Permission to Complain
Throughout my high school years, I worked part time bagging groceries. The store owner always encouraged his employees to ask customers how they were doing. So, as the years passed, I came to expect certain responses from people when I asked, “How are you?” One common response was, “I can’t complain, because no one will listen anyway!” Perhaps, you’ve said this line yourself. I think it reveals one of our society’s golden rules: “There’s no use in complaining.” But what if I were to tell you that there is a use in complaining? Would you believe me? What if complaining can actually provide a pathway to peace? What if, by suppressing our deepest complaints, we actually fail to work through what is really causing us pain, frustration, and grief? And, if we fail to work through all those raw emotions, then they grow in us in ways we never could have imagined…and they stay with us for much longer than we want them to.
When we fail to be honest about our complaints, we begin to project a false self to those around us. We act like we have it all together…like life is sublime…but, in reality, we are hurting. All we want to do is scream, but we know we can’t. So, we bury our pain deep within us.
Yet, so many of us don’t want to project a false self. We want to be honest—with ourselves and with others. We want to live into our true self. One of the keys to opening the door to your true self is the ability to complain. Of course, I don’t mean complaining over every little thing that annoys us in a day. I’m talking about addressing those things that are bringing deep sadness, anger, and pain to our lives.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we call these complaints “laments.” A lament is an act of worship that is often missing in faith communities today. As one author put it, lament psalms offer us “edited language to give expression to our unedited emotions.” These laments, that are often found in the Psalms, give us language to be honest about what is really going on inside.
In this week’s Scripture mediation, I’ve given an example of one such psalm. The psalmist complains, “How long, O Lord?” The psalmist is waiting for God to act, to bring change, to start something new. He then petitions God, “Look on me and answer.” And then, by faith, he puts his trust in the One he complains to, saying, “But I trust in your unfailing love.” This is the standard model for a lament: complaint, petition, and trust.
What complaints are in your heart today? Have you been honest about them? Have you voiced them? The psalmist reminds us of a God who is big enough to hold all our complaints…who doesn’t shame us for feeling depressed, anxious, or afraid…who is always there to listen, even when we think God is the one to blame.
Maybe Psalm 13 is the lament for you during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the words, “How long, O Lord?” is all you know how to pray these days. Be comforted, for you are in good company. Even the psalmist had seasons when all he could say was, “How Long, O Lord?” But may this complaint lead you to that sense of trust and rest that the psalmist finds in God.
Other Psalms of Lament include:
Psalm 5, 6, 17, 22, 41, 88, and 109.
Grace and Peace,
 W. David O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life. Nashville, TN; Nelson Books, 2020. Pg 69.