Emotions ran high in my family yesterday. I struggled with a stressful situation at work and my son fell off his bike and scrapes his knee—a meltdown ensued. Feelings are part of the fabric of what it means to be human. I am not proud to admit this, but I have greatly failed in keeping my feeling in check during the past couple weeks.
On my drove to work this morning, words from a Christian song over the radio jogged a thought I had about prayer and our communication of God. I pondered how natural it is for humanity to complain when things do not go your way. How do we overcome the sin of complaining? Listening to the song lyrics I realized the answer is incredibly simple—cry out to God!
Using examples from the Scriptures, excerpts from St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, and my own personal experiences I give 4 reasons why “crying out to God” is not complaining but rather an essential part of the spiritual life.
1. Lesson from Lamentations: Latent within the Old Testament, Lamentations is not among the first books that pop into my mind for having spiritual insight. I usually think of Proverbs or the Book of Wisdom. Lamentations is a collection of five poems that act as a woeful reply to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Both individual and communal prayers of sorrow are found in this book. For my purposes today I will only focus on Lamentations 3:19-31 which contains an individual lament.
The thought of my wretched homelessness is wormwood and poison; 20Remembering it over and over, my soul is downcast.21But this I will call to mind— therefore I will hope: 22The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent. 23They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! 24The LORD is my portion, I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him. 25The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; 26It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance. 27It is good for a person, when young, to bear the yoke, 28To sit alone and in silence, when its weight lies heavy, 29To put one’s mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope—30 To offer one’s cheek to be struck, to be filled with disgrace. 31For the Lord does not reject forever.
The inspired writer of Lamentations speaks directly to me in this passage. His words, “Over and over, my soul is downcast,” calls to mind my state of mind and relationship with God over the past several weeks. I was downtrodden and I frequently wanted to give up. Interestingly enough, I actually pondered the fact that there is a glimmer of hope in my situation. The writer of Lamentations is prophetic again when he states, “I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him. 25The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; 26It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance.”
2. Psalm 22: According to Mark 15:34, Jesus cries out to the Father in similar fashion as the book of Lamentations and myself when I encounter the stresses of life. The evangelist writes, “And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”* which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words used to befuddle me. I have since learned that Jesus was invoking the psalmist’s lamenting words in Psalm 22. The psalm begins as a sorrowful prayer to God but similar to Lamentations 3 it ends with hope [see Psalm 22:23-32]. Reading these words, the Holy Spirit connected the dots for me on this subject. Verse 30 references homage toward God on bended knee and I already was planning on talking about how lament leads to kneeling before God even before I read Psalm 22!! The movement of the Holy Spirit is mysterious yet true.
3. Dark Night of a Soul: St John of the Cross was a great mystic of the Catholic Church during the 16th century. His spiritual work Dark Night of the Soul is as relevant today as it was when it was originally written. I will only focus on the dark night of the purgation of our senses and tie it to the theme of crying out towards God. The major characteristic of this dark night is the soul finding no pleasure or consolation in the things of God. I find myself occasionally in a “spiritual rut” where I do not receive consolation or experience direct joy from God. St. John tells us to not worry, “It is well for those who find themselves in this condition to take comfort, to persevere in patience and to be in no wise afflicted. Let them trust in God, Who abandons not those that seek Him with a simple and right heart, and will not fail to give them what is needful for the road, until He bring them into the clear and pure light of love” (Chapter X no 3).
Sounding similar to the writer of Lamentations, John of the Cross, reassures us that for growth to occur in the spiritual life a certain period of purgation is necessary to increase our holiness and awareness of God.
4. Skinned Up Knees Leads to On Bended Knee: This week my wife and I added training wheels to our son’s bicycle and we being teaching him the quintessential summer experience of riding his first bike! We taught him the fundamentals of pedaling and coaxing him when he got frustrated because they were “too heavy”. Things were going well. He gained momentum and cruised on our neighbor sidewalk for about 50 feet. Suddenly he hit a raised section of the sidewalk and toppled off his bike. Tears immediately streamed down his face. My wife added a Band-Aid and after a few minutes of reassurance had him get back on the bike to try again.
How does this common childhood experience relate to the spiritual life? Oftentimes we get metaphorical “skinned up knees”. Gossip in the workplace or stressful family events damage our relationship with God. True growth is not without pain—both in learning to ride a bike and deepening our spiritual life. Having undergone lots of skinned up knees in learning to ride my bike it makes it easier for me to be on bended knee in prayer to thank God for going through the school of trials to learn more about Him.
The difference between complaining and lamenting is the former lacks the virtue of hope. Complaining is more self-centered in orientations whereas prayers of lament focuses communication with our Divine Creator. Do not be ashamed to cry out to God, but remember that while it is a necessary step in the spiritual process– it is only the beginning. May we always ask the Holy Spirit to lead us toward prayers of thanksgiving after a season of lament!