Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lament or Complaint?

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion (Ps. 137:1, ESV).
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1, ESV)
This year we've spent a good many posts discussing the spiritual practice of celebration and delight, but that is not the only appropriate emotional response to the life circumstances God assigns us.

My Bible reading lately has been in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Lamentations, and a bleak stretch it is. Israel has persisted in disobedience and idolatry for so long and to such an extent that God sends Assyrian and Babylonian forces to conquer them and carry most of the people away into 70 years of captivity. Jerusalem is besieged and sacked, the temple is destroyed, and the Glory has departed.

In the face of such catastrophe, faith does not demand that we put on a plastic smile when our hearts are breaking. God does not desire us to be false with Him. Grief is a spiritual discipline, too, and at times the only right and appropriate response.

Godly grief expresses itself in the laments of Scripture. Job's speeches and Lamentations fall in this category, and individual or corporate lament is the largest subgenre of the Psalms (which more generally constitute lyric poetry). Scholars estimate that at least a third of the Psalms express lament; a few examples include Psalms 13, 22, 40, 59, 74, 88, and 109.

The Thomas Nelson Study Bible describes Biblical lament this way:
In the lament psalms, we hear the strong, emotional words of sufferers. These are words written by real people in very difficult situations. Sometimes the forcefulness of the psalmists' complaints against God is shocking. But these godly sufferers know that God will not be angry with their honesty, for even when they scream at God, it is a scream of faith (887).
These are the prayers for the sleepless nights and weary days, for the seasons when we feel like Bilbo Baggins, "too little butter spread over too much bread," for the days which seem more Romans 7 than Romans 8, for hospital rooms and funeral homes. The sheer multitude of laments in Scripture bears witness that hardship is a commonplace in life in a fallen world, yet God desires to fellowship with us in the midst of suffering as we cry out to Him. What is more, they offer us a guide for how to do so and give us words when we have no words.

Although no strict pattern applies to every lament, common elements include
  • an initial cry to God,
  • the list of complaints,
  • a profession of reliance on God,
  • a presentation of reasons God should intervene (such as past covenants, promises, and actions that shape the psalmist's expectations of the future),
  • specific requests for deliverance and action, and
  • a resolution to praise (TNSB, 887, and Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 114-115).
These elements may occur in any order or repeat, and some may not appear at all. Psalm 88 never turns the corner from lament to praise, which gives me comfort and confidence that I don't even need to pretend that before God.

However, Israel incurs God's displeasure and discipline when they whine and complain. What's the difference between grumbling and lament?

As I've been mulling this over ever since that earlier post and the comment dialogue on "Worn Out," I believe there are at least four areas of difference:
  • Audience: Grumbling speaks about God to other people; lament addresses God directly in prayer. This resembles the difference between gossip and conflict resolution.
  • Content: Complaint disputes God's previously revealed character; lament seeks to reconcile God's character with circumstances that seem to contradict it.
  • Attitude: Grumbling stems from a heart of unbelief; lament worships in wounded faith.
  • Result: Whining produces rebellion; lament limps forward in obedience as best it can.
Amid all the disasters and crises in the daily news, the personal trials, and the national preparation for the September 11 decade memorial, it comforts me to know that I can pour out my heart like water before the Lord (Lamentations 2:19) and mourn with Him as well as dance for joy. Learning about lament set me free to do that, even writing my own laments from the patterns above, and I have found the Psalms helpful guides to prayer in times of trouble. May you also find blessing in these thoughts as you grow in relationship with God in the hard times as well as the glad.

This week I'm giving thanks to God for
~freedom to be honest with God even if I'm wounded or angry with Him
~His involvement in every sphere and circumstance of life
~guides to prayer, grief, and worship in the Scriptures themselves
~the indwelling Holy Spirit interceding for us when we have no words
~the whole counsel of the Bible
~a good report from a loved one's medical test
~a surprise package from a dear friend
~a note from another I hadn't heard from in years
~opportunity to give of our plenty to international students recently arrived here
~an update and new photo from one of our sponsored children
~ability to drive myself to all 3 medical appointments last week
~long weekend
~2 days with the alarm clock off
~0.25" rain to cool things off one morning
~an improvised salad that tasted good to both of us (if you're wondering what, a bed of lettuce topped with thinly sliced turkey lunch meat, bacon crumbles, goat cheese, dried figs, diced pear, grapes, and walnuts)
~sourdough with hummus
~roses in the kitchen
~Allen's company at the cardiologist and PT Tuesday (prayers welcome for extra strength and a good heart report)
~possibility of a break from PT appointments after this week (continuing to train without supervision at home)
(from the gratitude list, #1428-1446)


  1. Wonderful to find your site - visiting from A Holy Experience! I really enjoyed this post; I too am reading Jeremiah and yes, it weighs a bit heavy on the heart to read God's anger and disappointment. Yet at the same time He is promising forgiveness and salvation! So encouraging as I stumble a lot. He is the first that I reach to in times of trouble, from the days as a child, I've depended on Him. Thank you for this post - it is a heartwarming reminder of His mercy and love for us. Oh, we also recently received an updated photo and report from our sponsor child in Mali! Have a blessed week!

  2. Great post! Very Christina-like in its richness and wealth and weight. My brother made the trip up this weekend. It was his frist visit in about two years; he had to break the trip into two days, each way. But it was amazing and heart-filling to have him here, and--as we sat together in church--I prayed for you.

  3. This such a rich post...I want to copy it and keep it in my Bible. You have given words to very real struggles that seem to escape words sometimes and leave us wondering. The Lord bless you!

  4. @Carrie - Thanks so much for coming by and allowing me to meet you. I appreciate your words of testimony here. When possible, I will return the call at your site. God bless you, also!

    @Brandee - Thank you for your prayers and kind words (as always). I'm so thankful your brother was able to find a way to visit you!! Thanks be to God for that "yes" answer to prayer.

  5. @SusanThank you for such gracious words. And thanks to God for using these thoughts to help and encourage you! The Lord bless you, too.

  6. My favorite professor in college was also my Sunday School teacher. He taught one year on Jeremiah. He's been gone a few years now, but reading your post just now took me back to his wise counsel. Loved reading through all the wisdom here.
    Also, adore Michael Card!
    Your list. . . praise for the rain, salad sounds delicious, and certainly prayers. Blessings, friend.

  7. you've got me, too, mulling over the varied and subtle distinctions between lament, complaint, and whining. i suppose whining is never an appropriate response, whereas either complaining or lamenting may be. i think, though, that we tend to think that the point of complaining is tied to its changing someone's mind and/or behavior (so people sometimes respond to complainers by saying "there's no point complaining to me: i can't do anything about it). i think we're inclined to think that lament can and often does have a point, independently of getting persons to change their attitudes or behavior. as i tend to use the word (tho' perhaps this different from the scriptural use) lamentation is the passionate expression of grief (when a very good thing is lost, or an opportunity to have a very good thing is lost). in such circumstances, independently of practical considerations, i think that lament can be, to use your words, "the only right and appropriate response." in particular, i think that this can be so, when the good lost or forgone was someone else's good: sometimes the most loving thing we can do for those lamenting their loss is to lament along with them, making their grief in some measure our own. in this connection, i was thinking about Luke, 19, 41-42. there we have a passionate expression of grief at the good things that will never happen to Jerusalem and bad things that will happen instead--at the things that Jerusalem could and should have seen, and was blind to instead. I would describe Jesus as lamenting what will befall Jerusalem, even tho' there isn't the kind of "practical focus" there is in complaint--even tho' Jesus is not presenting reasons why the Father should intervene, or requesting deliverance: He's honoring his fallen but still beloved Jerusalem by passionately and unreservedly expressing His grief at all the awful things that are in store for her. again, tho', i may be using 'lament' and its cognates in a rather different way than is typical in scriptural contexts--let me know...

    thanks so much for all the good stuff to think about! you have my prayers for today's appointment with the cardiologist..

  8. “God does not desire us to be false with Him. Grief is a spiritual discipline, too, and at times the only right and appropriate response.”

    I love how you’ve pointed out four areas of difference. This makes it clearer for me. I definitely have had seasons of grief, and I don’t think they have to be dishonoring to God, nor that I have to pretend they don’t exist. You’ve written some great things here to show us biblically that God doesn’t expect our “plastic smiles.”

    Praying you are getting good reports at the cardiologist and PT today!

  9. @chris I'm glad to have gotten you thinking along a new line. I like your addition about lamenting for someone else's lost or forgone good. Thanks for that! Also, Michael Card includes Jesus' lament, the one you cite, in his book, so that seems valid. Also, you're probably right that there is a difference in emotional tone: the Israelites' complaints seem panicky and mutinous more than grief-stricken.

    If you wanted to explore further the source of my distinction between complaint and lament, you could use a tool like Bible Gateway to search on "grumble," with particular attention to Exodus and Numbers results. There are plenty of passages in the post itself as lament examples. When I read through the Pentateuch earlier this year, I got to wondering where the line was between the grumbling the Israelites did about critical practical concerns (millions of people 3 days into the desert with zero water, same song but no food, Pharaoh's army hot on their heels, enemies too big for them to occupy the Promised Land, though the last doesn't use the word "grumble") and the Psalms and other laments. Some of the "matter" of the outcry was the same: drought, famine, enemies overwhelming, but Israel was disciplined for their grumbling yet God seems to honor the laments. Job was awestruck by God's display of majesty, but his friends were the ones rebuked.

    My personal tendency is to turn negative emotions inward. If I'm not meant to complain, maybe it's best not to say anything at all. Learning about lament and trying in my imperfect but prayerful way to discern the right path between grumbling and lament has helped me. I don't pretend to be a scholar; one year of theological school is just enough to make me dangerous. In other words, it's good that you challenge me and test the ideas for yourself!

    Thanks for your prayers and e-mail. There's a half-written draft of an answer, but that's as far as it's gone. Thanks for understanding.


Thank you for sharing your day with me! Your presence here is a gift. *You* are a gift. Right now I am unable to reply to every comment, but please know I read and pray for each and every commenter. Grace and peace to you in Christ.