Aug 3, 2012

The Divine Complaint Department

O God, listen to my complaint.
     Protect my life from my enemies’ threats. 

Perhaps one of my least favorite parts of being a pastor is hearing people’s complaints. During my sixteen-year tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was blessed with a congregation that had a praise-to-complaint ratio of something like fifty-to-one. For the most part, church members went out of their way to express their appreciation for the church and its ministry. But, yes, I did hear complaints every now and then. Often, they had to do with music in worship or the misbehavior of somebody in the church. Most people shared their complaints in a way that softened the blow. Still, I must confess that I got tired of hearing what bothered people and often found myself assuming a defensive posture when they approached me with a stern look on their faces. This was especially true when somebody started out a conversation in a way that let me know a complaint was coming.

Thus, when I read Psalm 64, I cringe at the very first line: “O God, listen to my complaint.” I picture God flinching, getting ready to hear something he’d rather not hear. I wonder if God ever gets tired of hearing people’s complaints.

We’re often taught that we should begin our prayers with praise or thanksgiving. Indeed, that a good rule of thumb, one that is modeled in many psalms, as well as the prayer of Jesus we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Yet, there are times when we approach God in such a raw and desperate state that praise and thanks just wouldn’t be honest. What we want to do is complain, to let the Lord know how unhappy we are. The fact that Psalm 64 is in the canon of Scripture suggests that such blunt, bold prayers of grievance are acceptable to the Lord. He wants genuine relationship with us, not some pious show of religiosity. This means that there are times when God graciously works in the divine complaint department.

Some time ago, I experienced a deep disappointment in my life. I won’t go into the details because it involves other people. But, suffice it to say that I found myself profoundly unhappy, not only with them, but also and especially with the Lord. I felt as if he had let me down in a way that seemed unfair and unkind. As I prayed about this, my understanding of God’s love and grace kept me from being fully honest in prayer. I know God is not really unfair and unkind, so how could I tell him what was weighing so heavily on my heart?

One night, I woke up in the early morning hours feeling intensely upset. I knew there was no way I could sleep. So I got up and went to a place in my house where I could speak plainly to the Lord. And so I did. I let God have it: all of my disappointment, my sadness, my sense of injustice, my anger. It felt odd to talk to my Lord that way. But I clung to the biblical invitation to pour out my heart to him and to come before his throne of grace with boldness (see Psalm 62:8; and Hebrews 4:16).

When I was finally too exhausted to pray any more, I did not experience any instant infusion of peace or hope. But I did sense that there was nothing standing between God and me. In his matchless grace, he had taken my best shot, offering a listening ear and his quiet presence. In the following days, I began to find myself trusting God more with the situation that had caused me such grief, not just as a matter of theological conviction, but also as an expression of my heart.

How thankful I am that Scripture models and encourages such openness in prayer that we are free even to share our complaints with the Lord. And how thankful I am that our God is willing to hear us and to embrace us with his mercy.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever complained to God? Do you think there are times when we should not complain to God? When? Why? Do you need to experience in new ways the freedom God gives you to share everything with him?

PRAYER: Gracious God, how thankful I am for the freedom you give me to share myself with you genuinely and openly. Thank you for being willing to hear my complaints. Thank you for inviting me to approach you even with boldness. What an incredible gift and privilege!

Help me, dear Lord, to be fully honest with you. May I learn to be more expressive of praise and thanks, even as I also learn to be more communicative about what’s heavy on my heart. Teach me what it means to pray without ceasing, living each moment in intimate relationship with you. Amen.

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