Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How to Complain to God: a Meditation on Psalms 42 and 43

by Doug Smith This article originally appeared on SharperIron.

Have you ever seen a grievance form or policy? Many institutions offer a means through which a dissatisfied individual may file a complaint in a proper manner. Most places have enough sense to know that everything they do and everyone they osborne_complaint.gifhire will not consistently meet the highest standards of perfection at all times. Therefore, they offer a means to complain properly because there is a right way and a wrong way to complain.

God created the world for His glory. The original creation was perfectly ordered and supplied, and no one could have filed a legitimate grievance in it. But when sin entered the world, things changed. In a fallen world, much is not right. When Adam and Eve rebelled, they altered the relationships of humans to God and to one another. The earth itself was cursed, death became a reality, and work became difficult and futile. The woman began to know sorrow in childbirth; the man began to know sorrow in work. God knows we live in a world that is now imperfect. He understands that we face difficulties. He realizes that we will have complaints, but we have a right way and a wrong way to complain.

Many think Psalms 42 and 43 are one unit. They certainly share the common refrain (notice vv. 5 and 11 in Psalm 42 and v. 5 in Psalm 43).

Psalm 42 (ESV)

To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah.

1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?

3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation 6 and my God.

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.

7 Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”

10 As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

Psalm 43 (ESV)

1 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!

2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

3 Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!

4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

The inscription of Psalm 42 presents itself as a Maskil of the sons of Korah. The ancestor of these sons led a number of men to complain from a heart of jealousy and vain ambition. They were swallowed up by the earth in judgment (see Num. 16). God clearly showed us that their kind of grumbling and griping was not the right way to complain.

The book of Psalms demonstrates to us the right way to complain. We often think of Psalms as a book of praise (which it certainly is), but laments and grievances to the Lord make up more than 60 of the 150 psalms. We are not sure who wrote Psalms 42 and 43 (some speculate David when running from Absalom or perhaps earlier in his life when running from King Saul). Nevertheless, these psalms present a lament that demonstrates how we should complain to God. Thankfully, the sons of Korah learned the lesson that we should make our complaints with honesty, trust, and hope.

An Honest Complaint

The psalmist bares his soul. He is not fabricating a complaint, but describes his desperate situation as he pours out his soul (42:4). He has an intense need for God, like the body needs water—he thirsts for Him like the deer for the flowing streams (42:1-2). He weeps at his enemies’ taunts (42:3), which wound him (42:10). He is separated from God’s people and misses corporate worship (42:4). He feels overwhelmed, rejected, and forgotten (42:7, 9; 43:2). He is cast down and troubled (42:5, 11; 43:5).

Have you ever felt as the psalmist did? God made us for Himself and in such a way that, in addition to private worship, we need to worship with others.

We need to be honest with God. Would the psalmist’s words describe you if you were in a similar situation? If you are a believer in Christ, are you part of a local church? If you are, do you thank God for it? Do you faithfully attend church and encourage your fellow believers? Perhaps you are thankful and blessed in regularly being with the people of God, but you can cry out on behalf of those persecuted for the cause of Christ, for the sick, for shut-ins, and for casualties of church closings and apostasies—those who lament the same kind of situation the psalmist faced.

Are you facing persecution or injustice? Do you feel God has rejected and forsaken you? Then tell Him so. Pour out your complaint to Him with honesty.

A Trusting Complaint

In addition to honesty, a proper complaint is characterized by trust. The very fact that the psalmist is praying is a good sign. He addresses God (42:1, 6, 9; 43:1-4), recognizes his need of God (42:1-2, 6), and prays when others say, “Where is your God?” (42:3, 10). He remembers God in a faraway land (42:4, 6) and demonstrates his faith in Him by speaking of His steadfast love and the song and prayer that are with him (42:8). He prays for vindication and deliverance, trusting God for these things (43:1). He calls for God to send out His light and truth and to guide him to His dwelling place (43:3).

The psalmist’s descriptions of God also give evidence of his trust. He calls Him his rock (42:9). He takes refuge in God (43:2), calls Him his help and his God (42:11), and finds his joy of joys in God (43:5).

Do you feel the same way about God? Is He the One you trust in? Do you pray to Him and believe He can do for you what you need? Can you complain to Him in a way that indicates you are trusting Him, or does your grievance amount to an unbelieving gripe?

A Hopeful Complaint

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God ” (Ps. 43:5; cf. Ps. 42:5, 11). Along with honesty and trust, the psalmist also displays hope in his complaint. He speaks to himself with the reminder to hope in God. He has an expectation of renewed praise, that he would yet praise God again. He believes God will deliver him. He has hope that God will lead him to His dwelling place and that he will go and praise God on the harp.

The psalmist clearly looks toward a brighter future from a dark place. Can you say the same thing? When you are hurting, do you remember the hope you have in God? Is your hope in Him or in your circumstances and earthly comfort?

Christ and Our Complaints

The psalmist wasn’t the only one to have this threefold aspect to his complaint. Ultimately, Jesus Christ exemplified this method.

Just before His passion, Jesus told the Father with bare honesty that He dreaded the hour to come (Matt. 26:36-42, 46; 27:45-46). He asked the Father to let the cup pass from Him, but prayed that, nevertheless, the Father’s will be done (Matt. 26:39ff.). God’s waves and billows truly went over our Lord Jesus as the Father punished Christ for our sins. Jesus not only felt forsaken but also was forsaken so those who trust Him would not have the same experience. Matthew 27:45-46 records that He cried out the words of Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Christ trusted the Father. He may well have had the whole of Psalm 22 in mind, knowing that He would be giving thanks to God after complaining (Ps. 22:22-31). He certainly had a song in the night, singing a hymn with His disciples on His way to be crucified after the supper with them. He showed trust in God by committing His spirit to Him in death (cf. Ps. 31:5).

Our hope is in this Man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3-4). We find no hope elsewhere. Though we are certain to have tribulation, the risen Christ has overcome the world, and that fact should encourage us (John 16:33). We can have the confidence of Romans 8:37-39—that we are more than conquerers through Him who loved us and that nothing (including all the sorrows and disappointments and persecution we may face) can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.


We see in Psalms 42 and 43 and in our Lord Jesus Christ that we have a proper way to complain to God. So what do you do when you are depressed and disappointed? Do you pray? Are you honest with God? Do you complain from a heart of faith? Do you, as the psalmist did, remind yourself of the hope you have in God?

Get familiar with the Psalms. Pray the Psalms. Look at what the Psalms teach us about our faithful God, about ourselves, and about our trials. They show us how to approach God and talk to ourselves in troubled times. Examine yourself in light of the Psalms. Preach the gospel to yourself and rejoice that one day God will wipe away every tear in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:4). But as long as we are in a fallen world, let us be sure that our complaints are the right kind: those that are honest, trusting, and hopeful.

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