Column: How to Complain Biblically

By The Rev. Nathan Hart

When I was kid, my parents didn’t allow much complaining in our house. Don’t like the flavor of the peas on your dinner plate? Think about the kids in Africa who don’t have any food at all. Not happy about being seen in our less-than-fancy family car? You can walk to school. How can you complain when we’re so blessed?

Now that I’m a dad, I find myself giving similar signals to my kids. When they were toddlers, I told them that the street between our house and the neighbor’s swimming pool was a “No Whining Zone.” If you whine about anything while we’re on our way to the pool, you can’t go swimming.

I’ve learned to view complaining as an offense to both man and God.

Which is why I find it surprising that some of the heroes of the Bible do a lot of complaining. Most of it is not about peas or cars or swimming pools, but about real tragedies, hardships, and injustices. And when it’s done right, it’s not called complaining, but lamenting. Biblical lament is an expression of sorrow, directed at God, about something in the world that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. God actually loves it when people lament.

For example, in the book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament, Jerusalem was in shambles and the people were pretty upset about it. They had just endured a collective tragedy—the Babylonian exile—and were regathering in their home city only to find more trouble there. Their leaders had failed, their community was divided, and people were in pain.

That sounds pretty familiar: a collective tragedy followed by leadership failures, division, and pain. I couldn’t help but think about the collective tragedy we’ve all endured over the last few years. We’ve seen a global pandemic in which people died, were isolated and restricted far beyond reason; leaders failed to lead well, and almost everyone is still sore about how things went down.

So, how should we respond? Should we just suck it up and not complain, like I tell my kids? Or is there a Biblical lament that fits the occasion? Let’s ask Nehemiah. Nehemiah shows us how to properly lament, instead of just complain, after a collective tragedy. He shows us at least four differences between lamenting and complaining:

1) Biblical lament is directed at God; complaining is directed at other people. Nehemiah begins his prayer by saying, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” (Nehemiah 1:5). Notice how he takes his plea straight to the source: God himself. When we merely complain, we’re often tempted to talk to anyone but the person responsible. We prefer to gossip with others about what someone else did. Lament is a cry to God believing that ultimately God is sovereign and therefore responsible for everything that happens in history. We petition him as the highest authority to do something about the problems we see in the world.

2) Biblical lament is for the sake of others; complaining is all about me. Nehemiah continues, “Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants…” (verse 6) He doesn’t say, “Woe is me, me, me,” but prays “for the people,” that they might receive divine help. Often, when we complain, we’re only focused on our own loss of comfort, convenience, reputation, or ego. We think we deserve luxury or special treatment and we complain when we don’t get it. Lament is a cry for the sake of others. It sees others’ needs and asks God to provide for them. It is not selfish but compassionate.

3) Biblical lament is confessional; complaining is blaming. Nehemiah then says, “[I am] confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded.” (verse 7) This is pretty amazing. Nehemiah was a leader and he could have lost a lot of leadership capital by admitting his own faults. But he was honest with God and described his complicity in the problem. Complaining never does that. Complaining points the finger at everyone else. I recently heard a story of a middle schooler who got an F on her Science test. She came home and reported that the teacher isn’t very good, obviously, because many of the students failed. Not only that, she told her parents that they had failed to help her study properly. Between getting the F in class and arriving at home, she had convinced herself that everyone but her was responsible for her own failed grade. She is like all of us when we complain-blame. We see the speck in the other’s eye by can’t see the log in our own. Biblical lament, on the other hand, freely admits what we ourselves have done wrong. It asks God for forgiveness and correction.

4) Biblical lament is hopeful; complaining is cynical. Lastly, Nehemiah asks God to “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses,” (verse 8) a word that promised to restore and redeem all the broken things in this world. That’s very hopeful when compared to what complaining usually leads to, which is cynicism. When we complain to people about our own inconveniences caused by the faults of others, we become cynical. We believe that everyone around us, especially those we disagree with, are motivated chiefly by self-interest. That’s a sad way to view the world. But Biblical lament remembers the promises of God and hopes in his sovereign plan to work all things for the good of the world he loves.

The result of complaining is pessimism and division; the result of Biblical lament is collective, constructive work for solutions to the problems in the world. In the case of Nehemiah, after his prayer of lament, he led the people to rebuild the rubble of Jerusalem. We can learn from his example. We live in the rubble of the collective tragedy we’ve all endured over the last few years. We can continue to complain about our own losses, blame others while ignoring our own complicity, and become cynical. Or, we can bring our prayer directly to God, pray for the sake of others, confess our sins, and be filled with hope in the promises of God! If we do this, we will be motivated to action. We will do the necessary work of rebuilding our broken and divided world.

The Rev. Dr. Nathan Hart is the Senior Pastor of Stanwich Church.

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