It’s been about two months now that I’ve been using the Psalms as my devotional material, reading them multiple times a day. It’s had quite an effect on me – at the very least in a renewed appreciation for the Psalms.
I’ve been reminded of how many praise songs take their lyrics directly from the Psalms:
“As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (42:1).
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10).
“Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you” (55:22).
As I work my way through the 150 Psalms, it’s cool to find really familiar material. When I do, it feels like finding an old friend in a big crowd:
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul” (23:1-3).
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
Aren’t these lines beautiful? When I pray Psalms like these, the words bounce around in my soul all day long like my own built-in spiritual director, coaching me on to peace and joy.
For the past two months the Psalms have been encouraging me like this. They’re so beautiful. So wonderful. So full of faith and light and love.
But… not all Psalms are like that.
Over the past two months I have also come across a lot of negative material. And I mean a lot. Reading them one after another after another, the complaints come with almost annoying regularity.
“O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me…” (3:1).
“…my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing” (31:10).
“I am weary with crying; my throat is parched” (69:3).
Have you ever had a friend who couldn’t hold a single conversation without complaining about something? Someone who can find the dark lining on even the happiest and fluffiest of clouds?
The psalms can feel a lot like that.
“Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me…
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle” (56:1, 8).
“You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them” (88:8).
“Woe is me… too long I have had my dwelling
among those who hate peace” (120:5-6).
And it just keeps coming. Of 150 Psalms, as many as 54 are counted as “lament” psalms – complaining to God. After two months of reading the psalms several times a day, hearing all these complaints, I had this thought:
“The psalms are for whiners.”
Which, of course, is not a totally fair statement. Many of these complaints are legitimate problems. Many of them are written while Israel is in exile. Being unfairly treated as foreigners displaced by war is a very reasonable thing to be upset about.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if some of these are illegitimate complaints. A lot of them ask for vengeance (and Jesus would later instruct us to do the opposite by loving our enemies – see Matthew 5:38-42). Many seem self-centered and overly-dramatic. As I read them, I can’t help but think of my daughter emotionally declaring it to be “the worst day EVER” because I wouldn’t let her watch as much TV as she’d like.
But who I am to judge whether these complaints are legit or whiny? I wasn’t there to know… and even if I was, Jesus would later prohibit judging like he did revenge (see Matthew 7:1).
Never mind judging someone else’s words: sometimes we have trouble telling the difference between our own legitimate and illegitimate complaints. When it’s happening to ME, it always feels legitimate. The struggle is real, whether not everyone can afford adequate healthcare or the laundry is all tangled and won’t come out of the washer.
Because it’s hard to tell the difference in our own complaints, there is a distinct possibility that *we* are the ones who can’t hold a conversation without complaining. Not someone else, but *us*… and we might not even know we’re doing it.
What this tells me is that it’s important to know when we’re in the act of complaining, or else it will become an unconscious habit.
A few years ago a book came out advocating for a “Complaint Free World.” The concept was simple: wear a bracelet, and whenever you complain move it from one wrist to the other. The goal is to go a whole day… then a whole week… then a whole month without having to move that bracelet. As you can guess, it makes you very aware of exactly how much you’re complaining about things, whether it’s the slow drive-thru line at McDonald’s or the weather that is too hot/cold/wet/dry, getting too little sleep or eating too much food.
Three years ago we tried this experiment at church. We wore bracelets and moved them back and forth. We started to notice how often we used our words for negative things. We tried to complain less often, and hopefully not at all.
And I think that exercise was helpful, but – I missed something important.
There’s something else important to do when we complain, something the Psalms make blatantly clear in all their ample negativity:
Pray. Pray those complaints.
Because some complaints should not be said at all… and some complaints should be said big and loud. Praying them has a way of sorting out the difference.
Let’s say I find myself complaining because I’m too busy. Step one, I move my bracelet. But then comes step two: I take it to God like the psalms. So here I go…
“God of the Universe, I have too much to do.
All day long I run from one thing to another.
Today I got the kids dressed and fed,
and had three appointments,
and worked on my sermon…
all before lunch.
God, I am tired! I need peace and I need it now!”
Most of the lament psalms do this thing where they transition – shift from the complaining to praising God. And what I’ve found in praying my complaints is that often, that same shift happens kind of naturally. Try it, and I bet you’ll feel the Holy Spirit do it for you, too:
“God, I am tired! I need peace and I need it now!
You are the source of real peace.
Truth be told, I like all the things I’m busy with.
What I need is to stop, and rest, and be still with you…
For a few minutes today, and also for a whole day on Sunday.”
It’s amazing how prayer will reveal an illegitimate complaint.
But what about when you have a legitimate one?
I’m going to use the example that is most often the source of true pain for me: a harmful relationship. I love people, and when that love is broken or toxic it tears me up. The first time I learned to pray my complaints was when I was in one of those situations. I prayed something like this:
“GOD, DO YOU SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?
CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW THEY’RE ACTING RIGHT NOW?
THIS IS RIDICULOUS!
SHUT THEM UP! GET THEM OUT OF MY LIFE!
THEIR TOXIC WORDS ARE POSIONING MY SOUL!”
I’ll spare you the complete transcript. Let’s just say – lest the all caps didn’t convey it – that I was super mad, super frustrated, and super hurt, and I went on like this for quite a while. I did it out of pure desperation, not knowing that it would actually prove helpful.
Eventually, my prayer began to make the turn. It felt as though God was taking all my silly complaints about this person and setting them aside. I had some legit issues that needed to be addressed; those remained, but now they weren’t quite as emotional. I could see them more clearly.
“God, forgive me for my anger.
I’m so hurt. I’m so tired.
I want this relationship to be better.
God, forgive them for what they’ve done.
Help me to know what I should care about, and what I should let go.”
And again, I’ll spare you the full length… but as I went on and on, I found enough peace of mind to deal with the thing for another day.
Illegitimate complaints are sickening to our soul, sucking away our gratitude. Legitimate complaints need to be dealt with, but with compassion and clear thinking. So I challenge you: for the next week, be aware of every. single. time. you complain. Move a bracelet from one wrist to another if it helps. And when you do, take the opening lines of Psalm 142 as a prescription:
“With my voice I cry to the LORD;
with my voice I make supplication to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.When my spirit is faint,
you know my way” (142:1-3).