This past Tuesday night, I spoke with our students at the Valdosta State University Baptist Collegiate Ministry about how lamenting needs to be a part of Christian practice and spirituality, but there was one aspect of lamentation that I just did not have time to cover during the message.
A lament is a “passionate expression of grief or sorrow,” but despite the numerous difficulties of life, we tend to avoid such intense expressions of agony even though an onslaught of trials and temptations lead us to experience these emotions. We prefer to cover them up rather than give a full-throated voice to that pain. Rather than deal with these issues, we seek out spiritual or emotional ibuprofen that help to mitigate and mask our hurt.
The book of Lamentations, however, exposes these weak attempts to disguise our pain as destructive to our spiritual vitality. Yet, like many forms of expression, there are positive and negative methods of releasing these intense emotions. The best way to understand the right way and the wrong way to accomplish this spiritual discipline is to differentiate between the two as lamenting and complaining. One profits a soul and the other ruins it.
There are five differences between complaining and lamenting that I want to highlight.
- Perceived Injustice vs. True Injustice Anyone can gripe about something that seems wrong in his or her eyes, but one who laments seeks out and focuses on true injustice. An injustice that is only perceived and not true occurs when a person seeks “justice” only out of selfish ambition. The perceived transgression has merely harmed the complainer’s sensibilities. In fact, the person who merely complains may have deserved the outcome that he or she received. An example would be a student who earns a bad grade on a test because that person never studied or made any attempt to learn the material over which they were being tested. The bad student has received a just reward. On the other hand, a true injustice would be if a grading error occurred that then led to the student’s receiving the bad grade.
- Demand for Help vs. A Plea for Justice
Complainers will demand help from their peers or from some higher authority because they feel someone owes them the assistance. For example: suppose a man gets himself into debt due to his poor spending habits. Then, when the debt collector comes along, he expects and demands that his neighbor or his family come to his aid when the responsibility for paying the debt falls squarely upon his shoulders. One who laments, however, pleads for justice to be done and does not seek any special interests but desires justice for all and weeps when it does not seem to come.
- Defiant vs. Humble The attitude of a complainer is one of defiance. He has been wronged and someone had better make it right or else. A lamenter’s attitude is humble; he knows that, whether the circumstances are just or unjust, he has little power to alter the circumstances, often because he understands that his perspective is limited and his view of justice may be skewed. The lamenter makes his or her appeal to a higher Judge who sees and knows all and can therefore decide rightly.
- Rails Against Authority vs. Appeals to Authority
The complainer calls out the ruling authority as being ignorant and incapable. If only those in power were as wise and noble as that person who complains, then all would be right in the world! The lamenter, on the other hand, appeals to the authority on principles of justice and morality. The complainer believes he or she knows better. The lamenter knows that he or she may be incapable of doing a better job than the one in authority, but she or he makes a case for change on the foundation of true ethical principles
- Leads to a Cycle of Ineptitude vs. Leads to the Road of Redemption The complainer will find herself in a perpetual cycle of ineptitude if she fails to change her ways. Even if someone with the ability to help her comes along and provides aid, she will have learned nothing and the core of her being will remain tarnished. The lamenter learns the valuable lesson that true justice comes from God and that He will draw near to the brokenhearted, comfort them, and plead their case.
As limited, sinful human beings, our attempts to lament and cry out to God will likely be a blend of lamenting and complaining. Ultimately, when we seek to practice the spiritual discipline of lament, we should not focus so much on whether or not we are doing it right. We are, after all, describing something that is intensely emotional and gut-wrenching. God is merciful, and so long as we set our sights on lamenting rather than merely complaining, He will hear us.
Either way, I would suppose that He would want to hear your heartaches and struggles and pain rather than have you ignore Him while you go along your way looking for some spiritual or emotional morphine.