Based on Lamentations as a whole, but specifically 3:37-41
The past few years, I’ve been on and off facebook.
I still have a profile. I keep it around so I can keep using facebook messenger, an application I hate but I find essential for the work I do. And right now, my profile is up, but really only so that what I post on the website goes to the Eastman First facebook page. Otherwise, I hate Facebook. I really do.
I can’t stand facebook because of what it’s turned into.
I vividly remember logging on for the first time. This was 2005, back when it was only available on certain college campuses. At Berry College, we felt super special because we got it much earlier than most schools in the state of Georgia. We all logged on quickly to check it out for ourselves. It was so cool! It was like AOL instant messenger, the main online communication tool of the day, but so much better.
For the next ten years, I used it reliably. But in 2008, I started to notice trouble. The trouble with Facebook becoming what it is today. It began that year with the election contest between Barack Obama and John McCain.
Several friends and family members started issuing partisan posts about the election, which caused all sorts of conflicts to break out. Some with people I’d never heard of! All of it mean, hateful, and repulsive; things I doubted most would say to each other in person.
Over the years, this malaise spread into all sorts of political and religious issues. Almost always, posts like this begin a particular way. I bet you can relate. They began, “I don’t usually do this, but…” and on from there would spew their world changing complaint about whatever issue was pressing the largest societal button.
And from there, it just got worse. More and more “friends” on Facebook used it as a partisan and religious platform. This might not be so bad if the complaints weren’t often hateful, vile, and demeaning of others.
Until, in mid 2015, I found I couldn’t open facebook without reading what amounted to a bunch of filth. People posting tons and tons and tons of mean, menacing, threatening, posts declaring their political and social positions or, worse, rudely and demeaningly defending Christianity.
All of these posts collectively amounted to complaints: complaints that the world is not as it should be, complaints that no one is listening to their opinion, complaints that they could change the world, if only people would pay attention to them. I bet if you looked at your facebook feed right now, every other post at least would be a complaint of some sort, most often with a “friend” declaring the rightness of his or her opinion and how, if everyone believed as your friend does, the world would be saved, or at least, much better.
Facebook vividly demonstrates that most universal of all human characteristics: complaining.
Complaining is something we all do. We do it frequently. Facebook is the perfect example of how we complain. But why do we do it?
We know it’s bad for us. We know we shouldn’t complain. But we do anyway.
We complain when the line takes too long at the grocery store. We complain when the grocery store is out of our item. We complain when the coffee shop takes too long with our drink. We complain about bosses, coworkers, and clients. We complain about the coffee at church. We complain about sunday worship that fails to engage us. We complain when someone does something stupid in traffic. We complain about city and county services. We complain about not having an Applebee’s here in Eastman.
We complain, perhaps, because there’s always something to complain about. In fact, complaining is so evasive, we complain about complainers! Like gnats this time of year, we can’t seem to escape complaining. It swarms around us until we find that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t stop from complaining. There’s always something to complain about.
Complaining becomes a way of ordering life. It’s often the default mode of conversation: like over dinner or in casual conversation. It’s the default mode for operating our jobs: to try and do everything we can to prevent complaints. It’s often the default mode for our social media expressions and experiences. Complaining is often the default mode whenever we open our mouths.
All this complaining matters. Using our tongues to spread negativity through complaining matters. I recall the words of James, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”
If that sounds like an overstatement, that complaining can’t really be that bad, consider this: I know of pastors forced out of their pulpits, methodist pastors even, because one family started complaining and their complaints spread like wildfire. I know of churches that have closed, ruined by one family who started complaining, which set the church on fire. I know of careers in ministry needlessly ruined by one family’s complaining, which set the church on fire.
The little action of complaining, seemingly as innocent as a white lie, has the power to set a small fire in the hearts and minds of those who hear the complaint. And that small fire, like any fire, consumes everything it can find, eventually consuming families, relationships, careers, and even churches.
That’s why complaining is so dangerous. It feels like something small; like we’re opening the release valve on our frustrations just a little bit. But when we open the release valve, we start fires.
But we need to open the release valve! It’s clear we shouldn’t complain, but what are we to do to get out the negativity we feel inside?
The answer to that question is in Biblical poetry, like we find in our scripture from Lamentations. The authors of psalms, lamentations, and much of the prophets are pouring out their hearts to God. They’re telling God everything they feel about everything, even about God. They’re getting it all off their chests, working out their emotions in prayer to the God who always listens.
That’s what’s happening here in Lamentations. The people are sitting in a ghetto in Babylon. It’s a situation that was never supposed to happen. God made promises to them to always give them the land of Israel. Now they’ve been forcibly evicted and find themselves prisoners in a slum of the greatest city in the world. How did they get there? Did God abandon them?
At this point in Lamentations, the author says that it must be because of the sins of the people. They were so great that God abandoned them, and thus they have no one to blame but themselves. So who are they to complain? They’re the only ones at fault. As a result, the scripture says they should simply turn to God, stop complaining, and all will be well again.
This sounds pretty simple, an easy spiritual prescription to follow, and like the message you probably expect this sermon to proclaim.
Except the lamenter, the author of Lamentations, isn’t satisfied with his answer. He spends the rest of the book complaining about their current condition and God’s silence about it. He’s pouring out all his complaints to God, sometimes directly, even angrily, at God.
He’s releasing his negativity to God. He can’t be happy because he’s got complaints! He can’t be happy and lift his hands to the lord because he’s deeply distressed. He’s got a lot going on inside, and all of his people do. He needs to open the release valve on his frustrations! And so he’s full of complaints.
I think his example speaks to our human condition. While there are many reasons to complain, I think they all have within them the same root. In fact, complaining is symptomatic of a larger issue. Like a runny nose, or a hurting throat, it tells us there’s something bigger, deeper, that’s wrong in our lives.
That bigger, deeper thing, is our unhappiness.
I tend to think Henry David Thoreau was right, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And complaining reveals that.
Why else would we pay so much attention to how we’re being wronged? That’s what complaining is about, afterall. It’s keeping a record of how we’ve been wronged. We’re wronged when the line takes too long, when the store doesn’t have our item in stock, when the boss is a jerk and the coworker uncooperative, when the sermon doesn’t apply to our lives, when the worship service is boring, when our coffee is too hot; when we’ve been wronged and tell the world how we’ve been wronged, we complain. Complaining, then, is the ultimate form of self-centeredness.
And what creates our self-centeredness? A deep unhappiness. In complaining, in announcing how we have been wronged, we’re trying to make the world about us in a desperate attempt to make ourselves happy. If only everything was about us, we’d be happy, we think. Which is a lie, but we believe it.
And so we complain, to show others how the world isn’t about us and how it should be. And when we do, we open the release valve on our frustration with a life that’s not centered on us. We give a little release; a little vocal desperation so that the quiet desperation with which we live our lives doesn’t become a deafening roar.
Complaining keeps us from becoming so totally depressed about our lives that we might succumb into nothingness. Complaining orders our lives because, without it, without that little release, we might realize just how unhappy we really are. And that is a scary, terrifying, thought.
The good news this morning is simple: God created us to be happy. God created us out of joy, and in relationship with God, we find the joy that inhabited us before sin entered the world. The joy we knew in the garden is possible in this life, through relationship with God.
That deep-seeded unhappiness, that quiet desperation, is not of God. It is, in fact, what God wants to replace with God’s very presence in your life.
But, as you probably know from experience, it’s not easily replaced. It’s not easily adjusted. We can enter relationship with God and still find ourselves unhappy, complaining, self-centered. I know this is true because pastors are some of the biggest complainers I know! Relationship with God, salvation, only begins the process toward true happiness; it’s not the solution itself.
So what is the solution? In a word: Prayer.
And not just any prayer. Two kinds of prayers in particular.
The first the lamenter models for us. He complains to God. This is the proper place to vent our relief valves, to take our complaints. We are right to paraphrase James this way, “The complaints of a righteous person are powerful and effective.” When we complain to each other, we give vent to our unhappiness in a vacuum: nothing can be done about our unhappiness because neither person has any power to change things. And so we empty ourselves a little, only to be filled back up by negativity that we find later in the day.
But when we complain to God, we give vent to our unhappiness in a pool of joy, allowing the waters of God’s love for us to come flowing in, replacing a little of our unhappiness each time we offer a prayer of complaint to God.
And not only that, but there’s power in taking our complaints to God because God has the power to do something about them. Scripture over and over again models people complaining to God. It also models prayers of gratitude to God for acting upon their complaints. The prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective because God often acts on our behalf.
The first kind of prayer then is simply this: take your complaints to God. Everytime you feel tempted to complain, say that complaint in a little prayer to God. And over time, watch the change in your attitude and watch for God to act.
The second kind of prayer the lamenter also gives us. Earlier in the chapter, he says “it is good…to sit in silence.”
In my own life, this has had the most tremendous impact. And in the lives of the most joyful people I know, the practice of meditation has had the greatest impact in making them a joyful person.
The practice of sitting in silence, of purposefully clearing your mind, is not unlike what I have to do to my iPhone regularly. About once every few days, I have to turn my phone off, wait 10 seconds, and turn it back on. Doing so clears the short-term memory of the phone. I know I need to reset the phone when it starts acting cranky: being sluggish, apps constantly quitting, or random errors occur with great frequency.
Our minds need that kind of reset, too. I know I need some meditation when I get cranky: when my mind gets sluggish, or when I keep feeling like quitting, or when I’m getting overly negative, or when I really want to just go and complain to someone. Like my iPhone, I need to reset my short-term memory.
I need it, because in meditation, God resets our minds. When we sit in silence, all the things we thought were important melt away, and what’s truly important comes into focus. When we choose to be quiet before God, God speaks volumes about who we are, about who God is, and about what’s really important. And in that moment of emptying our minds, God pours love into us, and our unhappiness is gradually replaced by joy.
The second kind of prayer, then, is simple but requires great intentionality: to sit in silence, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes.
The challenge this morning, then, is simple and two-fold.
First, take your complaints to God in prayer. Don’t complain to each other, but complain to God in prayer. Each and everytime. No matter how frequently. God wants to hear your prayers, including your prayers of complaint.
Second, set aside some time each day to sit in silence, meditating, giving yourself a mental reset.
For in both, we find nothing less than God’s joy being poured into our lives. We need it, because if you’re like me, you can think of many instances of complaining. You can think of all the ways you complain, of all the times you’ve complained. You might even have some complaints about this sermon rising within you right now. I know it hasn’t been easy to hear.
But if a complaining nature describes you, then I think an unhappy nature describes you. Change that. Go to God in prayer. Take your complaints to God and sit in silence before God. You needn’t live life unhappy, for God is offering joy. It’s there, in that sweet moment of prayer, where you’ll find your unhappiness replaced by God’s joy.