Summary: Don’t let religious façades fool you: not all complaining is bad. The psalms are filled with complaints to God about the broken state of things. When it’s OK to complain to God.
Ever notice how there are 2 kinds of complaining in the Bible – one wicked and one righteous?
The people of Israel were grumbling in the ears of Adonai about their hardship…
God of my salvation,
In the first example, Israel is complaining about limited food selection while on the journey from Egypt to Canaan. The complaint is unrighteous; God’s anger burns against the people.
In the second example, the psalmist is complaining about his life troubles. The complaint is righteous; God listens to the psalmist’s prayer.
What’s the difference? When is it acceptable to complain to God?
Rooted in Torah’s Ryan White spoke at my congregation recently on life in the psalms. He showed how the Psalms reflect human reality; they’re not all joy and praise and happiness.
- In Psalm 69, the psalmist lays bare his hardships to God, likening his life to a man slowly drowning. He keeps calling out to God for help; but his voice is weakening. He keeps looking for God, but his eyes are failing.
- In Psalm 94, he calls on God to rise up and take vengeance on wicked people. How long will wicked people win; how long will good people continue to be walked on? People laugh and mock and say God pays no attention. Will the God who formed the ear not hear? Will the One who crafted the eye not see? Rise up, God! Pay back the wicked for all they’ve done!
- In Psalm 137 – oh boy this is a doozie – the psalmist is utterly grieved by the Babylonians razing Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and taking Israel captive. At the start of the psalm, he laments he can’t even sing God’s praises anymore. By the end of the psalm, he’s praying for the death of his captors and their progeny, blessing those who would kill even their children.
- In Psalm 88 – which I jokingly call the Goth Psalm – is totally dark without any resolution at all. The whole psalm is a complaint, beginning to end. It concludes with the Simon & Garfunkle-esque, “Darkness has become my companion.”
In Psalm 94, the psalmist points out that the wicked are breaking God’s own laws: They slay the widow and the orphan and the foreigner – and they laugh about it, saying there’s no God to judge them. Where are you, God? Where’s Your justice? Rebuke their arrogant mouths! Rise up!
Who can blame the psalmist for asking where God is in that mess? There’s no wrong being done here.
The Psalmist calls out to God to keep his promises: God, they are afflicting your people, they crush your precious inheritance – won’t you speak out? Will you remain silent while your own people are destroyed before your eyes?
There’s no sin here. This is a righteous complaint.
In Psalm 88, the Goth psalm , the psalmist is holding his hands out to God all day with all his troubles: God, don’t you care? I’m about to die! If things don’t change, I’m going the grave; everyone’s abandoned me, even my friends. God, help me!
What sin is there bringing these legitimate burdens to the Sustainer and Comforter?
In Psalm 137, the psalmist tells God to call to mind the evil that took place and to bring justice: Remember, Lord, what Babylon did when Jerusalem fell! Remember how they said, ‘Raze it to the ground! Strip it to its foundations!’ Oh God, aren’t you the Judge of the earth? Pronounce death on them for their utter contempt of your holy place!
You can’t blame the psalmist for this complaint. God set his name in Jerusalem forever, yet here are a bunch of idolatrous brutes razing it to the ground, raping and killing its inhabitants and having a good laugh about it. Bringing this to God in prayer is a righteous complaint.
Complaints reflect the brokenness of life
Some people might ask why these complaining psalms are even in the Bible. Isn’t the life of a follower of God all joy and happiness and provision?
There’s a perception in the religious world, especially in the Christian Prosperity movement, that we’ll be blessed by God with possessions and money and prosperity.
God made no such promise.
While God does give joy and provides, to say we’ll be without needs or cares or troubles is a selective, narrow reading of the Bible.
And more importantly, it doesn’t reflect the reality of our own lives. I’ve never met a religious person who is all joy and no troubles. I’ve never seen a believer without hardships and problems, some of them so deep rooted and ingrained that there’s even a sense of hopelessness when you talk to them.
In such cases, people complain to God and are entirely justified doing so.
Being trampled on by bad people? Complain to God, tell him to make good on his promises.
Your enemies are doing whatever they feel like, while you’re maintaining a faithful life with God? Complain to God, tell him you want to see justice, and that you’re still waiting for vindication.
Has your life been one mess after another, despite all your prayers and faithful service to Him? Complain to God; why should wicked people live joyfully and securely while the righteous suffer? Call on God to keep his promise that he will listen to the cries of the troubled. Tell him to keep his promise that he’ll take vengeance on those who afflict the oppressed.
There’s no shame in these complaints because they’re calling on God to be faithful and rectify the situation.
By contrast, when Israel complained to God during the exodus, their complaints were not justified:
The people of Israel were grumbling in the ears of Adonai about their hardship…The grumblers began to have cravings, so the children of Israel began to wail repeatedly, saying, “If we could just eat some meat! We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt, for free—the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic! But now we have no appetite. We never see anything but this manna.”
It should be obvious why this is a wicked complaint. In case it’s not, let me rephrase the quote:
“Whaaaaaaaaa! I want meat! Not this stupid old food that is divinely provided from heaven every night by the hand of God who delivered us from Egyptian slavery and certain death.”
God already provided, and you’re complaining about that provision. That’s an unrighteous complaint.
(Nevermind that these people *would not have even been alive* had God not intervened, opened the sea, closed it on the pursuer, provided water and food, a fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day…)
And religious people today are too quick to complain with these illegitimate complaints. In Stop Your Religious Whining!, I argued that we often complain about illegitimate things.
- “This chicken wasn’t raised in a cage-free environment! Don’t eat it!”
- “Look at evil Big Pharma! I refuse to get medical treatment by modern witchcraft!”
- “The government is so terrible! I want to hole myself up in my basement with my lifetime supply of toilet paper and prepper canned foods. When it all comes crashing down, I’ll be laughing from my heavily fortified concrete underground bunker.”
These complaints aren’t righteous.
Unlike the righteous complaints in the Psalms, there is no calling on God to keep a promise. No crying to God for help. No demands for justice.
These are nit-picky, first-world personal preferences made up in religious wrapping paper. They produce little good. I’m not saying you can’t be selective about your food or medical treatment. But don’t dress it in self-righteous religious wrapping when you abstain from that chicken that wasn’t raised in a cage-free, free roaming environment.
God’s provided so much, we can default to gratefulness.
I won’t complain about food, because God’s provided an abundance and we’ve never had to live through a famine.
I won’t complain about medicine, because God’s provided it and we don’t suffer from devastating plagues of yesteryear.
I won’t waste my breath on the government; God’s provided such that we can actually practice our faith openly without persecution.
Faithful complaining brings complaints to God, but unlike faithless grumbling, it calls on God to keep his promises, deliver, heal, rise up and avenge; to rectify otherwise hopeless situations.
I cry aloud with my voice to Adonai.
With my voice I seek favor from Adonai.
I pour out my complaint before Him,
before Him I tell my trouble.