Recently a very good friend was describing the funeral of someone we both knew, a deeply godly and gracious woman. In passing, my friend said of her that ‘she never complained’.
Although I knew my friend was not in any way aiming this remark at me, but rather, rightly, affirming the bravery of this remarkable lady, I felt stricken. Would she have said that of me, I wondered – indeed should that be something for which I should strive?
What my friend had done, quite inadvertently, was reopen a familiar dilemma, or more accurately sore spot, of mine which I have never fully resolved. For various reasons, I was brought up never to complain about anything personal – coming to understand it as linking with the unattractive features of moaning or whinging, terms which are almost always used pejoratively. I have a sneaking sympathy for Moaning Myrtle of Harry Potter fame, who actually had a pretty miserable existence both before and after finding a home in the bathroom at Hogwarts.
My question is this – where does this leave those of us who suffer from chronic pain, whether physical or emotional, which is not going to resolve? Is it genuinely better to keep silence? Or to restrict telling it how it is to the very few we know will not judge or label? And how often is it ‘permissible’ to do that? I am profoundly grateful to two people who walked with me – literally – in past tough times, and who never once intimated that they had run out of patience, or left me feeling I was moaning. I think however that the more sensitive of us have an underlying fear of overdoing the welcome and care of others.
Sustaining support can be an issue in the church at times. I remember a mother I knew some decades ago who was having a very tough time with a child with a medical issue which was not life-threatening but was life-long. She felt that at the start there was a great deal of empathy and prayer, but that over time this waned. It can be very difficult to stay with something over the long haul, raising for some theological questions as to why God does nothing, and for others a simple lack of capacity to continue to support. It is one reason we should never offer help we cannot sustain, as church families or individuals. It is also, I think, part of the deeper issue that some churches find it difficult to balance praise, hope and lament, feeling that to not maintain a note of triumph is somehow an affront to the gospel. Yet we serve the God of Gethsemane and the cross, and the resurrection does not wipe the pain and trauma of these experiences out, simply say that there is, in time, more to our stories too.
Biblically, verses about complaining are generally related to communities arguing with leaders rather then personal expressions of distress. Indeed the Psalms are full of outpourings of pain. Psalm 55 sees the psalmist declare: ‘Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.’ Certainly we have biblical mandate to come to God with the utmost honesty. But with one another? Let’s be those who can hear each other’s reality with open ears and hearts. It is the most wonderful gift to give.