From my earliest days as a Christian, I heard that believers must not complain. Older saints equated complaining with a rebellious spirit, quoted Philippians 2:14 to me, and sent me on my way.
However, when I started reading about lament in 2020, one fact was inescapable. Complaint is an essential part of lament. Mark Vroegop writes that “without a complaint, there would be no lament” (Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, page 43).
Therefore, if lament is a biblical form of prayer, and if complaint is a necessary component of lament, then complaint cannot be inherently sinful.
Complaint in the Bible
We have scores of examples of complaint in the Bible. Let’s begin with some prayers of lament.
Psalm 10 is a lament psalm in which the psalmist complains about his arrogant, wicked enemy. Worse, it feels as though he faces his enemy without the Lord.
Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2)
In addition to examples of complaint, we also read of God responding to complaints.
But I call to God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he hears my voice. (Psalm 55:16–17)
It seems unlikely that David could have recounted this if complaint was something God despised. Here’s one more.
Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from dread of the enemy. (Psalm 64:1)
Adjusting Our Vocabulary
To be sure, complaint can be sinful. As humans, it often is! Ungodly complaint is our default mode of addressing an objection with God.
However, when we prohibit all complaint, this is not only unbiblical but it pushes Christians away from lament—one of God’s gracious pathways back to himself in the midst of suffering.
I think adjusting our terms might help. Complaint is too broad of a category; there are both godly and ungodly kinds of complaint. Instead, we might refer to grumbling and lament as two specific types of complaint. (It’s worth noting that the ESV uses “grumbling” in Philippians 2:14 where the NASB uses “complaining.”)
Grumbling versus Lamenting
If these words are to be helpful, we must define and distinguish between them.
To grumble is to insist we deserve better, that God is treating us unfairly, perhaps with ill intent. To see this in action, look at the way “grumble” is used in Exodus 15–17, Numbers 14–17, or Matthew 20:11–12. A grumbler is entitled, proud, bitter, angry, and demanding.
To lament is to cry to the Lord in the midst of pain and suffering from the foundation of God’s sovereignty, goodness, and promises. Lament points to the distance between how things are and how they might be if God’s kingdom were fully and finally realized.
(I recognize here that “lament” more commonly refers to the biblical prayer of which this godly complaint is a part, while I am using “lament” in this section to refer to the complaint itself. I hope the reader will allow for a little fuzziness in service of the larger point.)
Invitation to Lament
The distinction in the previous section is not meant to sanitize lament. Biblical lament will likely be uncomfortable for Christians who have absorbed the command not to complain.
However, though lament is raw and unseemly at times, it is entirely appropriate for confused, suffering, wounded Christians. It is God’s prescription for processing grief—both individually and corporately—in his presence.
As Christians, let’s never be grumblers. But, until the final day of the Lord, let’s lament in faith, with hope.
If you’re new to lament, I recommend meditating on some Psalms of lament. Reading through the book of Lamentations would also be a good exercise. Finally, the first half of Mark Vroegop’s book defined the ingredients of biblical lament for me in really helpful ways.
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