When A Wall Of Complaint = A Wall Of Praise

First of all, the snowstorm that hit Charlotte on Saturday evening was the worst possible kind from a preacher’s perspective:  strong enough to hinder Sunday attendance but not so strong that we needed to cancel.  It also hit on Saturday evening, meaning many people’s final visual was of snow everywhere — meaning no church on Sunday.

But the roads (at least on the Charlotte side of things) weren’t bad, and we went ahead with all three services. We had about half the number of people we’ve been having.

So I had some frustration around all that because I felt what we had prepared for people to experience was meaningful.  The message, called Honest To God, came from Psalm 13 and landed at a counter-intuitive bottom line:  Your anger at God is just your praise of God in disguise.

Drawing on the rich language of that 13th Psalm — four consecutive brazen questions of “How long, Lord?”  that open it up — we recognized together that giving voice to frustation with God is no sin at all.  It is instead a courageous way of acknowledging that God is sovereign and inscrutable.

For the response time, we had placed Post It Notes in the bulletin, all of them emblazoned with Psalm 13’s question:  How Long?.

Then, as our band played a glorious version of U2’s “40” we invited people to write down the question they had for God or even the frustration they had with him.  Then we encouraged them to place that note on the wall of our Worship Center — making it, paradoxically, a wall of complaint that was truly a wall of praise.

Here’s what it looked like:

Snow or not, I’m glad with what our team put together and how people responded.

Here’s a transcript of the sermon itself.  Wherever you read REFRAIN that means Your anger at God is just your praise of God in disguise.


Now usually I like to get to truth and dwell on truth when we are together on Sundays, but can I start out with a lie today?  A big lie?  One that gets told, re-told, re-re-told to the extent that people accept it as gospel?  One that if you are to second guess people will think you’re a lunatic or heretic or both?  Here it is.  You ready for the Big Lie?  You can’t question God.  I’ve heard that my entire life in ministry.  Heard it uttered by people who were either experiencing – OR, MORE LIKELY, WATCHING OTHER PEOPLE EXPERIENCING – the most painful seasons of life. 

            I remember being on the job two weeks (1990!) and a grandmother lost both her grandson and her infant great-grandson in the same horrific car crash.  And when I was at her house, what was one of the first things she said?  The big lie: “well, I was always taught you can’t question the Lord.”  So I heard it two weeks in and for 23 years since – through divorces, deaths, national tragedies, and personal traumas and the refrain is always the same: “I always heard you can’t question God.”

            And, each time, I’ve come to realize, spoken by people who may be long in church but are short in the bible.  Because the bible is so interesting, so rich, so surprising when you actually READ what it says.  We’re going to look together in just a few minutes at Psalm 13 but before we do, I have to let you know something.  What I’m going to tell you will be old news to some of you and an enormous “A-ha!” to others.  Here it is: the book of Psalms was the hymn book for ancient Israel.  It’s where the people got the songs, the prayers, and the rituals that they used in corporate worship.  It is, more or less, 150 different selections of praise and worship.  Complete with instructions to “Turn & Greet”!  What we do digitally, they did on parchment.  But the result is the same.  And this Psalm 13 is right smack in the front section of this book of praise.  Tuck that away.

 And look at how Psalm 13 begins:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
Impatient, frustrated, insistent . . . and all that gets expressed from person to God.  Now: person here is most likely King David and the setting is probably in the midst of battle, Civil War, flight for his life, or all of the above.  It’s not overly specific – perhaps as a way of showing us that David’s experience is everyone’s experience.  But it’s remarkable to me that David is comfortable enough with God to ask him with such bold, frank, honesty:  “How long?  I’m tired of waiting for your answers, you promise more than you deliver, I need your intervention, and I’m frustrated at your inaction.  HOW LONG ARE YOU GOING TO KEEP ME WAITING?!?”  So to those who have been taught that you can’t question God . . . gulp.  There it is. In the bible itself. 

Then again!  More times! 

How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and every day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, O Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

Four times in two verses!  Asking!  Complaining!  Kvetching!  Oy vay! 
Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24 Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?
And then Psalm 44 & 88 does MORE of the same:
Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24 Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
Why, O Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
    the darkness is my closest friend. (Psalm 88:14, 18)
See, the people who say you can’t question God overlook (or never knew to begin with) this teeny tiny fact that DOING SO MADE IT INTO THE BIBLE!  There is this overwhelming sense of abandonment in so many of the Psalms – and I love how the bible doesn’t avoid it but acknowledges it.  I love that acknowledgment because I know someone here today has felt or feels today abandoned by God.  And this is the first time you haven’t felt shamed for it.  When that healing you prayed for on behalf of your mom went to someone else instead.  “Hey, that blessing belonged to me!”  When your spouse simply will not change.  When that child of yours spent Christmas in jail . . . and even that seemed better than what would happen to them if they got out.  When you and your spouse sit in that spare bedroom at home, rocking the empty cradle, wondering why the baby you longed for, planned for, and prayed for has never come.  How long? Psalm 13 asks and when it does it gives us permission to ask ourselves.

            And look at Psalm 13:2a again: READ.  That wrestling with thoughts all day long . . . sounds so much like depression, doesn’t it?  Where you can’t get out of your own head?  Some of you know just what it’s like to not want to get out of bed in the morning but instead just to think and think and think.  Like the song, you can’t get it out of your head.  And the depression is debilitating and it’s frustrating as the devil that no despite all the prayers for release, freedom hasn’t come yet.  So yeah, I want to confront the Big Lie, the one that says you can’t question God, and I long for those of you who are now wrestling with or WILL wrestle with that sense of abandonment to be able to voice your frustration.

            I do so out of the sneaking suspicion that your inability to question God will lead to an incapacity to pray.  That since your relationship with God is built on an unbiblical façade (can’t question the Lord!) and not on honest communication, then your relationship – like any human relationship build on a mirage – will slowly but surely drift away.  We’re devoting an entire series to Constant Contact precisely so that doesn’t happen.

            But that’s not where Psalm 13 leaves us.  It takes us someplace better.  Remember how I said that Psalm 13 is in the Hymn Book of the bible?  Which means that those four “how longs?” are in the context of praise.  They are sung!  Ditto with those painful words of Psalm 44 and 88!  In fact, the rawest, most brazen forms of communication with God in all of Scripture are all right here in the Psalms.  Which lets you know that praising God and questioning God are part and parcel of the same thing!  Two sides of the same coin!  To question is to praise!  Psalm 13 itself proves that!  Look: READ 13:5-6: READ.  The frustration at the beginning becomes a song at the end!  The isolation at the start becomes community at the conclusion!  It literally ends in the sanctuary, standing and singing songs of praise!  And so here’s the bottom line, one you’re going to have to mull for awhile for it to penetrate:  Your anger at God is just your praise of God in disguise.

            Yes!  REFRAIN.  Your questioning God &; your frustration with God has hidden with it your worship of God.  The Jews put all these bold, brazen questions in their book of praise because they knew that only when they could be truly honest with God could they authentically give him praise.

            Now: I don’t know if you’ll get answers when you give voice to your questions.  I don’t know if you’ll receive comfort when you vent your anger.  But I DO know the process is healthy – that’s why it made into inspired Scripture – and I also know that God would much rather you be angry with him than ignore him.  I think this is all why the chosen people are called “Israel” – one who struggles with God.  My goodness – all of your most intimate relationships on earth are full of raw emotion and honest back and forth.  Why should it be different with God?

            Do you know why this anger is really just hidden praise?  Because in expressing anger & frustration, you acknowledge that he really is sovereign.  Now this is really, really hard to wrap your mind around.  But God is not powerless in the face of evil and chaos.  He is sovereign over pain and loss.  We want to excuse God from that since it’s easier to minimize God than it is to enlarge our minds.  Psalm 13 and its movement take us to a different place.  What it asks all of us wrestling with what feels like abandonment is this:  can you radically trust the same God who could have prevented it?  Can you?  He could have prevented that divorce, that death, that illness, that job loss, that addiction, that incarceration.  Can you trust him even though he didn’t?  I believe asking questions and expressing anger opens the way to that deeper trust.  I’m mad at you God, but you’re still the only God I got!

            That’s so much better than deciding he is either mean or weak or irrelevant.  That’s what surveys tell us that many in the emerging generations have decided about God. They hear the claims of a God of love; they see the abject misery in the world; and they conclude that the God they’ve heard about briefly either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.  That’s so sad.  I have to believe that if more people were exposed to the raw, robust thinking of Psalm 13 and other places where we see people being brutally honest to God, that more and more people would be like, “oh, I get it now.  God’s not my vending machine, God can deal with my questions and my anger, and that’s a God I can believe in & trust.”  REFRAIN.

            Now: before I give you some “hows,” let me pause here.  Because a lot of you are going to be around people who are questioning God or are angry with God or feel abandoned by God.  Listen: don’t jump in and try to explain God!  Don’t offer platitudes or clichés.  Please don’t ever say to someone struggling with the loss of a loved one, “oh, they’re in a better place now.”  Usually, the widow or the child or the parent thinks, “no they’re not.  The best place my loved one could be is right here with me.”  Instead of talking & trying to justify the God who can do a good job of that himself, just . . . be.  Just sit.  Listen to what one of our pastors here did in the face of a parent who’d lost an adult son:
I could not believe it when you call.  You offered to talk and I certainly needed to talk . . . [When I saw my son’s body] I thought that I would never pray again.  After my talk with you I was at least able to pray again.  You did not try to explain God — but showed your empathy.
I read that and thought “that’s what pastors and followers of Jesus are to be about.”  I love that.  REFRAIN

            And when it’s you in that place & you need that time to praise God in this most unorthodox of ways, know this:  today’s truth is not an excuse to whine, to stay, to land in a state of perpetual anger with God.  It is instead an invitation to honesty.  A place you visit give voice to, and then after a time move to another place.  My goodness I remember that time back in July of 1997 when I thought everything I’d ever worked for at the church in Monroe was going to fall apart.  Been there seven years, seen a lot of good and thought it was all just going to implode.  So I remember the most trusted man in the church came over, we sat outside, and I couldn’t even begin talking before I just started balling. Now: I’ll cry sometimes when Chris sings and at the divorce scene in Hope Floats, but not a lot else. Not this day. So frustrated with people, so confused with God, that it all came pouring out.  He didn’t know what was going on so he did the only logical thing: started crying, too.  Why, Lord?!  Guess what?  Things didn’t get better immediately!  They did eventually.  And that honesty was a critical part of it.  An odd way to praise God, but a way nonetheless.  A Psalm 13 way. REF

            Life works out that way more often than not: with confused tears in summer heat than with a tidy bow and everything’s all better.  But in spite of that ambiguity, what I want so much for you is the freedom to be honest with God.  Whether you write it, sing it, pray it, to give voice.  To have the courage and the intimacy with God to be able to say, “How long? When will you stop hiding your face?  When will you remember me?”  I don’t know when and how he’ll answer; I just now that asking him might just be the loudest praise song you’ll ever sing.