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I recently read Jon D. Levenson’s latest book The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (see also here and here), and would like to share another brief quote with you. It’s about the idea of “lament” or “complaint” in the Old Testament.

I’ve written a bit about this idea myself, on this blog and elsewhere, but Levenson gives it a twist that I had never quite articulated before, but that seems so obvious to me now that I see it.

And the idea is this: lament or complaint to God is an act of covenant loyalty.

Bet you didn’t see that coming.

God stands by Israel even when they breach the covenant in the most egregious and defiant ways, and Israel (ideally) stands by God even when they plausibly accuse him of gross injustice, as indeed they do at times. . . . Covenantal loyalty includes both a nonmoral loyalty [loyalty regardless of how the other behaves] and a passionaite insistence that the other partner live up to the terms of the covenant and make himself worthy of the gratuitous love he has received. 

The Love of God, p. 55

Without suggesting that God and we are on equal terms, the idea expressed above works both ways.

The raw honesty of the lament psalms, for example (like Psalms 44, 88, 89), not only models for us the acceptability of such honest expressions of frustration, even disappointment and anger, with God—although there’s that. It is also an act of covenant loyalty on our part to God to do so.

To put it in marriage terms, if a spouse is not living up to the agreement, so to speak, the other is morally obligated by those very same terms to call him/her to the carpet. And doing so (genuinely, not naggingly) is an expression of one’s commitment to the marriage covenant—you expect the other to live up to their vow and will let them know when they don’t.

So think about that the next time you are wondering, like a psalmist, why your life is shrouded in darkness and God seems either disinterested, unaware, or even complicit (Psalm 88). By getting in God’s face and even “accusing him of gross injustice” you are actually expressing loyalty to the covenant; you are honoring God by showing respect for the covenant enough to say something.

Complaining to God is a way of standing by God. Sometimes it’s all we have.


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.