Do You Complain Too Much?

Do You Complain Too Much? January 25, 2023

We stayed at a back-alley cheap motel on a recent hiking trip.  It was dirty.  The hot water ran out.  The room had a stank.  So as a service to fellow travelers, I wrote an honest (yet courteous) review online.  I complained.

Most of us feel like it’s our American right, maybe even our duty, to complain about things we don’t like.  How else will things improve?  Which may be well and good when we’re talking motel rooms, but complaints can too easily filter into a complaining attitude.  And the trouble with a complaining attitude is that it short-circuits gratitude in the present and our ability to cultivate an openness to God’s future goodness.  If you’re anything like me, you probably complain too much.

The trouble with complaint is that it primes us to notice what’s wrong with our surroundings and our companions.  And with ourselves.  It fosters an uncharitable attitude.  We “grumble against one another” (James 5:9).  Our X-ray eyes are always scanning for defects.  We run a white glove across the shelf.  There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the negativity gets in.

All of which means that we start to miss things.  We don’t see; we apprise.  We become unable to receive the gift of the present moment because we’re filtering for wrong.  That wren trilling on that crooked branch?  Missed it.

A complaining heart also robs our openness to God’s future goodness.  We reason that what’s next can hardly be much better than what’s now, so we find ourselves always leaning into the wind, always waiting for the other muddy shoe to drop.  (Which it will, you just wait.)  It’s a recipe for anxiety.  We torture ourselves with fear of what’s around the bend rather than opening ourselves to God’s unexpected and unmerited favor.  All of this cramps our ability to be surprised by grace.

Nowhere is the pernicious effect of a complaining heart more clear than when we hang onto the infuriating things that people have said or done to us.  I know, forgiveness is hard.  It’s tender work that can’t be rushed or forced.  But as John Climacus, the 6th-7th century Egyptian monk, writes: “The remembrance of injuries is…venom for the soul, a worm in the mind” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent).  

Once, a church elder made a racist comment in a leadership meeting.  His words were wrong, and they also happened to encompass my wife.  I carried the anger of it for years, a hot ember that I periodically produced and breathed new oxygen on.  I would like to believe that I’ve been able to forgive him.  I don’t think of it much any more.  And I preached a beautiful funeral for him.  But even now, I can feel the old venom sack squeezing through the stinger when I pick the memory up.  Still something.

Here’s how I’ve been trying to nip the complaint thistle in the bud.  I’m seeking to become humble to the present.  I want to receive the present nonjudgmentally, with gratitude.  This means believing that there is something of God in the present and recognizing that our categories of fun, happy, interesting, entertaining, and worthy are always a little bit warped by the glittering screens that surround us.  The world won’t meet your expectations, so try just receiving it as it is.  Sit.  Be still.  Look out the window.

For the future, I’ve been cultivating hopefulness.  I’m not a particularly anxious guy, but I do get problem-centric.  I think about what can go wrong in the future and I plan for it.  I make lists.  I like to have a little brace of contingency plans in my quiver, especially when I travel.  

Lately, I’ve been trying my hand at practicing the art of resting in God’s future goodness.  I’ll be starting as the pastor of a new church soon, and I’ve decided (deep breaths, deep breaths) not to attempt to plan out all the details of my first months before I even begin.  I’m going to show up and respond to the Spirit.  At least, that’s my aspiration.  Check back with me on day two.

Humility to the present and hopefulness for the future open a more interesting path than complaining because they interrogate our base drives and longings rather than focusing on externals.  We can all get a little mileage out of that.  

But seriously, that motel.  Try somewhere else.

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