The truth about complaining

Photo by Shardayyy, Flickr. CC Licensing.

Awhile back, I participated in a challenge to go a day without complaining. It was a spectacular failure.

I could say that I just chose the wrong day to partake in such an experiment. After all, I had no clue that would be the day I had to dig my car out of a snowbank, then watch it die at work, then get it home, only to have it blocked back in and die again.

But letting my circumstances provide me with an excuse for my complaints would defeat the entire purpose. Plus, it’s not like any regular, non-traumatic day is free of me wanting to tell the world exactly what’s wrong with it and how I would fix it.

A day of gripes

It’s not long after my eyes have opened that the griping begins. I’m upset that I have to wake up and exercise. I’m mad that the kids woke me up on a Saturday morning. I grumble because I overslept and don’t want to face the day.  Once I’m out of bed, I think about how tired I am and how tough it is to find clean clothes. I sigh because my dog takes forever to go outside or because my kids are loud. I then head out to traffic, and the very existence of other people seems to give me ample reasons to mutter.

As with any good American, complaints seem to fuel my day, even if they are to no one in particular. Morning meetings are asinine. The coffee is bitter. There’s either too much to do in one day or not enough to hold my interest. Lunch passes too quickly, meetings last too long, I don’t get the things I need back on time and there’s too much to keep track of. I then head home, re-encountering traffic, cranky kids, dirty dishes and nothing to watch on TV.

When I look at the amount of time I spend complaining, grumbling and griping throughout a day and compare it to the Biblical command to “do all things without murmuring or complaining” (Phil 2:14), I realize that I fall far short of the standard that has been set for me.

Beware of venting

But isn’t it just “venting”? Aren’t I allowed to be stressed, complain and express myself?

While there is an appropriate place to share our frustrations, the root of complaining goes far deeper than words. It’s a problem of ingratitude and selfishness that can be harmful to our walks with Christ and is a much more serious problem than we realize.

First, it’s a problem of ingratitude because our complaints spit in the face of a God who lavishes grace on us daily. As Christ-followers, we are the beneficiaries of a multitude of mercies. Air in our lungs, hope for our souls, family around us and jobs to do are gifts. When we wake up and realize we’re doing so much better than we deserve and that we’re living a life composed of grace upon grace upon grace, to complain about what God chooses to give us is an insult to our Creator. Yes, things may be tough and may not go the way we intend. But if we believe in a sovereign and good God who ordains all things, then to complain is to say we don’t trust Him.

The pride in our complaints

Complaining is a problem of selfishness because it means we think we deserve so much better than we get. We deserve a job without toil, a day without cold, sleep without interruption and relationships without conflict. Other people’s failures or problems shouldn’t derail our plans and we shouldn’t have to be inconvenienced with things that don’t go our way. We feel we have the right to complain. After all, our day and our plans were ruined. Surely we are allowed to let the world share our displeasure. We have the right to be angry and displeased because, certainly, we deserve so much more.

The hubris is staggering. We show our addiction to self by letting our day be ruined and our attitudes grow poor when things don’t go our way. We betray a lack of perspective when we behave as if the problems we face are worth the anger and frustration we feel when there are people dealing with so much more than we could ever imagine. As Christians, complaining is a surefire way to destroy our witness before a watching world because it shows a lack of faith and trust in a good, sovereign and joyful God.

Is it only natural?

And yet, even though I know these things, I still grumble.

It’s easy for me to cultivate “natural” complaints, things that come to me without a second thought. I wake up and I’m tired, so I complain. It’s a knee-jerk reaction cultivated out of years of selfish behavior. It’s not just that I wake up and am tired – I’ve taught myself that I deserve comfort and so I automatically see discomfort as a negative that must be addressed instead of a reality to be navigated. It’s the same thing when my kids are fussy, unexpected bills come or work gets difficult – life is not how I want it to be at that moment, so I gripe.

It’s easy to think that these small complaints – “I just want a quiet night,” “I’m tired,” “work is stressful” – are just natural things we shouldn’t think twice about murmuring. Yet the very fact that these are so ingrained shows just how deep selfishness runs. The more I complain, the more I say that not only is life not to my liking, but that it’s also wrong to be this way and that God is withholding goodness from me — a sinful assumption that goes back to the Fall. It shows how deep our sin runs, how perverted our souls are and how much we need to break our addiction to self.

I don’t want to downplay real problems; I recognize that we live in a fallen world and will not face pain-free lives this side of Heaven. There is a place for pouring out our sorrows before God and others.  I’m talking about our tendency to selfishly complain about things and make ourselves victims over life’s trivialities.

But we must also remember that the world is held in control by a God who is sovereign, good and holy. Nothing happens that He is unaware of and, although evil runs rampant throughout the world, it is on a short leash. The Christian’s secret is not that we don’t experience hardship, but that we believe the hardship is ordained by a God who is bigger than it. God is in control and His joy is our strength, because we realize these light and momentary hardships are not worth comparing to what’s waiting for us in Heaven.

Don’t be honest, be truthful

Yet I still complain about the most insignificant things, and I try to justify it by saying I’m just voicing what is really inside me. It’s a sin to hold it in, right? I might as well let my complaints fly.

But there is a big difference between honesty and truth.

In honesty, we let our thoughts fly. We find the people we are closest to and say “can I vent?” We unleash a torrent of complaints, letting them know why our situation is so unfair, asking for their sympathy and expecting them take up our cause. If we can make them just as angry and appalled, our mission is complete.

The problem is that honesty resides only at the human level. It’s subjective. As Christians, we should know that our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked. Our honesty starts makes us the protagonist. Venting and “being honest” feels good because we get to tell the story with ourselves as the heroes, wronged by others and righteously suffering.

But we are horrible and unreliable narrators of our biographies. Our honesty all too often lacks perspective. We don’t need to be honest about our limited scope; we need to be reminded of the Truth.

Truth helps us realize that we are part of something bigger. It reminds us that our light and momentary weakness isn’t worth comparing to the eternal weight of glory. Truth lifts our eyes up off ourselves and directs our gaze to Heaven, where we see our problems, stressors and challenges for what they truly are: opportunities for God to remind us of Himself. When we’re tempted to complain or vent, we need to speak truth to ourselves or have others to speak it to us.

I’m aware this is easier said than done. In the midst of my grumbling, complaining and stressing, the last thing  I want to hear is “well, it could be worse” or “God has a plan.” But my hesitancy to accept those statements only reveals my ingrained selfishness. If I stress after a bad day at work, it’s okay to bring that to God or my friends. But just as I go to others for counsel and ask them to have an open ear, I must ask them to direct my eyes up and remind me that sometimes God allows us to come to the end of our strength because He wants to show us how strong He is.

The Truth opens our eyes and expands our views. It doesn’t always make our situations more enjoyable or the challenges less difficult, but reminds us just how big life’s playing field can be. It draws our eyes to our Creator and causes us to remember that through many trials we will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It forces us to be humble and remember we are not the center of the universe and that, in light of the great grace we’ve been given, even our trials can a blessing.

So the next time someone asks you to be honest, refuse and tell the Truth.

 

About Chris Williams
Chris Williams has been writing about faith, culture and film since 2005. His work has appeared in the Source and Grosse Pointe News newspapers, Local Celebs magazine, Patheos, and Christ and Pop Culture. He is the co-host of the podcasts “CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC.” and “It’s My Favorite.” Chris lives in the Detroit area with his wife and two children. You can read more about the author here.
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