. 

  2. Petition:Next, the author brings forward his own request before God. What do we want God to do in the situation? What are we asking Him for? 

  3. PraiseFinally, the author confesses his trust in God. Because God is abounding in love, mercy and faithfulness, and loves justice and fairness, he puts his trust in God, praises and gives thanks to the Lord.   

 

Those 3 processes are said to be the format of psalms of lamentation. 

There are several ways we can practice lament as spiritual discipline. 

The first way is to choose a psalm that seems to resonate with your situation and pain, and read that out loud before the Lord as your prayer. 

The other way is to choose a psalm that you resonate with, then take a phrase from it and customize it to your situation, and use it as a prayer before the Lord. 

Another thing you can do is to write your own original lament. It might be helpful to use the basic format of psalms of lament that was mentioned earlier. However, you do not have to follow that pattern. Since it is not something that you will be showing others, you don’t have to try to sound poetic. What is important is to bring your honest feelings directly to God. Whether it is sadness or anger, God is able to take in your emotions in its entirety. When writing your own lament, you may want to borrow the words of David, Job or Jesus. Actually, using their words can be helpful as you may be able to identify with them. “Lord, how long?”, “My heart is full of suffering”, “I am worn out from crying out”, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It might be helpful to bring your pain to God along with some of the characters in the Bible. When you write your lament, you don’t have to feel like you need to also come up with thanksgiving and praise. I think it is better to wait until thanksgiving and praise naturally comes out of your heart. Because we know that God will not carelessly treat our pain as the false prophets did, we do not have to rush the process either. Instead of going through it in a hurry, take your time until thanksgiving and praise naturally flows out from your heart. The point of this spiritual discipline is to honestly bring your cries and pleas before God, and to tell God what you want Him to do. 

Lament can also be used not only to bring personal pleas before God, but also the pain of a community or the suffering that the entire society is going through, such as in times of natural disaster, terrorist attacks, or a pandemic that we are now experiencing. 

God desires for us to take responsibility for the things that are within our own boundary. I believe that the Lord himself is inviting us to name, face, and bring our sorrows and pain before Him. Can you hear the gentle and merciful voice of the Lord calling, “Bring them here to me.” 

May God bless you.  

In the Name of Jesus (Henri J. M. Nouwen)—Part 3

 

Dr. Sachi Nakamura (Christian books Translator, JCFN Board Member, Spiritual Director)

 

This is the last of the series, from the Part 3 of the book.

Part 1

Part 2

 

[III]From Leading to Being Led

 The Temptation: To Be Powerful

The Challenge: “Somebody Else Will Take You”

 The Discipline: Theological Reflection

 

I admit the part 3 of this book gave me the strongest impact to me. There were two points that deeply resonated in my heart; one of them is that a Christian leader should not be the one who seeks “the upward mobility” but rather the one who steps toward “the downward mobility” by following Christ’s example. The other is that the discipline to continue the walk led by Christ requires constant theological reflections.

 

We might all aspire to be influential, particularly in this secular world. But I do not see much difference in the church communities. We seek to be influential for Christ and for His kingdom. There seems nothing wrong in that motivation and indeed that might be a good thing. (Let me cite that the author of the book, The Prayer of Jabez, described that the reason why Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying “…Enlarge my border.” and the fact that God answered to his prayer were all for Jabez to be influential for the glory of God.) However, even when our purpose is “for Christ” or “for His kingdom”, no matter how purely motivated from the bottom of our heart, having power brings about many dangers. In the history of Christianity and also in today’s church, some form of abuse of power always seem to exist behind the scandals and various problems. Power is a double-edge sword. Having power could transform our purest motivation and wish into an instrument of self-realization.

 

Nouwen makes an interesting remark on John 21:18.

“ Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18, 19, NRSV)

The World says, “When you are young, you are dependent on others. But when you grow old, you can make your own decision and you can do whatever you want.” But Nouwen tells us Jesus had a different vision of maturity. He says, “It is the ability and the willingness to be led where you would rather not go.” Jesus commissioned Peter the ministry to “feed His sheep” and told him that he would be taken to the place where he would not wish to go. This passage of John 21 gives me a stronger impact every time I read.

 

Nouwen continues, “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. This might sound morbid and masochistic, but for those who have heard the voice of the first love and said yes to it, the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and the peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world.” A servant leader is the one willing to be taken to an unknown, undesirable, and painful place.

 

The most important quality of Christian leadership is “not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility.” That is what Jesus manifested himself. “Powerlessness and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them. They refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them.” They are the ones who abandon the wish to control matters in their own ways and to gain the result and outcome that they desire. So deeply in love with Jesus, they are the ones who can follow Him wherever He guides them, always trusting they will find abundant life with him.

 

What, then, is the discipline to be such a leader?  Nouwen proposes “the discipline of strenuous theological reflection. Just as prayer keeps us connected with the first love and just as confession and forgiveness keep our ministry communal and mutual, so strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.” I would also add that strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern where we find God’s presence and activities in our own situations. (Note: As explained in the Part 1, the word “theology” originally means “union with God in prayer.” Therefore, what Nouwen calls “theological reflection” is different from any academic approaches.

Nouwen continues, “Few ministers and priests think theologically. Most of us have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind Christ, is hard to find in the practice of the ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers.”  Even they may be able to help people struggling and stressed in the everyday life, if there is no theological reflection, they have nothing to do with Christian leadership. Nouwen says, “The Christian leader thinks, speaks, and acts in the name of Jesus, who came to free humanity form the power of death and open the way to eternal life.”

“The task of future Christian leaders is not to make a little contribution to the solution of the pains and tribulations of their time, but to identify and announce the ways in which Jesus is leading God’s people out of slavery, through the desert to a new land of freedom. Christian leaders have the arduous task of responding to personal struggles, family conflicts, national calamities, and international tensions with an articulate faith in God’s real presence. … In short, they have to say ‘no’ to the secular world and proclaim in unambiguous terms that the incarnation of God’s Word, through whom all things came into being, has made even the smallest event of human history into kairos, that is, an opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ. The Christian leaders of the future have to be theologians, persons who know the heart of God and are trained –through prayer, study, and careful analysis –to manifest the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the many seemingly random events of their time.”

I am personally overwhelmed by Nouwen’s eloquence here. The Holy Spirit might be making him write such a powerful statement. I would like to quote the following passages but stop here to avoid any complaints from the publisher. If you have never read this book, I strongly encourage you to do so.

What Nouwen calls “theological reflection” is not an mere intellectual approach but, having the heart of Christ,  to discern where God is working and how He is leading us in our daily life, which is filled with both sufferings and joy. Christian leaders are called to help people to discern God’s voice. The training of such a leader cannot be done by just an intellectual training. “It requires a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person—body, mind, and heart.”

“Strenuous theological reflection”!   It is not a mere intellectual consideration but to know the mind of God and to deeply consider how the mind of God is revealed in the world and in our daily life, and to discern how we are led by it. It is not the reflection of our own mind or our own interpretation. It is based on the Word and led by the Spirit.

Holy Spirit, please teach me. Guide me. Please make me one, who is willing to be guided in the way of downward like Christ without fear and rather with joy in peace to walk humbly with Jesus.

Scroll to top