Complaining to God

There’s been a lot of complaining and grumbling this past year over the various decisions congregational leaders have made about how to deal with the pandemic and government regulations. And the complaints don’t just go one way. Some grumble that churches should remain open, and view closing the building as an act of faithlessness. Others fear that the threat isn’t being taken seriously enough, and too many risks are being taken. Things have improved with widespread vaccination, but the tensions still exist. Nobody is completely satisfied, and I suspect there are few if any churches where there is 100% agreement among the members on what to do (is there ever?).

I’m willing to bet, though, that for all the individual complaints and grouchy conversations, when churches finally do gather together to worship, the lament will largely cease. It won’t be because there will no longer be anything to complain about. It’s just that we don’t consider lament to be an act of corporate worship. Unless we know ourselves as a group to be the victims of massive injustice, we don’t typically complain to God together as a community.

This is in marked contrast to the people who originally worshiped through the Psalms.

. . .

Over the past several months of immersion in the Psalms, we have been wending our way slowly toward what are known as the “psalms of lament.” To use Walter Brueggemann’s handy scheme, we began our study with psalms of orientation, or psalms that teach a normative and faithful way of seeing the world. These included Psalm 1, which introduces us to the fundamental contrast between the ways of righteousness and wickedness; Psalm 119, which holds up the beauty and indispensability of God’s Instruction; Psalms 8 and 104, which marvel at the majesty of creation and its Creator; and Psalm 23, which rests confidently in the goodness of God our shepherd.

But even these psalms of orientation have their shadow side. Psalm 1 recognizes the reality of wickedness. Psalm 23 speaks of death’s shadow. Psalm 104 asks for sinners to be wiped off the face of the earth. Thus, we’ve also looked at psalms with darker themes. There are the penitential psalms, like Psalms 32 and 51, in which the psalmist comes to God in brokenness to seek mercy for his own sin. There are prayers for deliverance from enemies, like Psalms 22 and 25. There are wisdom psalms like Psalm 37 that teach the people not to be angry and fretful over the fact that the wicked seem to be succeeding in life. And as we’ve seen recently, there are psalms of deep longing and thirst for God, such as Psalms 42 and 43.

These psalms express what Brueggemann calls disorientation. The psalmists look around them and see sin, brokenness, and injustice. Things are not as they should be. The vision of Psalm 1 — that the righteous should flourish and the wicked come to a bad end — doesn’t seem to be holding.

Thus, the psalmists complain to God, and through their songs and poetry, invite the worshiping community to complain with them. To some extent, this is a matter of saying to God, “I don’t like my situation; would you please do something about it?” But at a deeper level, the complaint is theological: “This is not the way you created things to be, and only you can do something about it.”

I have said before (and will probably say again and again) that the lament psalms give us permission to complain to God. Indeed, some psalms are bitter, angry, vengeful, and not in the least bit polite. It’s not the kind of language we’d expect of good church folk — but there it is in our Bibles, in black and white.

But these complaints of dis-orientation are voiced to God against the background of a particular orientation. There is nothing inherently faithful or worshipful in complaining to God that we didn’t get our way, not if our way isn’t God’s way. The psalms do not authorize any lament whatsoever, but faithful lament, the kind of lament that hungers to see God’s justice and righteousness rule (cf. Matt 5:6).

The lament psalms, therefore, don’t teach us to complain; they teach us to grieve over what grieves God. In our fallibility, of course, our complaints will still have a selfish element, and rest assured, a gracious God of steadfast love can handle it.

The question will be whether we are willing to have our orientation corrected.