I Pour Out My Complaint

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A few days ago The Gospel Coalition shared a podcast called “What Your Grumbling Says About God“, based on 1 Thessalonians 5:18. The pull quote said:

“If the Lord is entirely sovereign (which he is), and if he is always good to you in Christ (which he is), well then, when we grumble and complain in any circumstance, we’re actually denying God’s involved. Denying that he’s being good. And who do we think we’re grumbling and complaining against?”  

There were a lot of reactions to this, most of them asking how Scriptures like Job, the Psalms or Lamentations fit in such a categorical statement. 

The subject brought to mind a book I read not too long ago, The God I Don’t Understand, by Christopher J. H. Wright. One of the themes he talked about was the importance of lament. We have a tendency to think that faith is expressed by stoicism in the face of suffering, since “everything comes from the Lord”. Like the author of the podcast, we think that complaining, in any circumstances, is denying God’s goodness. But this is a burden that God does not place on our shoulders. Wright had some helpful things to say on this subject:

“In the Bible, which we believe is God’s Word, such that what we find in it is what God wished to be there, there is plenty of lament, protest, anger, and baffled questions. The point we should notice (possibly to our surprise) is that it is all hurled at God, not by his enemies, but by those who loved and trusted him most. It seems, indeed, that it is precisely those who have the closest relationship with God who feel most at liberty to pour out their pain and protest to God – without fear of reproach. Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled for us in abundance. God seems to want to give us as many words with which to fill in our complaint forms as to write our thank-you notes. Perhaps this is because whatever amount of lament the world causes us to express is a drop in the ocean compared to the grief in the heart of God himself at the totality of suffering that only God can comprehend…

It surely cannot be accidental that in the divinely inspired book of Psalms there are more Psalms of lament and anguish than of joy and thanksgiving. These are words that God has actually given us. God has allowed them a prominent place in His authorized songbook. We need to find both forms of worship in abundance as we live in this wonderful, terrible world.

I feel that the language of lament is seriously neglected in the church. Many Christians seem to feel that somehow it can’t be right to complain to God in the context of corporate worship when we should all feel happy. There is an implicit pressure to stifle our real feelings because we are urged, by pious merchants of emotional denial, that we ought to have “faith” (as if the moaning psalmists didn’t). So we end up giving external voice to pretended emotions we do not really feel, while hiding the real emotions we are struggling with deep inside. Going to worship can become an exercise in pretense and concealment, neither of which can possibly be conducive for a real encounter with God. So, in reaction to some appalling disaster or tragedy, rather than cry out our true feelings to God, we prefer other ways of responding to it.

It’s all part of God’s curse on the earth.

It’s God’s judgment.

It’s meant for a warning.

It’s ultimately for our own good.

God is sovereign so that must make it all OK in the end.

But our suffering friends in the Bible didn’t choose that way. They simply cry out in pain and protest against God – precisely because they know God. Their protest is born out of the jarring contrast between what they know and what they see.”[1]

In this dysfunctional and painful world, we express our faith not by suppressing pain, feigning contentment, or trying understand everything, but by taking our lament before the presence of God – as the psalmists, prophets and other saints before us – while we await the dawn of the Day of justice.

Pour out your heart before him (Psalm 62:8)

Cast all your anxiety on him (1 Peter 5:7)

[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan 2008), pp. 49-52

A fitting prayer:

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I’ve seen this quote several times on Facebook (I know, the irony) and I have something to say.

I don’t like it.

I realize that people share it with the best of intentions, namely (I assume) to inspire us to be better stewards of time.

But I still don’t like it.

Of course, my taste in quotes is hardly a guiding principle in matters of right and wrong, but let me explain. I think this quote presents problems. It builds on

a) a fallacy about the nature of a proper prayer life, and
b) a fallacy about the role of pleasure/enjoyment in the Christian life.

So about prayer or the lack thereof. Most of us have been thoroughly intimidated by stories of spiritual giants who spent solid, consecutive hours daily on their knees. But let’s be honest: practically no one has the time, liberty or stamina to emulate them. I know I don’t.

But there is good news! The Bible never actually tells us to do this. Neither does it give us to understand that prayer marathons are supposed to be part of our daily routine, or that they give Christians more spiritual status or leverage. What we are told is: Pray without ceasing. Or as other versions put it, Pray continually. Pray all the time. Never stop praying. That is about relationship, not about timetables. It’s about a “continual God-consciousness”, as John MacArthur puts it, about “recurring prayer, not nonstop talking”.(1) About abiding in Christ. I am reasonably sure that on the aforementioned Last Day, the Lord is not going to produce a tally sheet and confront us with the sum of hours we spent using the social networks vs. the sum of hours we spent in formal prayer.

In fact, why time spent on the social networks is presented as a censurable activity brings me to my second peeve.

First of all, WHY do we foster the puritanical notion that anything that gives pleasure or enjoyment is at odds with spirituality? We forget that God is the Designer of the five senses, the Maker – as C. S. Lewis had Screwtape point out – of the pleasures. (Check this out: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april/lighten-up-christians-god-loves-good-time.html?paging=off). Enjoyment is not a waste of time. It’s part of the God-designed human experience.

And why should we pretend prayer and social networks are incompatible? They needn’t be unless we make them so; no more than prayer and knitting should be incompatible – prayer and family barbecues – prayer and baseball with the kids – prayer and car-washing – prayer and scrapbooking – prayer and eating ice cream – prayer and studying for exams – well, you get the idea. Prayerlessness is not a consequence of Facebook any more than it is of any other normal human activities.

In the second place, please, let’s be real: we ALL do things to unwind, enjoyable things, fun things. Maybe Mr. Piper’s way of unwinding doesn’t involve Facebook or Twitter; he may prefer to sit down with a book, play solitaire on the computer, watch a movie, have a game of chess, go camping, plan a romantic dinner with his wife, play football with his grandchildren. But that doesn’t make a game of Candy Crush, a coffee over Pinterest, some tweets or a debate on a Facebook thread somehow cheaper diversions, less classy choices.

Now before I climb off my little soapbox, I’d like to counterbalance some of the Social Networks Bashing I encounter. These are a couple of the gifts that Facebook drops into my life:

On my Bitmoji soapbox. Make one, they’re fun 😉

Interaction. I have a husband, four kids, a cat and a garden, and that means most of my life right now rolls at home. Facebook, however, gives me the opportunity to meet, chat, laugh, poke, argue and even share coffee breaks with my friends. All without leaving the house!

Fellowship. Most of my family – both my blood family and my Christian family – is scattered across the globe. I owe to Facebook the daily connection I enjoy with them. Stimulating conversations, funny quotes, encouraging words, photos of loved ones, theological discussions, snatches of everyday life… All this and more is channeled to me through Facebook.

On the Last Day I may greatly regret all the time I wasted in edification, fellowship and fun via the social networks. Maybe, John Piper. But I doubt it.

(1) https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA157/what-does-it-mean-to-pray-without-ceasing