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Not to Complain…

Read Psalm 38 to start.

Two Sundays ago, when I was asked to preach this morning, I had no particular sermon topic in mind. Sometimes I have ideas and notes well in advance that are waiting for the right time or for some inspiration before preparing a sermon. There have been times I’ve carried around an outline of a few points to use in a future sermon scribbled on the back of a bulletin tucked in the front of my Bible for months before I use them. Well, this time I didn’t have any of those. I had no idea what I was going to preach about today. But I trusted that God would give me something to say, and hopefully with enough time to prepare something coherent. Nothing came to mind immediately, though. I had a complete blank.

Then God showed me a sign.

I know what you’re thinking. Marko’s gone off the deep end, it’s all signs and wonders now, before long he’s going to be speaking in tongues and doing faith healings and all that. No, nothing like that is going to be coming from me any time ever. But God did show me a sign.

It was a literal sign, on the side of the road. And when I saw it, it took about ten seconds for me to decide that it was my next sermon. Maybe it was already someone else’s sermon, because the sign in question was at the Wellspring Presbyterian Church on Route 4 at the Winds Corner. It read “Have you prayed as much as you’ve complained about it.”

I’m going to let that sink in for a minute, because it hits home for me. And it should hit home for pretty much everybody, because who doesn’t complain? And more specifically, who doesn’t complain more than they pray?

You don’t have to go far to hear complaints. At home, my kids complain about their food, their snacks, their siblings, their activities, their boredom, their chores, you name it, there are complaints. And that’s before Laura and I get in our complaints, which includes many of the same things, but our list is light on siblings and boredom, and of course adds the kids. At work, my coworkers complain about the work they have to do, the tools and supplies to do it with, and the time to do it in, and my boss complains that everything takes too long and costs too much. Turn on the TV or the radio, you’ll hear people complaining about some issue that has deeply offended them, harmed them, or otherwise wronged them in some way, or mistreated someone else in the past. Look at social media and people will be complaining about the government, the media, the fact that people are not wearing masks and not getting vaccinated or maybe that people are wearing masks and getting vaccinated, and of course the weather. It’s either too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry, and probably all of these all at once depending on who you ask.

If the news and weather don’t do it for you, try sports, where no doubt whatever team you cheer for in whatever sport you enjoy has done something inadvisable recently, maybe the star player underperformed, or the team made a bad trade, or didn’t make a trade, or spent too much money on a big free agent signing, or maybe didn’t spend enough. Or maybe the referees are all visually impaired.

If you care to wander down to the area of Province House on a random afternoon, you might find people with signs complaining there. They call it “protesting” but really, what is that other than organized complaining? If you check in Ottawa or Washington DC I guarantee you won’t have to look very hard to find far more people with far more signs complaining about far more issues. You might find that if your timing is right that you’ll see separate groups complaining about each other, or at least what the other group stands for. We live in a society that thrives on complaining, that celebrates it, and in fact rewards it.

After all, you don’t have to go far to express your complaints either, or find a willing audience. Corporations used to use comment cards, and many have toll free numbers you can call to voice your concerns. Of course now they all use social media and ask you to contact them with any concerns that you might have, and I can’t imagine that too many people are reaching out to Wendy’s to share their appreciation for how much they enjoy the 99 cent Frosty, or to McDonalds to thank them for continuing the dollar drink promotion for yet another summer. People reach out to these corporate entities when they have something to complain about.

Certainly, we like to complain. This is nothing new. This isn’t even the first time I’ve preached on the subject, earlier this year I preached a sermon that I called “Squeaky Wheels” which talked about the parable of the unjust judge and the importunate widow, and discussed how the children of Israel grumbled and complained as they made their way to Canaan. We live in a society that is replete with complaint, it’s hard not to notice it and comment on it. Some might even say that it’s challenging to refrain from complaining about all the complaining.

You might say that you have good reasons to complain. Things have gone badly for you. Your health is not optimal, you don’t have the money or the prospects or the success that others have. You have been mistreated and oppressed, you have not had the same opportunities or privileged upbringing that others may have been blessed with. Maybe the hand which life has dealt you is lacking, or your luck is just plain bad.

I’m not here this morning to say that you are not allowed to complain. We all have complaints, and many of them are legitimate. Everyone has reasons to complain, because we live in a fallen word filled with sinful people who do not treat one another fairly or justly. When people do not love God and do not love their neighbour as much as they love themselves, there will always be cause for complaint.

In the Psalm we read to start, we see that David had some complaints. He felt that God had chastised him heavily, that he was burdened down, wounded and broken. His strength failed, he felt isolated, corrupted, and alone. If you read down the first half or so of the Psalm, there is complaint after complaint. I’ll go over a few of those now to just show much many there are, starting at verse 2, thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. Then in verse 3, there is no soundness in my flesh, neither any rest in my bones. In verse 4 his iniquities have gone over his head, like a heavy burden too heavy for him, and in verse 5 his wounds stink and are corrupt, which is a terrible image. Then in verse 6 we see that he is bowed down and goes mourning, and next that his loins have a loathsome disease, are filled with it in fact, and he is feeble and sore broken. That’s only down to verse 8, but you probably get the picture. David had it rough, and he was not shy about expressing it.

This is quite the laundry list of complaints, and I’m not going to spend the time to go through each and every one and the particulars of his various afflictions. David had been blessed in many ways, but he also had many enemies, had experienced many misfortunes, and had suffered many tragedies. He had lived in exile when he was young and again when he was old, pursued both times by men whom he had cared about deeply, King Saul the first time, and his own son Absalom the second. He was betrayed on more than one occasion by those he had helped and protected. He had cause to complain if anyone ever did.

That being said, there are two things about David’s complaints that I will call attention to. It’s not the magnitude of his affliction, although that is great, or the number of his grievances, which are, as mentioned, plentiful. The first, and this is quite striking, is that he takes his problems directly to God. From the first verse, he asks that God would not rebuke him in wrath, nor chasten him in hot displeasure, or rage as the Hebrew word is translated elsewhere. He acknowledges that God’s disapproval, God’s judgement is a more serious, more immediate issue than his physical discomfort, his weakness, his isolation, not to mention the schemes of his enemies, as we see at verse 12 They also that seek after my life lay snares for me: and they that seek my hurt speak mischievous things, and imagine deceits all the day long. People were specifically out to get David, but it was more concerning, more in need of immediate resolution, that God was displeased with him.

And with the Lord is also where David found his comfort. In verse 15, he says “In this, O LORD, do I hope. You wilt hear, O Lord my God.” And again, in the final verses he asks God to not forsake him, to be close to him, and to make haste to help him. He even ends the Psalm with the closing salutation to the Lord his salvation.

David complained, certainly, but he also prayed. The two are intertwined in what we read. He did not complain in isolation, not merely for the sake of complaining, of simply getting something off his chest, but he looked for resolution, and he looked for it with God.

As much as we like to complain about things, though, do we like to pray about them as well? That’s the question that the sign from earlier raised. Have you prayed as much as you have complained about it? Whatever it is that troubles you, whatever vexes your spirit, burns your biscuits, gets your goat, and generally causes upset and distress, have you prayed about it? Have you prayed as many times as you have posted about it on social media, have you prayed much as you have kvetched to friends or family members, have you prayed as much as you have verbally lambasted someone or other about your concern? Have you prayed about it at all?

So often we complain simply to express ourselves, to seek some manner of commiseration with the people around us. I’m not happy, and I would like other people to know about it. Maybe we would appreciate some pity, for whatever good that would do it. Maybe we want some company to go along with our misery. But so often we do not turn to God with our complaints.

There are reasons for this. Not good reasons, but reasons. Maybe we do not, deep down, believe that our complaints are worthy of God’s attention. And some of our complaints do lack merit, it is true. When we complain about our first world problems, it would be presumptuous to bring those to God. I had too much to eat and now I have a sore stomach. I have conflicting social obligations and I don’t know which enjoyable activity I should do. I have to move one of my vehicles so I can get the other one out of the driveway. We complain about these petty things all the time, but praying about them might not be the ideal thing. Praying about our priorities might be more important.

Sometimes, often in fact, there is selfishness and self-centeredness behind our complaints, after all, most people gripe about issues that affect them personally. Complaining about that in which you do not have a vested interest is far less common.

Maybe we know that slothfulness, idleness, and foolishness are at the root of our grievances. It’s tough to excuse a complaint about being in poor physical shape when you don’t take the time to exercise. I know I should lose some weight and get in better shape, my health would be better for it, but I have not been consistent and it shows. Likewise, it’s disingenuous to grumble about having no money if you know you wasted your last paycheque on frivolous spending. If one of my kids went and spent their allowance on candy, and then was sad about having no money, how much sympathy do you expect them to get from me? If you guessed zero sympathy, you’d be on target.

Maybe there is pride behind our complaints, perhaps a reverse pride, a pride in having it worse than everyone else. Or at least having it worse than someone else. We take pride in being last, in being worst, in being at the bottom, perhaps because it makes us feel justified in our objections, perhaps because pride was and is the original sin, the folly of Lucifer who said “I will be like the most high” when he rebelled against God, and that pride infects even the most humble and sincere of us all.

When we know that our complaints are tainted by our own shortcomings, our own failures, our own sin, then it’s challenging and it is humbling to come before God. Certainly, people bring all manner of selfishness and pride to God when asking for things, but that is somewhat different from a complaint. When we know that we are part of the problem, we are far more hesitant to look to God for help.

This brings us to the second noteworthy thing in this Psalm. David recognizes his own culpability. He acknowledges his sin. He admits that he is a major contributor to his trials and tribulations. He does not merely mention this in passing, he laments his misdeeds. My iniquities are gone over my head, they are too heavy, like a burden, he says at verse 4. In the next verse, he decries his own foolishness, which is behind his foul injury, the wounds which stink and are corrupt. We don’t know if he is speaking metaphorically here or if not, what precisely was wrong with him, but he recognized that his poor choices have led to his poor state.

Down at verse 17, we see how David has reached a breaking point. 17 For I am ready to halt, and my sorrow is continually before me. 18 For I will declare mine iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin.

This is one of seven Psalms that are called penitential Psalms. David admitted to wrongdoings and faults on many occasions, and at least seven of them he wrote it down in verse. Sometimes we apologize in passing, then we quickly forget what we have said, and it has no lasting impact. When it’s written down and shared, though, then it’s impossible to forget about it. It stays with you, as a memoir of repentance.

There is a world of difference between shallow complaint and genuine repentance. A complaint is the mere expression of being unhappy with how things are. A complaint does not typically offer any useful or viable path to progress, to repair and improve things, at least not in a way that isn’t completely self serving. A complaint that you don’t have enough money, so the government should just give you some money, and I think we’ve all heard this type of complaint many, many times, that doesn’t really offer a reasonable, sustainable, or fair solution.

A complaint that you have made some poor choices and had misfortunes, and could the government bail you out or your bank give you a forbearance, that is more reasonable. But sometimes when you don’t have any money and debt is mounting, the only solution is to declare bankruptcy. That hurts, that is humbling, that costs you something, maybe costs you a lot, but it does bring a resolution. Repentance is like that, it is humbling, it is unpleasant, it acknowledges that you have done wrong and you need to do things differently, and make different choices in the future.

So often we are willing, we are eager, to complain about what we don’t have, what has gone wrong, or who has mistreated us. Less often are we willing to admit our part in the problem. Less often still are we willing to repent, to change, to seek forgiveness, to be truly sorry for what we have done.

There are times, though, when we are not at fault, when we have not done anything to bring ruin down upon our own heads. There are times when we see evil around us, when we see those who have done wickedly revel in their success, and it is our natural reaction to object. Why should those who are clearly sinners be permitted to prosper?

This is another common greivance, and one that has little or nothing to do with our own shortcomings. Of course, if we dwell on this for long, then we will not do well. If we look back one Psalm, we will see that David has an answer for this sort of complaint. Reading at verse 1 Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. 2 For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. 4 Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. 5 Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass. 6 And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday. 7 Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.

I don’t know that you can go more than five minutes these days without someone fretting about evildoers, certainly not on social media. People do a great deal of fretting there. Scroll down Facebook for 30 seconds and odds are you’ll see a post that could be summarized as “There’s evildoers on the go and I’m fretting about them.”

This is hardly limited to online spaces. If you have children, they likely consider that their siblings or neighbours or some other kids are the greatest of evildoers. And it’s so easy to be envious against those who are badly behaved, because they usually have the best stuff. Or at least the most noticeable stuff, and plenty of it. We fret about and we envy those who are wicked, we complain about what they have, especially when compared against what we lack.

In this Psalm, does David advise that complaining about those who do evil is a wise choice? Certainly not. Fret not about evildoers. Don’t be envious of them. Instead, trust in God. Delight in Him. Commit your way to Him. Rest in Him. Wait patiently for Him.

None of that is complicated or hard to understand. None of that should be beyond our ability, but it often feels like a tall order. Waiting, trusting, resting, those exclude the possibility of taking action. If you are actually trusting in God to take care of you, to provide for you, to resolve your concerns, then that precludes complaining about what you lack, or what others have, or that evil goes unpunished.

I’m not sure which is more difficult, the waiting and trusting, or the keeping your mouth shut. Neither is easy. I know some people who aren’t very good at either. I see one of those people every day when I look in the mirror. But much as God does not encourage us to complain, He does not give us free reign to go and fix all the problems in this fallen world. He instead asks us to wait on Him. He tells us, He tells us again and again and again to turn to Him, to cast our cares on Him, to bring our petitions and worries to Him, we see this more times in the scriptures than we can count. We see examples of those people who did so, and we see examples of those who did not.

What we don’t see in scripture is an invitation to be discontent, or an open call for grumbling and griping. God wants us to bring our cares to Him, but He does not put out a welcome mat for complaints. And certainly He does not encourage us to mope about in sadness and dissatisfaction, regretting how things are and complaining about how they could be.

When we complain, that is mostly a passive thing. But when we look at the world with discontent, and when we do not trust that God is looking out for us, that He will give us the desires of our heart if only we delight ourselves in Him, or that He will bring it to pass if we trust in Him, then we may move from complaint to reaction. And that is often a dangerous thing.

If we read down a little further, we see at verse 8 Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. When you have the mindset of complaint, anger is often bubbling just below the surface. When you don’t trust God, and when you are angry about everything that is wrong, then any action you take will likely be destructive. There is much evil done in the name of making things better. There are those who with the best of intentions do terrible, cruel, and disastrous things, because they think the end result will be better. If you’ve paid any attention to Canadian news since about the end of May you will be familiar with the unfolding consequences of some of these things.

When we do not trust God, when we do not wait on him, and instead we try to do things that we think are best, the result is often pain and suffering. We see examples of that in scripture, the account of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar comes to mind, or Jacob and Esau, or King Saul. None of those are pleasant or happy stories, in each case human action and human choices made things worse, and caused far more trouble than they solved.

This morning, I’m not telling you to sit like a lump on a log and wait quietly for God to fix everything. God has called us to do His work almost as much as He has asked us to trust Him. We are expected to serve Him, and to care for our fellow man. But the trust comes first. If we do not trust God, if we do not turn to Him first and foremost, then we will never be content, we will chafe and grumble, and we will make poor decision after poor decision.

If we do turn to God, if we acknowledge where we have fallen short, where we have sinned, and if we accept that we cannot fix everything, perhaps we cannot fix anything, then we need not complain. We need not fret about the evil in the world. We can rest assured that our God will take care of us, that His ways are better than our ways, that the wicked do not escape His notice, and that even if this life is filled with disappointments, that there is a better life to come. When we remember that, then maybe we will be more eager to pray about our problems than to complain about them.