Although “lament” and “complaint” have some things in common, biblically they cannot be mistaken for each other. Time after time, we see God’s dissatisfaction with complaining and grumbling; most evident are the grumbling Israelites in Exodus. Lamenting, however, seems common and acceptable. How can we express ourselves openly and honestly to God without being offensive? Lament or Complaint? Let’s consider the difference.
When expressed as faithless grumbling, complaint reveals belief in a God who is unreliable. His Word clearly distinguishes complaint as a sin and stumbling block (Philippians 2:14). The grumbling Israelites did not have faith that God was good (Exodus 15:22-24; 16:1-3), and their grumbling led them into wandering 40 years in the wilderness. This expression of complaint does not please God, it offends Him.
An unthankful and complaining spirit is an abiding sin against God, and a cause of almost continual unhappiness; and yet how common such a spirit is. How prone we seem to be to forget the good that life knows, and remember and brood over its evil – to forget its joys, and think only of its sorrows – to forget thankfulness, and remember only to complain. – John Broadus
Sometimes we think about sorrow in very different ways. Sometimes we even feel guilty about sorrow that we may have. Far different from faithless grumble, words of lament are the words of one trusting in the God to whom he cries out. We could turn all over the place in the book of Psalms because what we see constantly is suffering, pressure, hardship, but then we see the Psalmist crying out to God, moving toward God. An example would be Psalm 22, which begins with cries of anguish but moves on to praises for a God who has worked in the past. Lament is where I lay out in clear terms what’s wrong, because I believe that God is good, because I believe He’s sovereign. Lament is expressing to God that I’m in the midst of something in this world that doesn’t fit with that. Lament is not denial of saying, God, this is hard. Lament shows reliance on the Lord for his provision and protection. Psalm 22 is directed to the God who answers prayers. These are obviously godly people or else they wouldn’t be writers of Scripture, and God is giving them the words to articulate the struggle that they’re having. Many times, we don’t know how to talk to God about these things. Lament does not offend God.
"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. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel...Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him!...From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it. - from Psalms 22
Author of Tyndale’s Commentary of the Psalms, Tremper Longman asks the question, “While it’s wonderful that God invites our laments, how often does he answer them?” His answer: “Not all the time—so what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to lament forever? ‘The general teaching of Scripture is that a more mature level of suffering is to move from lament to confidence, just like Psalm 46 does.” We progress when we take our eyes off of us and our problems and place them on a God who is big enough to provide help and hope. We find Him in the Psalms.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and for though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah - Psalm 46
“It’s easy to praise God when things in your life are going well, but what about the other times? What happens when mountaintop experiences cascade into seasons of struggling in the valley? God expects us to pour out our hearts to Him, whether in joy or pain. But many of us don’t feel right expressing our anger, frustration and sadness in prayer. Our personal worship experience is not complete unless we understand the lost language of lament.” – Michael Card
As Christians, we are a blessed people to have the stories of biblical characters to use as a guide for daily living. From examples of Job to David, we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our Savior has not forsaken us – In the darkest of times, He is often seen the brightest. Yet, we need not pretend all is well when it comes to our personal prayer – Most times, complaint talks about God. Lament talks to God. Have we lost the practice of lamenting in Christian worship? We want to have a God-saturated view of life because that’s what’s going to provide stability. We can praise our God with laughter and tears in all seasons of life! His glory is seen no less.
For further thought, read Psalm 23-31 and 42-43.