How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)
The two verses, above, from Psalm 13, are an example of how “complaint” can be a form of prayer. This is the topic I am addressing this week.
In many cultures there are time-honored and acceptable ways for expressing feelings of grief, distress, sadness or righteous indignation. In America, a genre of music called, the Blues, often serves this purpose. The lyrics of Blues songs frequently address such topics as the heartbreak of unrequited love, the misery of being without money or a job, or the sorrow that can arise from sickness or the death of a loved one.
Singing the Blues can have a therapeutic effect. I know this from personal experience. When I’m going through a difficult time in my life, sometimes I put on the Blues and sing along. I don’t feel quite so weighed down after a session of giving voice to my complaint or lament. The Blues work because they offer up plenty of emotional honesty, which is key to a good (and cathartic) lament or complaint.
Christians have access to an ancient and more hopeful version of the Blues found in a number of the psalms. Reading through these psalms can provide an effect even more beneficial than singing the Blues because they are in essence prayers – prayers to our God who listens to us with unfailing love and without condemnation.
In them King David expresses his complaint about how the wicked men of the world seem to go unpunished (Psalm 10 offers us a good example of this), or about God’s apparent slowness to come to his aid (see Psalm 88) or his lament about the suffering he experiences at the hands of evildoers (see Psalm 22).
However, some Christians are uncomfortable expressing such feelings before God and have difficultly acknowledging that these expressions are prayers. Yet, Jesus quotes the lament of Psalm 22 when he cries out while dying on the cross, “My God, my God, why
have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) And in their Good Friday services many Christian churches use the psalms of lament and complaint as prayer. Instead of cautioning us against complaining and lamenting to God, Scripture endorses this practice and gives us a model for how to do it.
So rest assured God is not offended should you offer up prayers of complaint or lament. He knows we need to find a way to vent our pent-up emotions, just as children need to do with their earthly parents, sometimes. A friend of mine told me about how her young son sometimes expresses his disappointment or frustration by railing with all his might as she holds him in her arms. She doesn’t mind at all. She understands his need to give voice to his feelings in a way that doesn’t cause harm to him or her. If a child cannot learn how to express such feelings safely, he or she will suffer emotional distress later on in life.
Likewise, our heavenly Father knows we need to find a way to express, in a healthy way, our feelings of anger, resentment or grief in prayer. In the psalms of lament and complaint King David begins with a question, such as the one at the beginning of this post, or this one from Psalm 10: Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (v.1) Next, he often provides more details about his complaint or lament, such as the wrongs done to him by evil men or God’s apparent unresponsiveness to his suffering.
It’s important to note that David does not hold back. He is not afraid of offending God. He gives full expression to his emotions but he does not lose his equilibrium. Neither does he make the mistake of giving in to self-pity. What keeps his prayer from becoming a tirade or an occasion to wallow in misery is the fact he never forgets whom he is addressing and the respect God is owed. David always intersperses or concludes his complaints or laments with praise and thanksgiving. (And, he doesn’t hesitate to petition God for what he wants, asking for a remedy to the wrong done to him.)
In the Lamentations of Jeremiah, another example of regret and lament, we find a similar component. At the center of this book, found in the Old Testament, is an expression of hope in God’s goodness:
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (3:21-23)
Likewise, in our prayers of complaint or lament it is also important to call to mind just who God is: the great Jehovah, who created the world and all that is in it, who loves us with an unfailing love, who is merciful, and who suffered death on the cross for our redemption. By acknowledging God’s authority and goodness, in the midst of expressing our deepest frustrations or most intimate woes, we will not be overwhelmed by our emotions, nor will we leave ourselves open to the temptation to give up on God.
Even a reluctant expression of praise or thanksgiving safeguards our heart and mind from a downward spiral of anger or grief. It also serves to remind us that God will, in time, answer our complaint and soothe our grief. Our heavenly Father, who loves us even more than we love our own children, will not leave us forsaken.
So next time you need to let loose with your frustrations, turn to the psalms for a model for how to “pray” the Blues.
Next week: Adding up the components of prayer.