Permission to complain

Is it okay to complain to God?

Some of the most emotionally wrenching passages in all of Scripture are found in the psalms of lament. These poems and songs are bold and blunt. They complain that things aren’t right and it’s up to God to do something about it. Some, like Psalm 13, begin with complaint but end with hopeful anticipation:

How long will you forget me, LORD? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
Look at me! Answer me, LORD my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemies will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
But I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the LORD
because he has been good to me.
(Ps 13:1-6, CEB)

But others, like Psalm 88, aren’t so optimistic.   The psalmist cries out for God to hear his prayer, because his “whole being is filled with distress” as he stands “at the very brink of hell” (vss. 1-3, CEB). He doesn’t say what the trouble is (making the psalm an apt screen on which to project our own distress). The psalmist wants to hope in the God of miracles. He wants to proclaim God’s faithful love and righteousness. But he complains that he can’t do this if he’s dead (vs. 10-12). He feels rejected and ignored by God, or worse, persecuted and punished with no relief (vss. 14-17). The song ends on a bleak note of loneliness and despair: “You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant. My only friend is darkness” (vs. 18).

That’s it. That’s the end of the psalm.

Have a nice day.

Texts like this give the lie to all the simplistic platitudes we use to cheer people up. We might even dare to ask, as does Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, “What is a psalm like that doing in our Bible?” He suggests the beginnings of an answer:

First, life is like that, and these poems intend to speak of all of life, not just the good parts. Here, more than anywhere else, faith faces life as it is. Second, we observe that this psalm is not a psalm of mute depression. It is still speech. It is still addressed. In the bottom of the Pit, Israel still knows it has to do with Yahweh. It cannot be otherwise. …To be Israel means to address God, even in God’s unresponsive absence.  (The Message of the Psalms, pp. 80-81)

Yes, life is like that. The people of God suffer in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. They cry out to God—and not politely. You would think that if they truly believed God was punishing them, they would be a bit more careful about their choice of words. But no. Ironically, what may sound like faithless moaning reveals its own kind of faith: Yahweh is our God, there is no other, and we need not fear retaliation when we complain honestly.

It is not faithless to lament. God can take it. The Psalms give us permission. But if we will cry out, we must also listen, and hopefully, what we hear will give us reason to praise God as well.