No one likes a complainer. I can’t think of a single situation in which someone actually enjoys listening to someone complaining to them. We might realize that it’s necessary, like a person in business who listens to a complaint in order to improve service. But no one really enjoys it.
But is it right to complain to God about how things are going? Like a lot of good questions, that can’t be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.” There’s a good case for “no," and Exhibit A is the people of Israel. They had to turn back from the very borders of the Promised Land and spend 40 years in the wilderness because they complained one too many times. They complained about Moses’ leadership in Egypt, they complained at the Red Sea when they saw Egypt’s armies, and they complained all during Moses’ tenure as leader. And finally God had enough.
But on the “yes” side we have today’s Psalm. And this isn’t the only one: In fact, there are actually only a few Psalms which are pure praise/thanksgiving. Most of them have some form of complaint. Let me summarize a lot of Psalms for you: “Things are really stinking right now! I have enemies on every side, troubles too many to count, and it’s YOUR fault God! What the heck is going on?! Why aren’t you doing something about this?! But you know, now that I think about it, you are really good to me. And you are in charge. So I’ll trust you, and I promise to praise you when you deliver me.” There, I just summed up a huge portion of the Psalms for you. So apparently we can complain to him, but only in the right way.
This is one of my favorite complaining Psalms, so I’ll use it as a springboard for some important points. First, notice the spirit in which he’s approaching God. Unlike the Hebrews in Moses’ day, he isn’t really impugning God’s character. The Hebrews did: They constantly accused the Lord of leading them out of Egypt in order to kill them all. But the Psalmist knows, despite all the evidence, that his Lord is good and in charge. He knows this, despite what his emotions are telling him. He knows this, despite what his enemies are telling him.
Notice also that he’s going to the right person. If I have a problem, doesn’t it make sense to go to the One who can actually solve it? I know that things are going wrong and there’s severe injustice going on, but I know who can make it right.
Also it’s good to note that when we’re going through bad times, what we don’t need is a theology lesson so much as we need the comfort of the Lord's presence. The first two verses are a question: “How long will I have to go through this?” But is that what David really wanted? If an angel appeared to him and said “God has sent me to tell you that your current trial will last for exactly four days, three hours, and fifteen minutes,” do you think that David would've been satisfied with that? Of course not! What he really was saying was “Get me out of this!!! I can’t take it any more!!!”
C. S. Lewis, per usual put it so well: "Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods." You've already--in your official theology--accepted that the Lord is sovereign, that he loves you, that he has a perfect plan for you, etc. Faith is holding on to that even when the circumstances and your feelings are telling you differently.
Finally let’s look at his hope. He knew that in spite of everything going on, he could trust in his Savior’s unfailing love (his chesed, remember that word?), that he could rejoice in God’s salvation. He also knew that there would come a point in which he could sing. Not a funeral dirge, but a song of praise and thanksgiving. One way or another, he knew that his Lord would vindicate his trust and hope.
So what about us? If there is something that's really troubling you about your situation or about God, then bring it to him. Be honest with him! He knows your heart, so you’re not hiding anything from him anyway. Pour out your complaint to him, being sure to acknowledge his goodness and sovereignty. And when you do this, you’ll find that he’ll lift that burden from you. We desperately need to cast all our anxiety on him because he cares for us.
And here's Michael Card's version of this Psalm:
Father God, I thank you for listening to my complaints, even the selfish ones. When I come to you, even in a complaining spirit, I find that you turn my complaints into songs of joy.