Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson recently spoke to Edvance school leaders and educators in a special virtual session. As a follow up, we asked Curt if he would expand on the difference between lamenting and complaining. Can we turn a complaint into a lament? Curt graciously provided the following reply:
To me, a lament includes a complaint. But it necessarily takes place in the context of a particular relationship. When I "merely" complain, my complaint is about me and about what I want to be different in the world. Yes, it may be about others as well (my children, my friends, my co-workers, etc.), but we must recall that our anxiety—our distress of any kind—is always, ultimately about us; it's not ONLY about us, but it is ultimately about us.
In lament, I must first recall that it is a conversation. Lament is not just about a "what" (my complaint) but about "with whom?" (God and me). I first must name my complaint: my sorrow, anger, sadness, loss, disappointment, confusion, powerlessness—leaving no stone unturned—including all the circumstances and events that I have feelings about and wish were different. I must also be willing and bold enough, if it is so, to tell God that I am angry that he hasn't done anything about it yet, and unflinchingly ask "Why?!" (I have to admit that here, I often pull my punch. I figure somehow, because there is a reason for all of this, and God knows what it is, I simply haven't figured that out yet; so to ask "Why?" activates within me a certain sense of shame that I haven't figured out the answer to the question why, and am not trusting God with the answer I don't have. Shame, then is something I REALLY wrestle with at this juncture). It is really important that as we are spouting out all of this, we imagine how we see God seeing us. What would be the scene, and how would Jesus be responding to us in each micro-moment of our interaction?
Next, after we have said all of this (and it is often a good idea to write all of this out), it is important to imagine simply "sitting" with what we have said. Do not rush this. Imagine what Jesus says to you. Imagine what God brings to your mind—without condemning you in the process. This can take longer than you might think.
THEN, allow God to begin to remind you as well that he is IN this WITH you, and that he is using all of the details of your life to bring you into a place of goodness and beauty, even when we don't see it immediately. He is with you to comfort, heal and redeem every broken thing. For a bruised reed he will not break. Then allow for him to remind you where, when and how he has been faithful to you in the past. Allow for these last two parts to nurture and comfort you. This is not God's attempt to dismiss or minimize your complaint. This is not him telling you to shut up and be grateful for what you have. This is him taking your complaint seriously—taking YOU seriously, meeting you where you are in order to receive and then transform your heart.
Finish your lament by offering a word of thanksgiving and gratitude for what you genuinely have experienced as his comfort and vital activity in your heart. This, as I said, should be genuine. Not contrived, not artificial. Don't say things you don't mean. If you're not ready to do this, then rewind the tape and begin again.
I think we can see how "complaint" alone feels so much more tepid, so much more flimsy. We were built for lament. To complain is, in and of itself, not to be seen as a bad thing; but by comparison, it is more akin to what toddlers do, developmentally, when a lament is made for adults. Lament takes WORK. And much of the work involves our willingness to pay attention to the fact that God is participating in the lament with us. Lament, then, requires maturity; AND it also matures us in the process of entering into it. Complaint, at the end of the day, requires no maturity, and certainly does not bring us to a place of greater maturity on its own.
Lastly, it is important to recall that lament is not a one and done thing. I may have to repeat it. Over and over. As I may have mentioned on the call, I tend to think that IF I'm going to lament, I should be able to do it once, and then be finished. To do it over and over somehow indicates that I haven't shared my feelings well enough—if I had, I wouldn't have to do this again and again. But here, we have good guides. Of the Psalms, full one third are understood to be ones of lament. Why do we need so many? Why not just one? Well, I think that's obvious; we need so many because there is so much to lament.