When we complain, it is frequently evil. But complaining is not necessarily evil. There’s a faithful (believing) way to complain and a faithless (unbelieving) way to complain.
The Bible often refers to faithless complaining as grumbling and warns us not to do that (Numbers 14:26–30; John 6:43; Philippians 2:14; James 5:9). Grumbling complaints directly or indirectly declare that God is not sufficiently good, faithful, loving, wise, powerful, or competent. Otherwise, he would treat us better or run the universe more effectively. Faithless complaining is sinful because it accuses God of doing wrong.
But faithful complaining does not impugn God with wrong. Rather, it is an honest, groaning expression of what it’s like to experience the trouble, anguish, and grief of living in this fallen, futile world (Romans 8:20–23). God does not mind this kind of complaining. In fact, he encourages it — and teaches us how to do it in the Bible.
With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him. (Psalm 142:1–2)
How God Wants Us to Complain
Most of these biblical and righteous complaints are contained in what we call the psalms of lament. The Book of Psalms contains the prayers and hymns that God chose to teach us how to express ourselves to him in worship. About one-third of these psalms are laments. And they are precious gifts from God.
In these laments, the writers pour out to God their sorrow (Psalm 137), anger (Psalm 140), fear (Psalm 69), longing (Psalm 85), confusion (Psalm 102), desolation (Psalm 22), repentance (Psalm 51), disappointment (Psalm 74), and depression (Psalm 88), either because of external evil or internal evil or darkness.
These psalms are expressions of God’s profound and deep compassion for us (James 5:11). He knows that we frequently will experience bewildering pain and therefore will frequently need to express our pain to him.
God wants us to pour out our complaints to him and tell him our troubles (Psalm 142:2). He wants us to do it privately, like David did when he wrote Psalm 142 in the cave of Adullam (1 Samuel 22). And he wants us to do it corporately, as when the people of Israel would sing Psalm 142 together.
He wants us to tell him exactly what it feels like, as when David exclaimed, “no one cares for my soul” (Psalm 142:4). And he wants us to remember that despite how things look and feel right now, because of his very great promises (2 Peter 1:4), someday these troubles will no longer afflict us, as when David expressed his hope: “You will deal bountifully with me” (Psalm 142:7).
The psalms of lament are treasures for the saints. They give inspired voice to our troubled souls. They model for us how to complain to God in a way that honors him. And they are themselves expressions of God’s merciful care for us, because in them we see that we are not as alone as we feel, and that God indeed does understand.
And if we have ears to hear, these psalms will also guard us from expecting too much in this age. God does not always intend his saints to experience prosperity. Rather, the psalms of lament remind us of the truth of Jesus’s statement, “In the world you will have tribulation,” and point us to our great hope: “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
So go ahead and complain to God, but don’t grumble. Learn from the lamenting psalmists how to be a faithful complainer.