Lament: Self-Indulgent Whining, or Faithful Complaints? [Part 1]

J. Todd Billings
Who likes a complainer? Complainers are unsettling to be around. Holiday meals  ruined by laborious and endless complaints about how life has shortchanged them - the car that broke down too early, the college that should have given admission, the nurse who should have done the job better. A few hours with a complainer are just about enough to make one want to write an anonymous note: "DON'T YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO BE THANKFUL FOR??"

Yet, when I was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 39, I opened up my Bible to find models for prayer, and there they were: complaints, left and right. What's going on? Whatever happened to "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (Phil. 4:4)? Perhaps not all kinds of "complaining" are the same. After all, the same Paul who wrote this to the Philippians also wrote, "the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans;" and "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:26, 22-3).  But it's not just Paul. Our Lord Jesus wept over Jerusalem, wept tears of blood in the garden, and crying out on the cross complained to his father, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" 

Of course, Jesus is praying with the Psalmist when he utters this cry on the cross. As I spent more and more time in study and prayer with the Psalms I realized how often I had been "skipping over" its sharp cries of grief, its protests to the Lord, its complaints about enemies. In a Christianity always seeking to be upbeat, centered on helping us to discover and fulfill our dreams, I had missed the centrality of lament: raw complaints and protests before the Lord. As a cancer patient whose life expectancy had likely been chopped off by decades, I felt grief and anger. But am I supposed to "bring those emotions to church," and risk being a complainer? The prayer of Psalm 102:23-24 was clear enough: "In the course of my life he broke my strength; he cut short my days. So I said: 'Do not take me away, my God, in the midst of my days.'" Apparently, God can handle our complaints. The Psalmist not only brings anger and grief before the Lord. He blames God. "He cut short my days." Yet, he also trusts God and his promises enough to bring his complaint into God's presence. The Psalmist trusts God enough to throw God's promises back at him when they don't seem to be coming true. This complaint is not self-indulgent sulking at a Holiday meal. This complaint emerges from grief and anger - but even more deeply, from trust in the Almighty and his promises.

Underlying the psalmist's lament is the confidence that the God of Israel is King - YHWH is the sovereign, covenant Lord. "The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! (Ps. 99:1-4)The knowledge and power of the sovereign Lord are not limited like that of human beings. "Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me" (Ps. 139:4-5). These, and countless other passages in the rest of Scripture, testify that God is the one sovereign King. It is precisely out of trust that God is sovereign that the psalmist repeatedly brings laments and petitions to the Lord.

Thus, the psalms of lament are not like the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness, who displayed a lack of faith in God's promises. Because of their faith in God's sovereignty, the psalmists have high expectations of God; and because they take God's promises seriously, they lament and protest when it appears that God is not keeping his promises. God is sovereign, and God is good - thus God is to be trusted in prayer. But God is also to blame, in some sense, when crisis occurs and his promises appear to be unfulfilled.

In what sense, exactly, does the psalmist blame God amidst crisis? The psalmist does not "blame" God in the sense of a judge who blames a defendant as he delivers a verdict and dismisses the defendant from the courtroom. If the psalmists had already decided the verdict -that God is indeed unfaithful - they would not continue to offer their complaint. Instead, the psalmists blame God in the interrogative, with raw, unanswered questions that cling to the hope of God's covenant promise: Why am I in this crisis if the Lord's covenant promise is true? God promises not to forsake his people (e.g. Deut. 31:8) - thus it is ultimately out of trust in this promise that Jesus joins the Psalmist in crying out "My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?" (Ps. 22:1) In the context of covenant fellowship, God's people can cry out to their covenant Lord in complaint, even in protest and open-ended blame, until God shows his faithfulness according to his covenant promise.

It is not only Psalms of lament, but also Psalms of thanksgiving which dare to hold God responsible in the midst of the calamity, even as they continue to trust the Lord's power and goodness. Before breaking into thanksgiving, the psalmist declares in Psalm 66, "You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water" (v. 11). After this declaration that God was responsible for these "burdens," for being caught in the net, thanksgiving is offered that "yet you have brought us out to a spacious place" (v. 12). In a similar way, before recalling the lament in Psalm 30, the poet simply says, "You hid your face; I was dismayed" (v. 7). Yet, as in Psalm 66, not only the crisis but the deliverance is attributed to God. "You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever" (30:11-12). The poet's thanksgiving is a recollection of God's mighty acts of deliverance--deliverance from "death" and "the Pit" (30:9). Yet thanks is given in a way that bows before mystery rather than trying to overpower it. At the heart of both thanksgiving and lament is hope in a God who is both good and almighty - the Lord who is faithful to his promises.

The psalmist complains, but not as a self-indulgent "complainer." On the one hand, the Psalmist does not seek to bottle up his emotions before God; on the other hand, his lament is also more than simply "venting" before God. The Psalmists brings all of their emotions - their whole selves - before the Almighty, not simply in order to "feel better," or to get an intellectual answer to the problem of evil. The Psalmist offers complaints - and thanksgiving for deliverance - because they trust in God's covenant promise. The Psalmist poses open questions, and makes pleas and petitions on the basis of a covenant promise. 

God does not always act in the way that the Psalmist wants. And although God is good, he is not so distant from evil that he simply mourns with the sufferer, able to do nothing about it. Instead, the Psalmist blames God in the calamity, and thanks God for deliverance, all on the basis of the Lord's covenant promises. God does not promise a cure for my cancer or a long life with a comfortable retirement at the end. The God of Scripture is not a means to be used for our own desired ends. Yet, the God of Scripture does promise to be faithful to his people, a faithfulness whose expression is nothing less than the promise that his love for us in Christ is so steady and powerful that not even death can separate us (Rom. 8:39). God is the King - sin, corruption, and death will not have the final word, even if that is how it looks right now. For we, along with the psalmist, now expectantly wait in "this dark world" (Eph. 6:12) for the sovereign Lord to act on the basis of his covenant promises. "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning" (Ps. 130:5-6). 

J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. He is the author of several books, including the Christianity Today Book Award Winner Union with Christ and Calvin, Participation and the Gift. Part of this article is adapted - with generous permission from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group - from his book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015).