Can Faith and Complaint Coexist?
Polar versus Circumplex Models of Faith (Figure 1)
Many Christian communities and believers work with a polar model when it comes to relating complaint to faith. Complaint toward God involves experiences of lament, protest, disappointment, frustration, anger, and doubt toward/about God. Unfortunately, many believers think that high levels of complaint are symptomatic of faith problems. Thus, according to this model, strong faith should involve less complaint.
In short, the polar model suggests that faith and complaint are antithetical impulses. Walter Brueggemann (1984, pp. 51-52, emphases in original) nicely describes this model and its problems in his book The Message of the Psalms:
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control”…The point to be urged here is this: The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith…The polar model of the faith/complaint relationship is displayed below on the left side of Figure 1:
In contrast to the polar model, a great deal of theological and psychological literature suggests the faith / complaint relationship may be circumplex. In this model, communion / engagement with God is orthogonal to complaint toward God. This circumplex communion / complaint model is presented to the right of the polar model in Figure 1. In this circumplex model complaint is not antithetical to active engagement with God (i.e., high communion). Rather, complaint can coexist with communion with God.
Although the commingling of communion and complaint might sound odd to some believers, strong students of the bible know that this experience has ample biblical support.
For example, most lament psalms mix complaint with communion. Brueggemann calls this the plea-to-praise movement. That is, the experience of lament mixes plea/complaint with praise/communion. Perhaps the best single bible verse that captures the communion/complaint interface is Job 13:15 (brackets are mine): Though he slay me [complaint], yet will I hope in him [communion].
The point here is that complaint is a legitimate experience of faith. Complaint can be a regular feature of faith. In fact, as Brueggemann suggests, complaint can be an act of bold faith.
Churches should attend, therefore, to their implicit theological models of the faith experience. Specifically, if the polar model is operative, complaint is diseased and must be attenuated or marginalized. Thus, complaint must not be admitted into the faith community. I fear many Christians are tacitly working with this model. By contrast, the richer circumplex model sees complaint as a regular feature of faith, an act of bold faith. Thus, in this model complaint is healthy and mature and should be allowed entrance to the communal space.
Summer and Winter Christians (Figure 2)
To aid in communication and description, it is helpful to label the quadrants of the circumplex model. These labels are provided in Figure 2:
The seasonal labels are borrowed from Martin Marty. Specifically, the Summer Christians are those who occupy the high communion/low complaint sector. That is, engagement with God is high and the experience is generally free of negativity. By contrast, the Winter Christian is equally engaged with God, yet complaint is a feature of the experience.
An important contrast exists between the Winter Christian and the Spiritual Critic. The difference involves degree of engagement. The Winter Christian is engaged with God, the Critic is not. This distinction is important for diagnostic purposes. That is, when we hear a person offer up a complaint about God or church we can ask, Is this person engaged with church and/or God? If so, then you have a Winter Christian. If not, you are hearing criticism by someone on the "outside," so to speak.
To finish the quadrants, the Disengaged Believer is someone who is nominally Christian but who is neither engaged nor complaining.
I've found these labels to be pastorally useful. First, the labels help people communicate in the church setting. In the church I attend, many people now use these labels to quickly communicate how they respond to or think about facets of church life. Just last night, when speaking to a friend about a recent church service that featured a lot of Winter themes, he said to me, "You know I'm a Winter Christian so I liked the service. My wife, the Summer Christian, didn't like it as much."
Second, these labels help smooth over potential conflicts and misperceptions. That is, the labels clearly signal that the church is heterogeneous, an issue often forgotten. That is, a one-size-fits-all worship style, preaching style, pastoral intervention, spiritual counsel, or bible class isn't going to work across the board. Winter Christians don't generally thrive in Summer-dominated churches and likewise for Summer Christians in Winter churches. I've seen Winter Christian comments completely derail a bible class lead by a Summer Christian teacher. And Summer Christian prayers can chill the hearts of Winter Christian participants. And all this is, to my mind, simply unfortunate.
To help with this, the use of the labels can aid us in understanding that diversity exists among us and pastoral efforts need to take that diversity into account.
Finally, the labels help normalize and endorse the diversity. The most powerful impact I've seen when I've shared this model is from the married couples where one person is Summer and the other is Winter. Before they married they knew each other to be people of faith (i.e., high communion). But little did they know how different they would be on the complaint dimension (i.e., Summer vs. Winter). Each person tended to think there was something "wrong" with the other. She thought his complaint was a sign of unfaith. (Recall the polar model?). He thought her lack of complaint was a sign of naiveté. But after hearing the model the couple comes to the realization that he is Winter and she is Summer and each are legitimate ways with God. In fact, each needs the other. No one is wrong. Both are right. So they can transition from trying to change each other to trying to learn from each other.
Ministering to Complaint (Figure 3)
The circumplex model also offers insight as to how we should manage complaint in the communal setting. Specifically, if the polar model is operative, complaint is diseased. Thus, it must be "answered," silenced, or marginalized. But as we have noted, this model is overly simplistic. To illustrate, look at Figure 3:
At Point A in Figure 3 let's imagine the emergence of complaint. If the church adopts the polar model approach--silence complaint--what happens? Well, the Winter believer feels alienated and marginalized, that her questions and doubts "don't belong" in church. This produces disengagement. That is, the person moves lower on the communion dimension toward Point B. That is, churches drive these believers away, creating spiritual critics who eventually walk away from faith and church.
But if you can't address the complaint directly what can you do? Well, the circumplex model offers a clear recommendation: Ignore the complaint dimension and work the communion dimension. How can we do that? Simple, allow the complaint to be expressed within the communal setting. A great example of this comes from Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis:
We sponsored a Doubt Night at our church awhile back. People were encouraged to write down whatever questions or doubts they had about God and Jesus and the Bible and faith and church. We had to get a large box to hold all of the scraps of paper…I have page after page of questions on my desk. Heaven and hell and suicide and the devil and God and love and rape—some very personal, some angry, some desperate, some very deep and philosophical. Most of my responses were about how we allow others to carry our burdens and how our real needs in life are not for more information but for loving community with other people on the journey.The genius of Bell's Doubt Night is that it doesn't try to reduce complaint. Rather, it encourages complaint. The genius is that the focus is all on the communal dimension, allowing the complaint to be normalized and incorporated into the faith community. Doubt Nights like Bell's, by working the communion dimension, move the believer from Point A to Point C in Figure 3. This movement, although different from the Summer experience, is, as we have seen, a healthy and normal way with God. Thus the church saves a soul rather than chasing them out the door.
Some Concluding Personal Comments
I hope you find this model helpful. As I said, I'm a Winter Christian. And I'm married to a Summer Christian. Which made life interesting early in our marriage. Actually, over time, we've changed each other. So, in truth, Jana has made me more like an Autumn Christian and I've made her more Spring-like. It's been a good journey.
As I noted above, I've found these ideas to be helpful in church. The church class I teach regularly uses the labels "Summer Christian" and "Winter Christian" to quickly signal our different approaches to faith, God, and Scripture. The labels allow us to recognize each approach as legitimate. So, please share these ideas with your church. You might find them as helpful as I have.
I've also found that college students find the model helpful. When students come to me with faith issues with many I offer the label of Winter Christian (as in "Your struggles are fine. You're just a Winter Christian. Like me. Welcome to the club!"). Many (well, all to date) find his helpful. It allows them to own their struggles as a part of their faith experience. Further, it gives them permission to be different, to walk the walk as a Winter believer. I think I've saved a few souls with the simple term "Winter Christian."