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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“After the Last Tear Falls”

“Nothing happens to the Christian by chance.”

I used to have this quote hanging in my kitchen. It challenged me to accept everything that came into my life – annoyances, disappointments, offenses, illnesses – as chosen by God for my spiritual development. There was another similar one I had written down in a notebook: “Thy home-life was chosen for thee by the unerring skill of One who knows thee better than thou knowest thyself, and who could not mistake. It has been selected as the best school of grace for thee. Its burdens were poised on the hand of infinite love, before they were placed on thy shoulders.”

But one cannot remain cloistered in a kitchen or a notebook forever. Life marched on and as it did I got some uncensored views of the hideous things that actually go on in homes, churches, and society at large. One day I took the quote in my kitchen down and threw it away. It had lost its glow. Such statements, surely, could only be made by the very sheltered or the very obtuse. Try telling someone who was abused by a parent that God chose their home life for them with unerring skill and infinite love. Try telling someone whose spouse deserted them that God himself arranged this event as a lesson in his school of grace. Try telling someone whose best friend was killed by a drunk driver that “nothing happens by chance”.

The problem with this version of Divine sovereignty is that it proposes a God who wields evil as a tool. It also compels people to accept wrongdoing or abusive treatment instead of acknowledging it and putting a stop to it.

Yet this does not mean that we are at the mercy of “the bludgeonings of chance”[1]. The God who does not determine evil and suffering has decreed that they shall not have the final word. In the Deepest Magic of all, as C. S. Lewis might have put it, he has made them “start working backwards”[2].

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, NIV)

This is the thing that offers true hope. Not that we have to accept everything that happens as ordained by God, but that we can accept everything that happens as redeemable by God. “All is not for naught”[3]. I leave you with Rebecca Reynold’s poignant words:

God stands ready to make every problem and difficulty purposeful.

If you are currently in the throes of intense suffering, I don’t expect this talk will be much comfort to you. In the worst moments of my life, there is nothing anyone could have said at a podium that would have helped me. I needed an arm around me. I needed a warm drink. I needed patience and room to grieve. I needed a wide field and permission to yell until I couldn’t yell anymore.

But if you have passed through the first squeeze of pain and now stand dazed, wondering what happened to you and what could possibly come next, maybe this will help somehow. Maybe you will walk with me to the God who didn’t abandon you – though I know it may feel like he did.

I know you may not want to trust Him. You may be angry with Him for allowing you to hurt as much as you did. The thought of Him might make you flinch. But here is the God who sees you:

“He wipes away every tear.”

“He makes all things new.”

“He works all things for the good of those who love Him.”

These are statements of healing that deny neither the grief nor the severity of what you have endured. These statements invite you to be honest about the intensity of your emotions. They allow you to believe that Jesus sometimes sits beside Mary and Martha, weeping in compassion with them, days, decades, an entire lifetime after he has allowed Lazarus to die, and before he raises him from the dead.

And while Jesus weeps in compassion, it’s okay if you do, too… believing what Andrew Peterson has taught us: that after the last tear falls, there will be love, love, love, love, love.

[1]William Ernest Henley, Invictus
[2]C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
[3]Rebecca Reynolds, http://www.thistleandtoad.com/wwwthistleandtoadcom/writings/2016/10/11/the-gift-of-your-suffering-to-the-body-of-christ-hutchmoot-talk-2016 (accessed 04/11/18)