Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Habakkuk: complaint as praise…

Posted by joespencer on June 30, 2007

I’ve meant for several days to get around to writing this post, but things have been remarkably busy lately. I can only apologize for the lateness and hope that interest remains in the question. But by way of invitation, let me at least say this: the idea of “complaint as praise” seems to be one of the most interesting, and yet most profoundly ignored, subjects in scripture.

In the course of one of our wonderful conversations, I said this:

Our saying and our doing must become one act: we praise God (who is, after all, still God, whatever that means). Praise: thinking/thanking as an act without political implications or that implicates the political per se. Praise: forgiving and repenting, that is, confessing our nothingness and God’s greatness. Praise: remaining subject to the powers that be, but subject then with the most radical freedom, the only freedom possible.

One and the same response came from several different individuals: confusion! So I went on to clarify:

The only way that our thinking about these questions [policies in the Church, etc.] can escape the negativity of idolatry is if our thinking becomes thanking, becomes a praising response to God’s summons rather than a summons (if not an indictment) of God. We should be thinking about all of these questions, in all rigor and with all the scholarly acumen in the world. But we must be doing so in response to a call that renders our thinking iconistic rather than idolatrous. Only then do we read the texts with unveiled faces, with mirror-like faces in which the light of God becomes flesh (our countenances engraven so as to show the image of God).

The question was then raised as to what place complaint has in our theology, since it appears on the lips of the righteous throughout the scriptures and our own history, stretching from Emma’s difficulties with polygamy back to Abraham’s arguments over Sodom and Gomorrah. What place does complaint have in our theology (in our doing theology), and does it imply some kind of unfaithfulness? Jim nicely summarized the difficulty:

(1) Because we depend on God for everything, all of our relations to him ought to be relations of gratitude rather than demand, and (2) we are independent agents who have the right not only to supplicate our Heavenly Father, but sometimes to make demands on him.

I am tempted to take this question up in my (by now rather obnoxious) schematic of faith, hope, and charity, but I’ll turn instead to Habakkuk.

Hab 1:13 – Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?

Notice first how Habakkuk’s words here embody the difficulty as Jim lays it out perfectly: (1) It is clear that Habakkuk recognizes God as the Giver of everything, and he expressly praises Him (“Thou art of purer eyes…”); (2) it is equally clear that Habakkuk takes up his place as an independent agent who makes demands on God (“wherefore lookest thou… and holdest thy tongue…?”). It seems to me, then, that this verse is a good place to take up the difficulty, the tension between our ability (if not responsibility) to complain and our duty to praise. And for now, I would just like to point out a few aspects of Habakkuk’s words that perhaps outline what shape this ought to take in our own complaints.

First, it is certainly noteworthy that Habakkuk’s complaint is offered up within a prayer, that is, directly to God. His complaint is laid before the public, but only inasmuch as his direct relation to God is also laid before the public. (One should note that this is the case often in scripture: Abraham, Job, Joseph Smith, etc.) Where are our complaints being spoken?

Second, it is clear here that God’s goodness—and that praised—grounds the possibility of complaint: God’s pure eyes should not behold such wickedness and His justice would seem to require His intervention. How often are our complaints motivated by God’s goodness rather than by comparison between the Church as an institution and some other institution?

Third, Habakkuk’s complaint is spoken on behalf of others; it is not about himself. (Perhaps Job would be an exception on this point, but Abraham, Joseph, etc. again.) How selfish are our complaints, and when are our complaints motivated by the love we have for others? Do we pray for change because we see the mothers, youth, missionaries, converts, etc., dying spiritually, or because we wish something were otherwise for ourselves?

Fourth, the complaint is made in the form of a question. (This is common in scripture as well.) Accusation is made, perhaps, but indirectly, and Habakkuk goes on in chapter 2 to receive an answer (an answer that leads him to praise more exuberantly still). Are our complaints statements (judgments), or are they questions?

Fifth, Habakkuk raises his question theologically. That is, he draws theological conclusions and presents that theology as a kind of offering to God, who has the right to call it into question. How often are our complaints part of our doing theology, part of our trying to understand God? When are or aren’t our complaints a form of worship?

What else? What am I missing, or what is Habakkuk missing?

I’ll add just this last question, perhaps because I am asked something like it often in connection with my own teaching: What place does complaint have in teaching (in teaching as praise)?

4 Responses to “Habakkuk: complaint as praise…”

  1. cherylem said


    I need to go back and read Habakkuk before commenting too intelligently, probably, but I’ve been thinking about complaint as courage.

    (as opposed to murmuring: comment 75 here)

    It seems to me the first step to righting a wrong that is generally accepted as right is first to think the difference between what is right and what is accepted, and then to speak it. Action follows.

    Speaking the wrong is a form of complaint, and takes private (intellectual and spiritual) courage, and then public courage.

    Arguing with God is a private matter – this actually doesn’t seem to me to take much courage. Speaking the wrong to God in a public way is more courageous.

    But where do we go with this? How does the complaint remain worship in the public sphere?

  2. An initial, and perhaps almost thoughtless, double reaction, Cheryl:

    First, I’m not sure how to approach the very idea of “private.” Our whole existence is a prayer in some sense to someone, and anyone who lives a constant complaint to God puts that quite on display before the world. That is, I’m not sure that there is a distinction between public and private (it seems significant to me that “private” is so closely tied to “privation”).

    Second, I’m not sure how to approach the very idea of “courage.” It seems to me right now that courage is little more than a willingness to sacrifice, in the name of a sharp distinction between the public and the private, the public as such. That is, I’m not sure how to think courage except as a kind of belligerence about a certain conceptual framework one must maintain in order to define oneself.

    But perhaps I’m only trying courageously to militate against the spirit of publications from Signature press I’ve attended to lately.

  3. cherylem said

    Well, you are courageous (;->).

    more, more thoughtfully, later.


  4. Robert C. said

    Joe (and Cheryl), I’m sorry I’m only just now getting around to this post. I think you (both) raise fascinating questions and, implicitly, make some very good points. A few rather muddled thoughts:

    Joe’s first point about addressing God directly seems very important. Gossip (in the bad sense, since concerned, love-based discussion about others is often labeled “gossip”) is often a result of talking with third parties about something that should be taken up “privately” (scare quotes b/c of the fuzziness of this distinction that Joe mentioned).

    The question bit in Joe’s fourth point also strikes me particularly—perhaps this is the single most important distinction between this kind of complaint and murmuring, it seems there is no question mark in murmuring…. And I think this is important in Joe’s fifth point to, “part of our trying to understand God“—we ask because we sincerely want to understand better, not just because are convinced “God is wrong”….

    I’m not sure I follow Joe’s last question about the role of complaint in teaching, but it makes me think about the first point again, how our complaints should be taken up with God directly. I hope this example isn’t too . . . well, crass, I guess, but my wife and I had a discussion early on in our marriage about discussin our relationship (and sex life in particular) with others. This is something we both feel is often done in very inappropriate ways (usually associaed with “locker room talk” for husbands, and “gossip” I guess for girls). Of course, there are perhaps certain trusted friends or family members with whom it can helpful to confide and ask for advice regarding particular difficulties, but somehow it seems that the sacredness of the intimate relationship between husband and wife should be guarded carefully, something that I think is diminished when complaints are voiced to some third party (that is, in the absence of the second party in particular). I know I’m not really making a very clear point here, but I think something very important is at work in relationships, perhaps a constant turning toward rather than a turning away, whether or not we are in the presence of the 2nd party.

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