Just last week I attended a memorial service for my friend, Ron, one of the most positive men I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Ron was a genuinely happy, uplifting man – a “Barnabus” (son of encouragement) if ever I have known one. When Ron smiled, his entire face was involved, mostly his eyes. Ron smiled with his eyes.
Have you ever noticed that some people seem wired for complaint, while others are wired for gratitude? Each behavior, or worldview, comes naturally to its respective holder. And have you also noticed that once we begin to complain, subsequent complaints flow more freely, or more easily? It is not your imagination. This is actually happening.
Research has shown that the human brain is an amazingly efficient machine. With repeated behaviors, the brain’s neurons recognize the repetition and extend toward each other to facilitate the flow of that type of information, thus making future events of the same nature easier to accomplish. Thus, complaining gets easier over time, as does making expressions of gratitude, or working with mathematical calculations, or memorizing scripture. Whatever the activity, the more we do it, the easier it comes to us.
Complaining to God
Though doing so makes me nervous, we have spectacular examples of humanity complaining to God, lamenting their woes to him, and even accusing God. Though God clearly allows this to happen, he also responds to it in ways that call our attention to the folly of doing so.
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ – Romans 9:20, ESV
I was reading Psalm 55 this morning and, as is the case with many Psalms, there we find David making complaint. He is not complaining about God, but he is certainly complaining to God.
The Psalm opens with the complaint and an urging that God not turn a deaf ear. We know that sensation when we believe God is far off, and likely not hearing us. We entreat him to draw close and listen.
Give ear to my prayer, O God,
and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am restless in my complaint and I moan, – Psalm 55:1-2, ESV
The speculation is that David is responding to the betrayal of his friend and advisor, Ahithophel. During the revolt of Absolom, Ahithophel deserted David and joined with Absolom. Ultimately, Ahithophel surmised that Absolom’s revolt would fail, escaped to his home in Giloh, took care of his personal affairs, and hanged himself.
David’s pain was very real, and seemingly intense. Betrayal is difficult to absorb, particularly so when the betrayer is someone very close to us, as Ahithophel was to David.
Pain in our lives is no less intense; no less real. Betrayal by a spouse. Parenting that feels like war. Life-threatening health issues. Loss of a child, spouse, parent, sibling.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me. – Psalm 55:4-5, ESV
Anguish, terror, trembling, overwhelmed. For many of us, these are way-too-familiar sensations, and we discount them at our own peril. Rather, we should decide beforehand how we will respond to those emotional intrusions when they occur.
Having made his complaint and expressed his anguish, David petitioned God, asking for some pretty strong action against his oppressors. “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan,” David says. And his language becomes very direct, saying things like “destroy them,” and “split their tongues,” which I take to mean he wants God to confound Ahithophel’s counsel to Absolom. David even calls for their deaths, asking that they be driven to Sheol.
In the end, neither complaining to God nor calling down imprecations on his enemies brought the inner peace for which David longed.
Running from God
David’s impulse, then, was to run away.
And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah – Psalm 55:6-7, ESV
It has been my experience that trying to run from my troubles is an exasperating experience because my troubles run faster than I do. When I arrive at my hiding place, I find that the troubles from which I am running have already taken up residence there.
David wanted to get far away, deep into the wilderness where there is no one, and nothing. He said, “I would hurry to find shelter from the raging wind and tempest,” and he looked for that shelter in the wilderness.
The prophet Jonah tried something similar to what David is contemplating. When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and inform the city’s residents that bad times are coming if they do not repent, Jonah decided to run away from the pressure of that responsibility. What he ended up with was a stack of problems far more dissatisfying than his original problem of needing to preach to the city of Nineveh.
I can think of no time that running from my problems has solved them. Running to the bottom of a bottle (liquor or pills) only masks a problem that continues to exist. Running to the contents of a syringe distorts reality and brings new problems of its own, while the original problem remains.
No solution can be found in ignoring the bills in the mail pile on the desk, or in ignoring the phone calls that incessantly ring our phone. The answers are not found in lashing out at others, airing our complaint on Facebook, or unloading on an amazingly patient friend. Neither do we find much positive impact from wringing our hands and developing ulcers as we bury ourselves under a mountain of worry.
We must choose what we will feed. Our fear or our faith?
Running to God
But I call to God,
and the LORD will save me. – Psalm 55:16, ESV
As is the case with so many of the Psalms of David, by the end of the Psalm he lands in the lap of God. Here, David says, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you;” (Psalm 55:22a, ESV) and he follows that immediately with a statement of steadfastness – “[God] will never permit the righteous to be moved.”
Intellectually, we believe this, but our physical and emotional responses often belie our intellectual position. “Yes,” we say, “I will lay my burdens at the foot of the cross, and I believe God cares for me.” But the moment we begin entertaining the “but what if” questions, we reject our assertion of trust and demonstrate our disbelief that God “will never permit the righteous to be moved.”
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7, NASB
As Christ-followers, we know the value of moving beyond complaining to God, asking God to smite our abusers, or running from God and his plans for our lives. We know that our peace and security is found in “Casting all your care upon him; for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
So, rather than bury ourselves in the “but what if” questions, because we have deep, incomprehensible, emotional peace in Christ, our thought patterns can be radically altered.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:8-9, NASB
I do not suggest this as a pat answer, or a cliché, but as a genuine solution for the anxieties that intrude on our peace. This does not happen in a moment, but over time.
I want to call your attention to the end of the quote above, where the apostle Paul says, “practice these things.” Through repetitive use, the neurons in our brains will recognize the new patterns of focusing on purity, loveliness, excellence, good repute and praise. Our minds will rewire themselves to facilitate the flow of precisely that type of information, and we will know the peace of God as never before.