I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon, I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice. (Ps. 55:16-17)
The person who wrote this Psalm was actively praying to God but not in terms that we have so often been instructed to pray. So often we have been trained to be nice to God when we pray, to be respectful, to ask for things, to pray for forgiveness for our failings, to honour God with heart, mind, soul and voice. Yet here we have a person who feels that he has the perfect right to complain to God. So the question that lies before us today is: Do we have a right to complain to God and, if so, how are we to do it?
As I said, we seem to have been trained that we can complain about anything and anyone but not to or about God. Yet the Bible does not shy away from recording the prayers of people who complain with great freedom and at considerable length to God when bad things happen and when they feel they are at the end of their tether. We hear them say: things are out of hand; I’m isolated, helpless, hopeless, hurting; Lord, do something! The phrase “How long?” appears nearly twenty times in the Psalms. The Psalms are filled with sentiments expressing a desire for God to intervene in situations beyond the author’s control.
One of the best examples of complaining in prayer comes from the book of Job. Job is a person who has been greatly blessed by God and yet suffers tremendous setbacks. The book further reveals that these setbacks have been allowed by God. Satan believes that Job will turn from God if his life is less than successful. God does not agree but allows Satan to test Job. He can do anything to him except take his life. And at some point the taking of his life would have been a way to end his suffering; but not even Job considers this. Instead we find Job in conversation, in prayer to God venting and yet at the same time asking questions which are rational. He is puzzled by the turn of events yet he does not lose his faith in God. Job is indeed distraught by grief and human pain, he is goaded to despair by his well-meaning friends, and yet he speaks his words of complaint to God not because he is disappointed or angry with God but because he believes in God and believes that God will answer his questions and his complaint. In the end Job never really gets the answer that he or any of us might have expected but Job is content with his answer. He accepts his situation, he does not lose hope and his life changes again and all is restored.
The prophet Jeremiah has become known as the “weeping prophet” and for good cause. Jeremiah was given the task of telling the people of Israel that the nation would be overrun and the people sent into exile. For his trouble he was not only persecuted by his own people but also suffered exile himself and probably never did return to his homeland.
The interesting thing to note about Job, Jeremiah and the psalmists is that their prayers of complaint are never met by any rebuke from God. Their complaints were acceptable and accepted.
Before we proceed further with the subject of complaining, let’s think back to that image of the Christian life being like a hike we are taking with the Lord. Being invited to go on a hike sounds upbeat, adventurous and perhaps romantic; yet depending on the terrain that the hike will take, it may be more challenging than we were prepared for. As much as we are told by Jesus that the life of faith that we have chosen will not be all sunshine and roses, we focus on the positives and choose to deny the negatives. When we made the decision to believe in God and believe in Jesus, we set ourselves on a path through this life that very likely might involve some trouble or tribulation or persecution. But if we have in our heads that Jesus suffered so that we would not have to suffer or believe that only good things and good times will fill our lives as believers then we deny the reality of life itself. Think about the temptations of Jesus. He had the opportunity to avoid all the things that we encounter in our lives – hunger, the desire to be saved from all ills and trials, the desire to be in total control of our lives; yet he did not give in to the temptation to relieve himself of any of these things. They are part of our life here and he made sure that he knew intimately how it felt to be hungry, ill or depressed or helpless.
Foolishly, we have come to believe that we need to be stoic about our pain and troubles. We probably feel that many of the Psalms and other writings where people complain to God are not appropriate but while the Bible teaches self-control, it also teaches us about the relation between our thoughts and our emotions. The view of the Bible is that we are a unified being. This is why we believe in the resurrection of the body because our soul needs a body to be whole. The Bible teaches that when we suffer in body, mind or spirit, that we suffer in whole not in part. Our physical body then is the vehicle through which we express all our thoughts, emotions and actions and so we can describe ourselves as either an embodied soul or an ensouled body.
And so it is perfectly appropriate for us as believers to express not only our joys to God, our hopes and our petitions, but also to express our frustrations and make our complaints known to God. And this is all about being realistic about life and realistic about our relationship with God. If as parents we only wanted our children to tell us about the good things that happened, the requests that were easy to grant, we would miss out on much of what happened or happens to our children and would miss so many opportunities to support and encourage them. And so it is with God.
But what can lead us to a prayer of complaint? Situations in our lives where we feel opposition, betrayal, deprivation or isolation, losses or depression; any of these can be moments for us to offer a prayer of complaint, an honest prayer that makes no pretense of prettiness. The good news is that God invites us to pour out our hearts to him – even from our darkness – and he never lets go of us once we are in his grip.
Finally how does God answer our prayers of complaint? God responds in two basic ways. First he sustains us in our weakness and keeps us going in spite of our pain. Every situation in life that gives rise to a complaint may not be resolved as we may hope but we learn through bringing our complaints to God and asking for his presence and strength that we can survive these situations. Second we are encouraged to keep trusting God despite the circumstances.
So we live, passing through life’s ups and downs. Nobody’s Christian existence is sunshine and roses all the way. Some of us experience horrible losses, loss of health, loss of respectability, loss of friends, spouses or even children. These losses are not beyond the bounds of possibility for any of us and are actuality for many of us. But at such times, the only strategy for us is to pray out our complaints to God, following the models we find in Scripture. And as we do so, may we remember that God loves us, we are his children, he has adopted us and that he will hear our complaints and will love us now and forever.