Counseling Process

What Do I Do When Lament Turns Into Sinful Complaint?

Tirzah Birk
May 3, 2024
5 minute read
What Do I Do When Lament Turns Into Sinful Complaint?
As a newer counselor this often happens to me in the early sessions: I’m listening to a new counselee tell her story and it’s not long before facts about her suffering mix with self-pity. Alarm! Red flag! Stop the sin!! I used to wrestle with this internal dialogue: do I need to cut off her sinful self-pity? Do I jump in with some truths from scripture to stop this? Is me listening to this, affirming that this is ok? Do I need to confront every wrong thing said against God and her circumstances in this session? Another counselee has been through a life-changing hardship. She is concerned that if she starts to go through the steps of lament, won’t that bring up sinful thoughts? Maybe it would be better to skip past this and go straight into putting off sinful thoughts and putting on right thoughts. Our church, counseling ministry, and I personally have benefited greatly from the biblically solid and excellent teaching on lament we have received through Pastor Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy as well as his teaching at our annual conference and pre-conference. In that book Vroegop defines lament as “the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness” (pg. 26).

Lament is a crucial first step of responding well to suffering

We know that lament is a crucial first step of responding well to suffering. But how should I as a counselor think of how to handle the line when lament steps over into self-pity? What does it look like practically, during my counseling session? I would like to briefly argue the following three points in answer to these questions.
  1. Godly lament will commonly be mixed with sinful complaint - God wants us to bring both to Him
  2. If God’s Word - breathed by God himself - includes sinful complaints, and accusations against God himself, I should not be surprised when my counselee does the same
  3. If my goal as the counselor is to make them stop sinning, I will be frustrated. My goal should be to point them toward loving God and treasuring Him (in their sin and suffering)

What are you wanting?

Beginning with the third point, a question we have been taught to ask our counselees, applies here to us as counselors: “what are you wanting?” Why am I so uncomfortable when I hear a counslee’s complaints? I may want her to stop sinning. I may know that her thinking is unhelpful for her, and I want what’s best for her: to focus on the truth. I may also feel concerned that if I allow her to say wrong things about God or her circumstances, she may think her conclusions are true. I may feel the weight that I am speaking on God’s behalf, and I need to represent him well and not let anyone think wrongly about God. These are real concerns that can benefit from stepping back and thinking about my God-given purpose as a counselor, and how God allows himself to be spoken of in his Word. It has been helpful for me to remember my purpose as a counselor is not to make her stop sinning, but to point her to delighting in Jesus (Matthew 22:34-40). I have learned that I cannot even understand and address her sin well unless I hear what she’s longing for so I can show her how God’s answers are more satisfying to her longings; I need to hear why her circumstances are so crushing so that I can connect her to how her savior was crushed for her so that she would only feel crushed. I need to be more motivated by loving my counselee, than by a desire to hunt down sin, or fear of God being misrepresented. Love is making a safe space for sin to be exposed so that it can be put off and replaced with a growing love for God. I also need to remember that I am not the junior holy spirit. I cannot make my counselee love and treasure God much less obey Him. But I can rest, focusing on doing what pleases God regardless of how my counselee chooses to respond. Although when I speak I should “do so as one who is speaking actual words of God” (1 Peter 4:11), God’s plan does not rest on my ability to say the right thing. God will accomplish all of his purposes in the life of my counselee with or without me (Isaiah 46:8-11). God does not need me, but he wants to use me! This truth has been greatly helpful for me as a new counselor.

Godly lament will commonly be mixed with sinful complaint - God wants us to bring both to Him!

Here I want to return to my first point: for sinful humans, I’m convinced that Godly lament will commonly be mixed with sinful complaint - God wants us to bring both to Him. A recent study of the books of the prophets has greatly expanded my view of God as I realize how lowly God is; not only does he permit sinful complaints, He inspired and preserved them for all time for my benefit! I have yet to hear anyone say anything worse about God than what God himself breathed and preserved in scripture for all time. Who is a God like our God! Although he is so terrible and holy that merely glimpsing the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God causes one to fall on the their face (Ezekiel 1:28), this same God describes himself as “gentle and lowly” (Matthew 11:29) and “he will not crush the weakest reed” (Isaiah 42:3). Who is a God like our God!

If God’s Word - breathed by God himself - includes sinful complaints, and accusations against God himself, I should not be surprised when my counselee does the same

There are some counselees whose suffering is the result of her own foolish or sinful choices, and we can be tempted to jump right into putting off sin. But consider how the nation of Israel, when it went into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, was even getting what it deserved according to God’s covenant. And yet many of the books of the prophets are filled with complaints. Even if we are getting the “just punishment” we deserve, God still invites our laments and complaints. How would you respond if your counselee came in saying this? Jonah: “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” (Jonah 4:9b) Jeremiah: “I sat alone because your (God’s) hand was upon me, for you (God) had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you (God) be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?”  (Jeremiah 15: 17b-18) Jeremiah/ author of Lamentations: He (God) has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he (God) has broken my bones; he (God) has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation. He (God) has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago.” (Lamentations 3:4-6) Naomi: “call me Mara (bitterness) for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.”  (Ruth 1:20-21) It would be tempting for me to cut that right off and begin teaching them why their thoughts about God are wrong. Amazingly, God doesn’t always answer and correct theology on the spot. What kind of a God is this, who tolerates this kind of language?! A gracious, big God who can handle our worst accusations and sinful complaints. And He invites us to come to him anyways. We don’t have to clean up our sin before we can come to God. In my experience so far, it is hard enough for many counselees to admit their true thoughts to me out loud, and they have almost never admitted them directly to God himself. I have learned there is no substitute for the counselee bringing her complaint directly to God. Vroegop is very practical in Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy on what this looks like - it is an excellent resource to go through together with a counselee which will encourage them to model their prayer after a Psalm of lament. In a first session, I typically think of a Psalm that has similar language to what I have heard them say (such as Psalm 13, 42, 77) and assign them to write out their own thoughts to God directly pouring out their honest thoughts, feelings, and questions. Then write out a reminder to themselves of what they know to be true about God. I do find that I often have to remind a Christian counselee that she doesn’t have to clean up her thoughts before she tells them to God. The prodigal son’s father was waiting for him and embraced him, pig filth and all. I may remind her that God already knows her thoughts - even the ones she hasn’t put into words. I remind her that God chooses people for salvation in love because it brings him great delight to save sinners, not because we are doing a good job (Ephesians 1 & 2). Of course, lament is not the end goal. And evidence of Godly lament is moving toward trusting God and obedience. But lamenting should not be skipped, even when there’s a lot of sin to deal with. Why would anyone want to change and put off sin, if we don’t believe that we can even bring our doubts, fears, anger, and pain to God?

So, should we never interrupt a counselee in their complaints?

By no means! There are absolutely many times to interrupt a counselee, to confront a lie about God and/or circumstances head on. When my goal is to love the counselee by helping her to treasure God with all her heart, soul, and mind, it is my job to help her understand the lies she’s believing, and direct her to the truths of scripture. There is great freedom here for a counselor depending on the Holy Spirit for exactly how and when to do this. So far from my experience I would say the earlier sessions when I’m listening for her patterns of thinking, and her heart idols, I’m going to spend the majority of the session listening for those key patterns. Toward the end of the session, after hearing what she’s saying, my goal is to introduce one key passage that addresses the key desires and idols of her heart, one that shines the loving and gracious character of God toward sinners and sufferers. And as we spend more weeks together, after I’ve already taught on a topic to address her heart, when she says something wrong, I will be more likely to respond in that moment. I think this looks like a gentle: “now we need to remember, that …” or “now how does that compare with what God’s word says ….?” or “When I feel one way about this, and God’s word says something different, what should I choose to believe?” Biblical lament never stops there. It always moves toward trust and obedience. If I have a counselee who is unwilling to embrace the next steps, I would need to confront that in a way that is filled with truth and love. Let us remember the marvelous loving-kindness and faithfulness of our God who chooses a people for himself. And having all gone astray, doing what was right in our own eyes, and many times suffering the consequences of our own choices, God opened some of our eyes to return to Him bringing our (chapters and chapters and chapters of) bitter complaints and accusations. And let us take heart from the way God views his restored people from the book of Zechariah:
  • “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord. And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day and shall be my people” (2:11)
  • “Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city(!)” (8:3)
  • “They shall be my people, and I will be their God in faithfulness and righteousness” (8:8)
  • “I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days” (8:11)
  • “As I purposed to bring disaster to you [....] so again have I purposed in these days to bring good to Jerusalem” (8:14-15)
  • “I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them for I am the Lord their God” (10:6)
  • “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1)
If God would think so graciously toward His chosen people, perhaps He will be so gracious toward me.
Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash
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