complaint

Learning to Complain Well

From trivial setbacks to tragic losses, life has a crushing nature about it. As humans living in a cursed world, we are continuously confronted with the reality of disappointment. It may be as simple as a conversation going sideways or a complaintcheck not coming in the mail. But often, it’s more complex. A wife married to a man for forty years discovers her spouse was attracted to men all along. A man who gave his life to overseas missions witnesses his work burned to the ground by extremists. A young couple eager for their first child hears silence during the ultrasound. In these moments no one is immune from the deep-seated emotions that rise up within: disappointment, frustration, anger, sorrow, fear, regret, etc.

Lately I’ve been meditating on what our response should be when disappointment knocks on our door. When it comes, and it always does, what do we do? Where do we direct our emotions? What thoughts do we allow to simmer? How do we speak to ourselves?

Specifically, as Christians, how do we pour out complaints to God in a way that honors him?

 

In these moments no one is immune from the deep-seated emotions that rise up within: disappointment, frustration, anger, sorrow, fear, regret…What do we do? Where do we direct our emotions?

 

I find two equal and opposite errors when answering this question. One is to pretend like disappointment isn’t painful and the other is to allow pain to discolor all truth. The overly pious reply says lowly humans dare not approach a holy, sovereign God with personal complaints. It’s unthinkable to disrespect him by questioning his will. Your only option is to bottle up your complaints and allow bitterness to darken your heart. In stark contrast, the overly casual response says God can handle anything, including our “screw you” complaints. It’s equally unimaginable to try and control any outburst of emotion that accompanies disappointment. You are encouraged to pour out all thoughts in the heat of the moment regardless of how irreverent or untrue they are. Although there are fragments of truth in both answers, as we learn to think biblically and theologically, we would be wise to reject either extreme.

Thankfully, the Bible presents a godly alternative to both views—it teaches us to complain well.

Complaining well entails two components: pouring out honest complaints before God and affirming God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of it. In Scripture we find real encounters between God and man. We witness biblical characters pouring out their complaints before God in intimate, vulnerable scenes. Yet, we see them move towards God, not away from God, in these moments by verbally affirming his covenantal faithfulness. They don’t withhold raw emotion nor do they develop a “screw you” mentality. Instead, they pour out their hearts while simultaneously placing their hope in God again and again.

 

We witness biblical characters pouring out their complaints before God in intimate, vulnerable scenes. Yet, we see them move towards God, not away from God, in these moments by verbally affirming his covenantal faithfulness.

 

Psalm 13 exemplifies this two-part encounter. David cries out,

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Ps. 13:1-2).

He continues his lament through verse 4, but ends on a note of assurance,

“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Ps. 13:5-6).

Did David think the Lord forgot him or did he think the Lord dealt bountifully with him? Yes! It is not an either/or; it is a both/and. He expressed feelings of abandonment while concurrently acknowledging trust in God’s care. David came into the presence of a holy God and communicated genuine complaints to him. He didn’t try to pretend like things were okay when they weren’t. Nor did he give God religious lip service and then mentally stew on his misfortunes. But David also knew the Lord was a good God. He went beyond his complaints to verbally confess his trust in God’s steadfast love. He believed in his heart God had dealt well with him. He chose to rejoice in God’s salvation regardless of his emotive state.

 

He went beyond his complaints to verbally confess his trust in God’s steadfast love…He chose to rejoice in God’s salvation regardless of his emotive state.

 

David does this again in Psalm 142,

“With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (Ps. 142:1-2).

Nevertheless, he ends on the same note as Psalm 13,

“Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (Ps. 142:7).

In both Psalms David confesses severe complaints to God, but concludes by affirming the truth that God has dealt bountifully with him. These are only two examples. The two-part complaint is laced all throughout Scripture. Open up almost any Psalm of lament and you will witness this pattern (e.g., Ps. 22, 42, 55, 64, 77, 102). Why do you think God included this in Scripture? Surely, the Holy Spirit had these men write out their complaints knowing it would serve as an example for us today.

As surprising as this may sound, God wants you to complain…but he wants you to do it well.

I think this is why the Bible provides a godly paradigm for pouring out complaints. You would be wise to pay attention and learn from it. Be real and honest in your prayers. Give Jesus the raw, unfiltered complaints in your heart. Share your fears and disappointments, even your accusations and questions. But never stop there! Train yourself to affirm verbally what you know theologically—God is good and through Christ he has dealt well with you. For those of us on this side of the cross we can declare with even more assurance that God has dealt bountifully with us! We are able to end our complaints with a sense of triumph because of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christians, on our worst day, following our greatest disappointment, we still have all we need because we have Jesus. As followers of Jesus we ought to learn this “art” of complaining well, lest we error on the side of religious stoicism or worldly apathy. I encourage you to daily approach God with confidence through your union with Christ as you train yourself to pour out complaints in a way that honors God and edifies you.

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Image Credit: lauren rushing, Creative Commons


Whitney Woollard

About

Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over seven years. She is most passionate about equipping others to read and study God’s Word well, resulting in maturing affections for Christ and a growing understanding of his gospel message. She enjoys drinking coffee, reading theology, talking about Jesus, being outside, going on runs, and spending time with family. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they love serving and supporting the local church.


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