Complaining to God: The Need for Lament

When asked, “Is it is ever a good idea to complain to God?,” many Christians might answer, “probably not.” There are, after all, those accounts of the children of Israel in the OT where their “grumbling” resulted in the judgment of God. And the Apostle Paul himself wrote, “Do all things without grumbling . . . so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14-15).

But if you ask the question using different wording, “Is it ever okay to offer lament to God?,” you might get a blank stare. Or, someone might ask, “What is lament?” To be sure, the word “lament” seems to be a bit out of style. We are somewhat familiar with the idea of lament because there is a book in the Bible called “Lamentations.” While there are some notable exceptions to the rule, you don’t hear a lot about lament in mainstream Christian faith and practice.

“Lament” is “that unsettling biblical tradition of prayer that includes expressions of complaint, anger, grief, despair, and protest to God” (Billman and Migliore, Rachel’s Cry, 6). Lament as an expression of prayer is seen throughout the Bible. One place where its presence is quite notable is in the Book of Psalms. There are Psalms of individual or personal lament (e.g., Pss. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89, 120, 139, 141, 142), and Psalms of corporate or communal lament (e.g., Pss. 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129).

Brown and Miller delineate the features of biblical lament found in specific Psalms of the OT Scripture.

  • “The prayers of Scripture take shape in a form that is consistent enough to impress itself upon the community of faith as a mode of praying that merits imitation in our own prayers.”
  • “That form or structure may itself be the vehicle for carrying the one praying beyond the present predicament into a new mode of trust and confidence.”
  • “Central to such praying is a large element of . . . complaint [lament]: lament in the sense of bemoaning the troubles that one has undergone and that evoke the present prayer; complaint in the sense of arguing with and complaining to God about one’s situation and protesting its continuation.”
  • “Identifying lament and complaint as central elements of biblical prayer has uncovered the possibility, if not the inevitability, of both rage about one’s condition and anger against God as legitimate dimensions of prayer.”
  • “Nearly all of the lament prayers move to some expression of confidence or assurance of being heard. The complaint without trust is not the lament. The complaint is itself an act of trust (see Psalm 22:3-4).”
  • “Such psalms are not merely complaints or laments about one’s condition. They have at their center petitions for God’s help.”
  • “Inasmuch as the fundamental aim of the laments is to seek God’s deliverance from troubles, the various elements of the prayer, including the laments about one’s condition and the complaints against God, are to be understood as acts of persuasion, motivations laid out to persuade God to act in behalf of the innocent, the victim, and the sufferer, that is, to persuade God to be God.”
  • “The lament prayer is not an act of mourning; it is an act of protest” (Brown and Miller, “Introduction,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, xiv-xv).

As we shall see in future posts, this aspect of biblical prayer does have a place in our present day faith and practice. Jesus himself lamented to His Father when in his final words he recited a line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46 cf. Ps. 22:1).

Why do you suppose that so many of God’s people today believe that it is wrong to complain to God?

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