Did you know there is a faithless way to complain, and a faithful way to complain?
The Bible often refers to faithless complaining as grumbling and warns us not to do that (Numbers 14:26–30; John 6:43; Philippians 2:14; James 5:9). Here’s why: grumbling directly or indirectly declares that God is not sufficiently good, faithful, loving, wise or powerful. Otherwise, He would run the universe more justly for us. Faithless complaining is sinful because it accuses God of doing wrong.
This Lent, I’ve been sobered by the realization that I tend to err on the side of grumbling through suffering. I can confidently say that learning the alternative – lament – in scriptures this past week has changed my life forever.
Faithful complaining does not call God into question with wrong. It’s an honest expression of what it’s like to experience the suffering and grief of living in this fallen world (Romans 8:20–23). It’s a type of prayer that’s sorrowful yet always rejoicing. It’s the prayer of the humble. The scriptures call this kind of faithful complaining, lament. And they teach us how to do it.
Not only does God hear and understand our pain, but He desires to enter into it (see Romans 8:26).“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Lament is the God-given prayer language for our pain. For example:
Jeremiah lamented over Israel’s sin: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.” (Lamentations 1:16)
The psalmists lamented in times of trouble: “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.” (Psalm 142:1-2)
Jesus lamented over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37)
When we lament, we are in good company. Virtually all of our ancestors of the faith were thoroughly “acquainted with grief”. Jeremiah is often referred to as “the weeping prophet”, for goodness sake! And our Savior himself was, “a man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3).
Consider Jesus, who enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God. How devastating was His longing, and how deep was His pain when He took upon the judgment of God on the cross? All lament points us to Jesus in whom all of our suffering finds its fulfillment.
Nothing compares to the shock and horror of when Jesus was separated from the Father. The excruciating physical, spiritual pain of the world’s guilt upon Him did not even compare. On the cross, He took up the lament of David: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Saying this, He not only took our sin upon himself (2 Corinthians 5:21) but didn’t he also voice our laments? Basically, all our laments boil down to two questions: “God, where are you?” and, “God, if you love me, then why?”.
If Jesus was God’s answer to the ages of laments, how did he end up in the most lamentable position of all? The Jews had expectations (and everyone else, for that matter), about the long-awaited Messiah. They hoped he would conquer the Romans and set the Israelites free. Instead, he died at the hand of the Romans. They wanted the Messiah to give them answers. Instead, Jesus gave himself. He conquered our real enemies: sin, Satan, and death. Jesus did not take away our lamenting, He took it up. Having endured the cross, He secured for us the one thing we need more than anything: himself. He gave us the presence of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and promised to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). God will never ask us to lament without His presence. Therefore, we will never lament without hope.
In my own lamenting, I’ve found the surprising hope of hesed the psalmists wrote about to point me the most to Jesus. The first time I learned about lamenting and hesed was in 2014. I was a campus missionary in the Netherlands, and the first solid 6-months I battled depression. It was one of the grayest, foggiest, and most miserable times of my life. I didn’t know it then, but God was teaching me about one of the precious gifts I’ve ever been given.
Hesed is a rich, complex Hebrew word that we translate in the Old Testament to, “steadfast love”. According to Walker and Haug, the hesed of God is a combination of three things: strength in action, fierce commitment, and tender emotional care. See below how the steadfast love of the Lord gives hope to the psalmists in their lamenting:
“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? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. 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.” (Psalm 13, emphasis added)
“I cried to him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me! (Psalm 66: 17-20, emphasis added)
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.” (Lamentations 3:21-25, emphasis added)
See also Psalm 22, 42, 46, 51, and 107.
So, what do you do with suffering? You lament. Grief and disappointment? You lament. Depression and anxiety? You lament. Injustices on our streets and around the globe? You lament. Sin? You lament. You lay it all at the feet of Jesus, surrendering. Don’t let the enemy lead you into self-righteous grumbling for your pain within and without! Put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6) and pray the prayer of lament.
May God replace all of our grumblings with lament. As we learn the lost language of lament may we become women revived by God’s steadfast love. And may we have the kind of courage and faith it takes to lament with and for one another.
What are you grieved by – in your life or the world around you?
How has God used lament to draw you to Himself?
How have you experienced God’s steadfast love in your life?