By Pastor Glenn Pease
It is always a shock when an innocent little child all of the sudden lets loose with a swear word, or some other sort of vulgar language. We are startled because we had no idea the pollution of the world had seeped into their little mind. We have the same emotion when we read the Bible, and all of the sudden we are hearing unbelievable words of doubt, despair, and all kinds of negative language of complaint. It is the Holy Bible, and yet, the language at times sounds like it is coming from the gutter of unbelief. It is like a sweet little innocent 4 year old talking like a pimp.
The Psalms are especially loaded with language that our Western ears find shocking and inappropriate. The concept of praising God by means of complaining and gripping is one we cannot grasp very easily. Yet, we cannot really value many of the Psalms unless we learn to enter into the Hebrew understanding of emotions and worship. If I write a song to sing in our service that went like this:
Lord you just don't seem to care,
And you don't answer my prayer.
I'm feeling so low and in despair,
Because life is so very unfair.
You would think its been too long since my last vacation, and you would recommend I get away and rest my weary mind. But the fact is, this kind of blues song was sung in the temple on a regular basis. The Jews were really into the blues. They sung about how they really felt, and they often felt down.
It was a Jewish conviction that all emotions should be expressed, and none should be suppressed. They did not leave any feelings out of their songs just because they were negative feelings. If they felt hate, they sang about hate. If they felt depressed, they sang about depression. If they felt God-forsaken, they sang about it, or if they felt God was not being fair, they sang their complaints to Him. They sang how they felt, and they felt all the emotions, good and bad, and so they are all in their Psalms.
It is hard for us to buy into this. We prefer to sing only the positive feelings, and go to therapy to deal with the negative ones. The Jews had no therapists, and so they had to bring all their feelings to God. God was the one they had to deal with to have mental health. They had to get all their negative feelings out before God. They had to lay all the cards on the table, and be open and completely honest before God.
Only a secure people can feel free to complain to God and sing about it in worship, or confront God with their complaints in prayer. This sounds to us like being a rebel child, but the Psalms make it clear that it can be the way of the secure child that knows he or she is loved even if they do not understand God's ways, and tell Him so. The more intimate the relationship, the more likely one feels free to complain without loss of love. Children develop bad feelings toward their parents, and will on occasion blast out with words like I hate you, or your way of doing things stinks, I wish I had been born to other parents. You can respond to these negative thoughts with a whip, or you can say, I'm glad you could be honest with your feelings. Let's talk about them, and see why you feel that way.
Freedom of expression is a key way to keep a family sensitive to each other, and it can prevent long range resentments. This does not mean that it is healthy to be ever complaining and shouting nasty words, but it means that there is a legitimate place for complaining and communicating negative emotions in the family. A gripe session is not out of line for a Christian family. It was not out of line for God's people even in church, for they knew how to praise God even in complaining.
Psalm 77 is one of these negative complaint type Psalms, and Asaph, who was apparently gifted at lamenting and complaining, has a whole series of pessimistic questions in verses 7 through 9.
1. Will the Lord reject us forever?
2. Will He never show His favor again?
3. Has His unfailing love vanished forever?
4. Has His promise failed for all time?
5. Has God forgotten to be merciful?
6. Has He in anger withheld His compassion?
How is that for a half dozen depressing thoughts for the day? Asaph is obviously not very high on the reading list for positive thinkers. He is the patron saint of the pessimists. It would be fascinating to hear the tune to which his gloomy message was sung. It was not likely a very bouncy or lively piece, but more likely similar to a funeral chant. We might have tough days when these awful questions enter our minds, but we don't want to sing about it in public, or call God's attention to such treasonous thoughts.
Who of us has not gone through a night like he describes here? He has cried out to God, and there is no response. It's like calling 911 and getting a busy signal. The system seems to be ignoring my need. God does not seem to care that I am at the breaking point. The burden is crushing, and no one gives a hand. God seems to be on vacation in some remote part of the universe, and is indifferent to my petty life and problems.
Have you ever complained to your mate after a restless night and said, "You kept me up all night with your coughing or snoring, or your tossing and turning?" Most mates have done this at sometime or another. But who of us has ever had the audacity of Asaph to blame God for a sleepless night? In verse 4 he point blank fires these words at God: "You kept my eyes from closing." In other words, it is your fault God that I didn't get a wink of sleep. Asaph seems to have a gift for complaining to God. He wrote a dozen of the Psalms: Psa. 50 and Psa. 73-83. If you read them, you discover he was the expert in the complaint department, and a specialist in the art of pessimism. He is the author of much of the blues songs in the temple of God.
He sings in Psa. 73 about almost losing his faith because God seems to care more about the ungodly than about him. He felt that trying to obey God and live a good life was not rewarded anyway, so why not be like the wicked world? In Psa. 74 he writes of the depressing picture of the days when the enemies of Israel came with axes and hatchets and smashed all the beautiful art in the sanctuary of God. All of the places of worship were destroyed and burned to the ground. And fools mocked God all day long. Then he writes a couple of Psalms-75-76-that have more joy and praise mixed with the negatives of judgment. But then he comes to 77, and all this complaint, and Psa. 78 is his masterpiece of pessimism. It is the long history of all the stupid, rebellious failure of God's people that lead them to experience the wrath of God's judgment. It is one of the longest of the Psalms, and full of the awful folly of God's people.
Asaph was not likely ever the life of the party. He was Israel's pessimist par excellence. How in the world could God's people allow Asaph to be one of their song writers? And why would God allow this sort of thing to be a part of their hymnal that they used in their worship of Him? They actually set this stuff to music and sang it to the Lord. It is obvious that we have lost an awareness of how negative emotions can be a positive part of worship and praise. We would never dream of looking for a person who is often depressed, and asking them to write out some of their feelings so we could sing them in the morning service. The very idea would be anti-spiritual if we did not have so many examples in the Bible. This is a Biblical pattern of worship far more frequently referred to and illustrated than dancing, lifting the hands, or speaking in tongues, but you don't hear of many groups who are bragging that we complain more in our worship than most others do, and so we are more Biblical than most other Christians who only rejoice in worship.
One of the most interesting revelations I have seen by studying the worship of the Bible is that there is unbelievable variety, and there is no body of Christians anywhere, that I am aware of, that uses all the Bible forms. Everyone picks those that most fit their needs and comfort level, and ignore the rest. The one we are looking at now, the praise through complaint, is probably the most universally ignored of all. My interest is not to try and revive complaining to God, anymore than I want us to dance in the aisles. My interest is in learning what values these complaining negative Psalms represent, so we can reap the benefits of those values in our personal life of devotion.
First, lets face the reality that every kind of personality can be used of God. Asaph does not seem the type we would want to run our music program, but both David and Solomon chose him to be the chief singer and music director for the tabernacle and temple. Almost all the music we have in the Bible was arranged by Asaph, and when he died his sons carried on the orchestral and choral arrangements. He was the music man of the Old Testament. Spurgeon writes of Asaph, "Asaph was a man of exercised mind, and often touched the minor key; he was thoughtful, contemplative, believing, but withal there was a dash of sadness about him, and this imparted a tonic flavor to his songs. To follow him with understanding, it is needful to have done business on the great waters, and weathered many an Atlantic gale."
In other words, his songs are not always relevant for all times. They are songs for the suffering and the depressed. They are songs of sadness, anger, and frustration. They express what you feel when you feel terrible. The question then is why is it good to sing about how you feel when you feel terrible? Wouldn't it be better to just stay home, brood, and mope around until the clouds break and the sun shines again? Then you can come to church again and rejoice. This is how we think, but this is not how God thinks, and thus, not how the Hebrews thought. Worship was to them not only a praise to God, but it was therapy for them. Worship had a dual purpose: to exalt God and glorify Him, and to bring healing to His people.
The healing can happen when we feel forgiven of our sins, and when we feel God's love and care through His people. But what we forget is that healing can also come through confession. Confession is the catharsis of getting all the poison out of our spirit. We get so much contamination in our soul that we are full of irritation and frustration. We get angry at life, at God, and at His people. We are full of spiritual poison that saps the joy out of our life, and makes us bitter and resentful. The Psalms of lament and complaint tell us this kind of negative pollution needs to be poured out so we can be cleansed, and filled with a new spirit. It is like an oil change in your car. You get the old stuff out so you can have a fresh supply of clean oil that will protect your engine. If you did not have a way to get the old out, it would lead to a break-down. If your car can get sick without getting rid of its inner pollution, so can you.
The God who built us this way is telling us by these negative Psalms that we have to get rid of the poison or we will have a breakdown. Our health on all levels: physical, mental, and spiritual, depends on our being able to remove the pollution from our inner life. How do we do it? We complain to God. We sing about our anger and frustration, our envy and jealousy, and all the negative feelings that we harbor in our soul. Here is the amazing thing, modern studies are revealing that what the Hebrews did for all those centuries in worship took the place of psychologist, psychiatrists, counselors, and therapists of all kinds.
Listen to some of the facts that doctor Bernie Siegal has revealed in his book, Love, Medicine And Miracles. An internist, Dr. D.M. Kissen studied smokers with lung cancer and discovered that those who had a personality where they withheld their emotions and had no outlets for their discharge, got cancer with far fewer cigarettes. In other words, people who can express their emotions can resist damage to their body far more effectively than those who cannot complain and get the poison out of their system.
Dr. Morgan Jensen, of the Yale Psychology Department, found that women with breast cancer die far faster when they cannot be honest about their complaints. They are the ones who smile and say they are fine, even though their world is collapsing. Since this is how Christians really feel they should be, it means Christians would tend to die faster than those who, like a good Jewish woman, could complain her head off about the unfairness of life. Her realistic facing of negative facts and emotions actually helps her live longer. We would never dream of giving a Christian friend who is dying of cancer a collection of the songs of Asaph. But the fact is, we could be giving them life by doing so. We are locked into the superficial theory that only positive thoughts should be our food in time of crisis. We follow the theories of men and ignore the Word of God, and by doing so we rob people of the therapy that could be healing.
Dr. Siegal says the best chance of winning the battle with cancer is being totally and frankly honest about the enemy. It is a frightening monster that we need to fear and fight with all our might. Those who smile and pretend there is no battle suppress their emotions, and in doing so they die more quickly. Asaph would be crying out, "Why my Lord? Why do I have to be rotting with this stinking disease? It isn't fair, and I feel cheated and disgusted with the whole lousy plan!" He would not be saying this continually, for he would also be praising God for the life he has, and for his family, and for the service he has had the privilege to perform. He would express his thankfulness to God also, but would not suppress the negative emotions when they came. The result would be, he would have a better chance of survival.
Dr. Siegal says, "Lack of emotional outlet is a common theme in the history of cancer patients. It is probably the reason cancer is more common in convents than in prisons: In jail you can at least act out your frustrations." The Hebrew people had a powerful preventative medicine right in their hymnal. They could go to church and sing out their awful negative feelings, and they could get rid of the stress and poison that could damage their bodies and minds. They got rid of their poison, but we store it up, and the result is, Christians have lost a major tool for good health right in the Bible.
Now let's be clear about this. Pessimism and depression are not good things. They are just real feelings that all people, including God's people, have. It is not a blessing to have them, but the point is, when you do, it is okay to sing about how you feel. Asaph is not recommending that you feel down, forsaken, and cheated by life. He is recommending that when you do, you are to be honest about how you feel, and tell the Lord just how you feel. You say, "I'm going to pour out all this poison before you because it is there, and I want to get rid of it, and who else but you can take this putrid poison and cleanse me, and make me whole and happy again by filling me with your Spirit in place of this awful one I now have?"
The goal is not to have a mess of sorry saints who are full of complaints, but rather, victorious saints who have gone beyond their complaints to a spirit of rejoicing. If you always take the shortcut and go right to praise without getting the poison out of your system, you can rob yourself of the joy of praise, for you will still have the suppressed anger and bitterness in your soul. Your praise will not be real, for the negative feelings will be there cutting down the energy of your joy. The joy of the Lord is your strength, but when a major portion of your energy is devoted to keeping your inner negatives suppressed, you will have very little left to empower your joy. You are draining away your power source. Get the negatives out and expressed so you can have your full capacity for rejoicing.
Dr. Howard Macy, who got his PHD from Harvard, and who is an outstanding Quaker scholar, writes in his book Rhythms Of The Inner Life these words we need to hear.
"Many modern teachers gloss over this reality. From
the Cathedral of the Perpetual Smile to First Happy
Baptists, there are plenty of people who would mistakenly
have us believe that the life of faith is basically one long
joyride. To sustain this illusion and the quest for the Holy
Grin, they transform the church program into a religious
amusement park hawking a thrill-a-minute, fun-filled
experience, complete with emotional roller coasters,
religious variety shows, verbal trick mirrors, and more.
Such teaching is a half-truth at best, a shoddy imitation
of authentic joy in faith. Both the Scriptures and our
experience refute it.
The fact is that the life of faith includes struggle.
We suffer dryness and "the dark night of the soul."
We hear the piercing question, "why?" and blush at
not having a tidy answer. We cringe and cry out when
life seems hollow and unfair. We smart under the sting
of mockery and lies aimed at us. We sometimes plead,
"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
But even when we see the struggle in ourselves, we
are tempted to conceal rather than disclose it. Some-
times we even put on our brave face before God. After
all, to admit struggle seems to be admitting that we have
failed as disciples. So while we feign joy, we trudge on,
silently stooped by our burdens, and we secretly waste
away. What we need to do, instead, is to unmask our
struggle and despair and to learn, as people of faith, how
to encounter them.
At this point the Psalms are a helpful guide, for songs
of struggle-the laments-are the most common type of song
in the Psalter. The Hebrews singers often sang "the blues,"
and the way they did it can teach us about our own times
of darkness and how to open them to the light."
I do not think the blues will ever be as popular in the church as it was in the temple, but we now have the whole Bible available to us in print. We don't have to go to the temple where there was just one copy. We can benefit by the psychology of the Bible in our privacy. All we need to learn is that it is okay with God if we are honest about how we feel. We don't have to like how we feel, or want to so feel, but if we do, we can share that honestly with God, and He will not be offended. The people He loved the most, often felt rotten, and they told Him so. Moses said to God, "Why do you treat your servant so badly?..." "If this is how you want to deal with me, I would rather you killed me!..."(Numbers 11:11,15) Elijah, Jeremiah, Job and others complained, argued and even accused God. They trusted God's love enough to know He loved them even with their negative feelings, just as a good friend would. They knew that in the end all would work out and God would come through, but they felt terrible at the time, and they let God know they did not like His timetable on doing things.
When Jesus cried out on the cross that He felt forsaken, He entered the human world of depression and despair. The overwhelming negative feelings that can enslave the minds of men had their hold on Him. He was loved by the Father and was soon welcomed into the Father's presence. His complaint, however, was legitimate, and it was how He really felt in baring the sins of the world. We are being Christlike and wise to bring our complaints to God, for if we don't get rid of the poison in His presence, we will make ourselves sick, as well as make those around us sick of us. The way to perpetual praise is to get rid of the poison of complaint. Sometimes even complaint can be positive, as we see in these lines by Cowper.
Lord, it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint.
Yet I love Thee and adore;
O for grace to love Thee more!
May God's Word help us all understand that complaint has a valid place in our prayer life when we are going through hard times that we do not understand. It is not lack of faith, but confidence in God's love that enables us to complain to Him, and know that He will heal the negative feelings and give us peace.