The Personalist Project

Does complaining count as prayer?

Pope Francis says yes--at least, it can.

I think a lot of us have a very narrow, constricted idea of what counts as praying. Traditional-minded people tends towards the pre-composed kind: we “say our prayers,” but don’t make them up—we leave that the experts: King David, our preferred saints, or even some liturgical committee. Others, like Evangelicals and charismatics, tend towards the spontaneous.

The Church, as usual, takes a both-and kind of posture. As I’ve written before, each kind of prayer has its place, and each has its pitfalls in practice. But what about just complaining, just venting?

Here’s what Pope Francis had to say, according to the Catholic News Agency:

“A priest I know once said to a woman who lamented to God about her misfortune, ‘but, madam, that is a form of prayer, go ahead with it,’” Pope Francis said in his June 5 homily.
“To lament before God is not a sin,” he added.
Pope Francis based his reflections on a reading from the third chapter of Tobit, which was read at Mass today.
It tells the story of Tobit, who was blinded despite a life of good works, and Sarah, who married seven men that all died before their wedding night. They both pray to God to let them die.
“They are people in extreme situations and they seek a way out,” Pope Francis said.
“They complain, but they do not blaspheme.”

 It’s easy to go overboard on one side or the other when it comes to complaining. Pop psychology has given us the idea that the honest and mentally healthy person is the one who vents at the drop of a hat. If you don’t express all your anger and disappointment, all the time, it will be “bottled up inside.” You might explode or something. Venting is all but medically necessary. (Nota bene: When I say "venting," I don't mean being assertive, standing up for oneself, or refusing to sweep injustice under the rug.)

On the other hand, the Christian doesn't see constant complaining as necessary or virtuous, but as lack of gratitude. And common sense--or, failing that, unpleasant experience--confirms how counterproductive it is to complain excessively to your spouse, or your children, or your boss. Venting and complaining seem off limits altogether.

So what about venting to God? I'm all for it, for two reasons.

  • First of all, it’s good that we treat Him like a person, not just an inanimate place to deposit the pre-composed prayers we have to, or imagine we have to, check off our list. You can speak to a person about what's on your mind, and you don't need to be artificially calm or cheerful.
  • it’s also good because human beings do need to vent to someone--but we could damage our relationships with other human beings if we use them constantly as venting objects. The risk is especially great with people who are always at hand--spouses or close friends. You can reduce them to sounding boards

God is not an inanimate sounding board, either, of course.  But nor is He someone you have to make an impression on. You can vent away. He can take it.

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Comments (2)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 10, 2015 12:28am

This is so reassuring. Thank you, Devra.

I'm going to be reflecting further on what is the difference between "bad complaining" and lamenting. 

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Jun 10, 2015 9:00am

Great topic Devra. I'd love to hear more about it. It seems to me that lamenting and complaining to God, even accusing Him, plays a crucial role in the life of faith confronted with suffering. All too often we are told to be joyful, to put a happy face on it, etc. But that only makes us unreal. It cuts us off from our real experience, from ourselves, and thereby also from God. I'm sure there is a difference, as Katie says, between bad, destructive complaining and lamenting. But almost anything seems better than pretending that everything is hunky-dory.

After reading this post I googled around a bit and found this line about Jeremiah's laments:

I think they are confessions of faith because, in the midst of profound suffering, they cling fiercely to God, even though they do so accusingly, and even though they verge toward despair. That is what prayers of lament do. They complain, whine, and berate God even as they keep relationship alive. (from "Lamenting Back to Life" by Kathleen M. O'Connor)

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