Many monastic orders had a "no talking" rule. One of the reasons for this was to curb complaining. Stand by a 21st century watercooler or hang out in the parking lot outside an office building and you will quickly learn that complaining is still a problem. Even church parking lots after Sunday service can be a hotbed of complaining. Human beings complain. The Bible is full of complaining people. A monastic gag order doesn't solve the heart of the problem, which (ironically) is our own hearts! So, as scary as it sounds, the best person to complain to is the only one who can change our hearts. In this blog post, I talk about why we need to complain more... to God!
Why we should always bring our complaints to God
My pastor recently preached on Psalm 13, a psalm of lament. Lamentation prayers are helpful to teach us how to navigate difficulties in life; the lamenting psalmist brings his complaint to God and implores the Lord to take action on his behalf. My pastor noted that one-third of the inspired psalms are in a “minor key.” It is astonishing how few of our hymns and prayers are laments. Clearly, God is showing us that we need to lament more! Oddly as it may sound, we are exhorted to learn how to complain to God.
I have been reflecting this week on why we struggle to bring our complaints to God. One reason is that we know that much of our complaints are often rooted in wrong motives! We complain to ourselves or others because we think we deserve better, or we feel undervalued, or we feel some people aren’t doing their share, or we are envious of what others have. We complain to our friends, co-workers, spouses about our friends, co-workers, and spouses to justify ourselves in the eyes of others. We may even complain about chores or extra work to get out of certain responsibilities. Such complaints are rooted in a sinful mindset. Should we bring these complaints to God?
Wrong motives, right prayer
The answer is yes. Even these sorts of unfounded complaints should be brought to God. Here’s why: when we bring to God what’s bothering us, such complaints will inevitably become confessions! We begin to see all of our circumstances in light of God’s will for our lives. Praying to God is a powerful way to change our prayers and change our perspectives. Always, always, always go to God. Don’t reserve time with God for so-called “holy” prayers on “holy” topics. It is Christ who makes our prayers holy (Ephesians 2:18); it is the Spirit who interprets our groaning (Romans 8:26 – 27), and it is the Father who answers our prayers according to his good will and purpose (1 John 5:14). Complain to God and see what God does. He will answer your prayer by first changing you, the complainer.
Complain to God and see what God does. He will answer your prayer by first changing you, the complainer.
Petty problems? No problem
Another reason we don’t complain to God is that we think that the things that bother us are too small or too petty for God. We feel we should be complaining to God about important matters like our unsaved friends, family, or neighbours; we should be complaining about the evil in our world, or the persecuted church, or the lack of glory and praise given to God. Yes, we should be crying out to God for these things! But we need to remember that we are still growing in the faith, still being sanctified, still being made more like Christ day-by-day. We end up spending ten minutes in prayer for “spiritual concerns” and then spend the rest of the day worrying and complaining about the things that bother us. Here’s the key: when we are open to complaining to God about everything on our hearts and minds, we begin to learn to lament for the things that really matter. A child will bring her small problem to her mother, maybe a misplaced toy or mismatched sock. To a child, these seem like weighty matters. To a mom who is juggling 101 things, these concerns are like a “grain of sand.” Still, the mother will gently and kindly respond, assisting where she can but also teaching the little girl to “see the big picture” and not get “worked up” about the small setbacks in life. As the child grows, she learns this lesson and becomes mature. But the way the little girl started to learn this lesson was by complaining to her mom and then listening to how her mom responded. How much more can we learn from the Lord?
To a big God, there are no small problems
Even to adults, what seems big to us, isn’t really big. Take a grain of fine sand, which is 1/8 of a millimetre (0.125 mm). Compare that to a grain of table salt, which is 1/3 of a millimetre (0.333 mm). Salt is twice as big as a fine grain of sand, yet to us, both are small. Sometimes specific problems seem twice as big as other daily woes, and therefore, more “worthy” of bringing to God. In truth, all of our issues are small compared to God. We need to bring all of our complaints to God, big or small! When we bring our problems to him, we begin to learn that our God is much bigger than we ever imagined. All of our difficulties and setbacks are small compared to him! Yet—and here’s the most astonishing part—he is big enough to care about the little things. Our big God is sustaining the universe—planets held in orbit, stars kept ablaze, comets guided through space—as well as watching the lowly sparrow in a beech tree and clothing the blooming lily in a meadow (Matthew 6:25 - 34). He is so big that nothing is too small! Sorting out grains of sand from salt is too much for us, yet God numbers each grain of sand, each star in the universe, and each hair on our head (Ecclesiastes 1:2; Psalm 147:4; Luke 12:7). There is comfort in this glimpse of divine perspective. Our Abba Father has infinitely broad shoulders, so he can handle our biggest or smallest woes.
Remember that God, like a loving parent, also knows how small we are and how big our problems seem to us. Remember that the incarnated Jesus came to earth with a cosmic mission to bring salvation to the world and all human history. And yet, he took time to chat with a woman at the well, to heal a leper, to raise a man from the dead, to turn water into wine, to feed a crowd of hungry listeners. There are no topics of genuine prayer that God deems not worthy of his time. True, we need to continue growing in our understanding of prayer and how to pray. But to believe there are unworthy complaints is an idea that comes from a wrong view of the world, as though God separates things into “worthy” spiritual matters and “unworthy” earthly matters. Complain to God. See how much bigger he is compared to your biggest or smallest problem, your most spiritual or earthly concern.
Remember that God, like a loving parent, also knows how small we are and how big our problems seem to us.
Complain because God cares about you
Peter tells us to cast our cares on God because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). He cares for you! He cares about your struggles with your co-workers, and your debit card that stopped working, and the unexpected brake repair, and the cold snap that wiped out your spring tulips. As you “complain to God,” the Spirit will work in your heart. You will be less preoccupied with these matters because they are cast on his infinitely broad shoulders. You will begin to care more and more about the things that should matter more and more to you. He knows what you need and he knows what is bothering you. Prayer is really about changing us, encouraging us, and awakening us to God and his purposes in our life. Through these sorts of prayer, the reality of Romans 8:28 begins to sink in, and we can say with confidence that "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
Complain for the Glory of God?
When we are complaining to God, we are truly being honest with him and with our feelings of frustration and despair. In Jeremiah 12:1, the prophet writes, “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you.” When difficulty comes, we are often at a loss. We don’t understand why things are happening as they are. When we come to God with our frustrations, we are declaring that only he knows the answers, that only he acts righteously, that only he has the power to make things better. In short, our complaints to God bring glory to him. Such is the case for how so many lamentation psalms end. The complaint isn’t necessarily resolved, but God is exulted and the complainer is transformed. David writes,
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5 – 6).
Monasteries were known for their scheduled prayers throughout the day. Regular times of praying and meditating on the Word are spiritually nourishing. Under normal circumstances, we are packing lunches, rushing out the door, negotiating the commute to work, responding to emails... the list goes on. The opportunity to retreat to a holy huddle can be very enticing during the craziness of life! Indeed, there are benefits to retreating from the world for a time and learning again how to "be still and know" that he is God (Psalm 46:10). Although Christians shouldn’t return to the cloistered lifestyles of monasticism, we have been “forced” into monk-like living (for a time) with our current COVID-19 pandemic lock-down.
Since we have more time and more flexibility with our time, Christians ought to be capitalizing on the opportunities we have for prayer throughout the day. In a previous post, I mentioned following some of the prayer times used by monasteries for your own times of prayer and reflection.
In this post, I want to begin examining ways to keep our prayers fresh and focused.
Ways to pray
1) Reading Prayers
The Bible doesn’t provide an explicit blueprint on how we should pray. There are guides on what to pray, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, or the recorded prayers of so many Bible characters, especially the Apostle Paul. Such portions of Scripture are an essential and very helpful guide to praying. I hope to write more on this in my next Monk’s Guide post.
In this post, I want to reflect on ways we can pray throughout the day while working from home in lockdown. Besides scheduling times for prayer, we can also use tools to help us stay alert and engaged. One tool I use to start my day with an attitude of supplication is reading written prayers from church history. I use a book of collected prayers (see image below). While I am waiting for the kettle to boil for my morning cup of Joe, I pop open this book to the Morning Prayer of the day and prayerfully read the short poem. I often read the evening prayer before I go to bed at night. The written prayers help to focus my thoughts on crying out to God. Especially during my morning of pre-coffee grogginess.
I should note that there has been some controversy in the history of the church about “reading” prayers versus speaking “extemporaneous” prayers. The truth is I believe we can benefit from both sorts of praying. Both ways to pray can be Spirit-led and authentic or they can be dead, repetitive doggerel. I have heard “extemporaneous” prayers that really consist of several stock phrases memorized through repetition and strung together as though it's an off-the-cuff prayer. I have also heard very liberal congregations recite rich and theologically profound liturgical prayers and not mean a single word.
Evangelicals often balk at written prayers, yet they would also balk at extemporaneous preaching. Although congregations don't want their preacher to read his notes, they are thankful that he has prepared his message in advance. We also sing pre-written hymns in worship, so why wouldn't we be open to pre-written prayers?Whatever the case, I have been tremendously blessed by inspiring times of extemporanoues prayer and from times of prayerfully reading well-crafted prayers-of-old. In your own private mediations (as well as public worship), I believe there is a place for using both written prayers and extemporaneous prayers. I find that reading a prayer teaches me how to pray. These prayers often apply biblical and theological truths to real living. Reading and speaking aloud these prayers have a way of softening my heart and humbling my spirit before the Lord. During my personal devotions, I have also read from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Such prayers have helped train my heart and mind for extemporaneous praying. It is way of “priming the pump” of my own personal praise, pleas, and confessions before the Lord. These pre-written prayers have also taught me how to pray the Bible more effectively. In the next post, I will examine the best source of what to pray, and that is praying the Bible itself. Nevertheless, reading the written prayers of saints like Spurgeon, Calvin, and Luther are helpful aids in showing you how to speak to God in your daily circumstances.
2) The Posture of Prayer
Another helpful tool to praying is to remember your body. In his excellent book on prayer, Letters of Malcolm, C.S. Lewis writes, “the body ought to pray as well as the soul. Body and soul are both better for it.” I don’t always pray on my knees, but I do find that the taking on a posture of prayer has often helped in times of particular weariness or distraction. Praying on your knees doesn’t make my prayers more holy or more acceptable to God. Only Jesus makes our prayers acceptable and pleasing to God. What this posture does is use our bodies to help our spirits pray. Pride is one of the great obstacles to prayer, and kneeling helps foster humility. We sometimes forget that we have bodies as well as souls. We need to be spiritually minded in our physical activities as much as being physically minded in our spiritual activities. In short, variety of postures can help us keep engaged, focused, and in the right frame of mind during times of daily prayers. Joe Rigney helpfully summarizes Lewis’s advice:
It should be no surprise that communing with our Creator requires the commitment of heart, mind, and soul. Such is the commandment given to us in both the Old and New Testment (see Matthew 22:37). Paul also speaks of offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). We know in practice that our physical weariness or appetities can have a tremendous impact on our spiritual experiences, so it should mean that how we use our bodies (eating well, sleeping well, exercising, etc) as well as our physical posture can also have positive impacts on our spiritual lives as well. Likewise, meditating and praying have a positive impact on our physical bodies. According to several studies done in “Blue Zones” (areas around the world with unusually long-living inhabitants), a key ingredient to health and longevity is regular times of prayer and meditation. Reading—another habit of monks—also prolongs life! Maybe those monks were on to something!
3) Praying on the Move: prayer walks
Another helpful aid to praying is going on a prayer walk. We are stuck in our homes, but that doesn't mean we can't go for a stroll in the neighbourhood and lift up our hearts and thoughts to God in prayer as we do so. Pastor and author Mike Wilkins writes that he developed a helpful habit of walking and praying early in his ministry. As he walked a neighbourhood block, he devoted each side of the rectangle to different topics of prayer. He notes, “A very significant thing about my ‘walking in prayer’ has always been that, for the entire event, I remained mentally alert.” Sitting in prayer, he writes, often leads to “drowsing in prayer.”
Make the most of your lock-down and carve out some times to pray throughout the day!
Next Monk's Guide post: What to pray... Praying God's words back to God!
 C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 21
 Rigney, Joe. “C.S. Lewis and the Role of the Physical Body in Prayer.” Crossway, April 23, 2018. https://www.crossway.org/articles/cs-lewis-and-the-role-of-the-physical-body-in-prayer/.
 Bavishi, A., Slade, M. D., & Levy, B. R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social science & medicine (1982), 164, 44–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.014
 Mike Wilkins, Four Forty-Four (London: Tellwell, 2018), 9.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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