God’s Word is very clear in that we are to do all things without grumbling and complaining. We are not released from this imperative simply because we are having a bad day or because actual gut-wrenching suffering has slapped us in the face. It is never permissible to grumble and complain.
Yet we also read in the Scriptures that we are to cast all of our cares upon the Lord. We are given examples of this in the Psalms. There is an earthiness to the Psalms that at times almost seems inappropriate to pray. Or consider the words of Habakkuk as he wrestles with how God’s character fits with the present circumstances. These words are not only not met by rebuke, but at least in the case of the Psalms we are called to sing them ourselves.
Considering these things led me on a quest to compare the laments of the Bible with the sections in which God responds in anger to people accused of grumbling and complaining. What is the difference between biblical lament and grumbling and complaining?
The first thing I noticed was quite a surprise to me. What I found was that in many of the instances of grumbling the grumbler was engaging in a type of fortune telling. Numbers 14:1-4 is a fitting example. Here the Israelites are right outside the Promised Land. But things look scary and unpredictable. The people just know how it’s going to turn out. “Our wives and children are going to die out here!” End of story.
But the kids don’t die. In fact they are the ones who get to see the Promised Land while the grumblers die wandering in the wilderness. Behind grumbling is a heart of false prophecy. It is an unbelieving heart which takes for itself the position of God. Only God is omniscient and knows the future. Well, God and the grumbler. The grumbler too knows exactly how the future is going to turn out. He has seen this all before and so he is able to place himself above the situation.
This is not present in a lament. A lament deals with what is, not with what could be or what might be. Even in a dark psalm like Psalm 88, though the emotions are heightened and hyperbole runs rampant, there is no fortune telling. There might be wisdom which says, “I’ve seen this before and remember how it played out”. But there is not the absolute declarations of the grumbler.
The Psalmist will ask, “How long, O Lord?” and the grumbler will respond, “I’ll tell you how long…forever.”
So as we go through seasons of suffering and we begin pulling for language to use to form our prayers, let us be careful not to engage in fortune telling. I do not know the future. And as soon as I pretend that I do my “prayers” aren’t humble prayers, they are prideful complaints. They take up the posture of a discontented and out of control god. One who knows the future but is impotent to stop it.
I’ve found that much depression and anxiety comes from this practice of pretending that we know the future. The enemy is happy to have us living in either the past or the future, because the only change which can take place is in the present. This was to be the lesson of manna in the desert—that God is a daily God. Humanity, and our unbelieving hearts, do not like a daily God. We prefer to take up the position of deity ourselves. But this only ends in despair. When those who are not God, make themselves to be as God (knowing the future), the only possible outcome is a despair which gives birth to grumbling and complaining words.
Perhaps this is why the call of 1 Peter 5:7 (to cast all our cares anxieties upon him) is so intimately connected with 1 Peter 5:6 which calls us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. It is only He who knows the future. As we pray in seasons which call for lament, let us remember that we do not know what tomorrow holds. We only know that His mercies will be new every morning. We know we’ll have manna. We don’t know much else.
Therefore, let us pray with vigor and honesty about things as they actually are. Let’s not shed tears or waste our breath on potential outcomes. The language of lament is a language for todays and not for tomorrows.