What’s so Wrong With Complaining?

[Today’s guest post is from Nick McDonald. Many of you might remember when I wrote for Nick occasionally at his former blog. He took a hiatus for a bit, but is now back with a new site. Please visit him at Scribblepreach to check out his insights on faith, writing, theology and more.]

A Complaining Society

We like to complain. We complain about in-laws, bosses, food servers – whatever we can wrap our grubby hands around. In fact, our society is founded on the idea that we have the right to complain – according to John F. Kennedy, “complaining” is the 4th right of the American consumer. It’s part of the curse of a society that sociologist Barry Schwartz calls the epitome of “The Paradox of Choice” – we have so many options, we’re bound to complain about whatever we choose. It’s almost comical, really.

A couple of months ago my wife and I were browsing online for audio Bibles, when we came across this little ditty of a review:

“I’ll be honest in saying I don’t own this, I just listened to the sample…”

Now stop right there, missy. Presumably if you’re reviewing a product, it’s because other people want to hear your opinion. The only thing giving you the right to that review is your personal knowledge by ownership of the product. But apparently this woman’s idea was that everyone was interested in her opinion (naturally) just by virtue of being her opinion. She goes on:

“But that was enough to tell me that I would probably enjoy this audio a lot…” Gee, thanks, miss! She concludes a lengthy review with… “Disappointing, to say the least.”

Absurd, anyone?

A Brief History of Complaining.

Complaining isn’t new. We’ve always been trying to “see right through” things. Martin Lloyd Jones points out that even in the Garden of Eden, Paradise, man found a reason to complain. It’s in our nature. But perhaps we see complaining clearest in the example of the Israelites wandering through the desert in Numbers 11:1:

     “And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.”

Paul references this verse later in 1 Cor. 10:6:

“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some them did and were destroyed by the destroyer.”

Apparently, grumbling is a bigger deal to God than it is to us. Why?

Three Reasons God Hates Grumbling.

    First, grumbling is rebellious. Later in chapter 11:20, the Lord says he is punishing the Israelites: “…because you have rejected the Lord who is among you…”

Grumbling isn’t just grumbling. It’s questioning the goodness and sovereignty of God. At a deeper level, grumbling gives us a convenient excuse to live how we want. The truth behind the Israelites request is in 11:4-5: “Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” The deep irony of humanity is illustrated beautifully in this verse: we love slavery, and grumbling provides us an excuse to return to our enslavement. Former atheist Aldous Huxley said:

“For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust.”

Although God offers the Israelites freedom from oppression, they sadly choose their own form of liberation. Freely chosen slavery is of the sickest variety. It operates, of course, under the illusion that somehow we can get out from under some sort of authority figure. But in the Israelite’s case, that wasn’t true, was it? They were slaves, not to God, but to their cravings. In the words of theologian Bob Dylan:

“You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride, You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side, You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair, You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody, Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

When we complain, we must remember that we’re not just complaining. We’re looking for an excuse to rebel against God, and return to the slavery of sin.

    Secondly, grumbling is deceitful. Grumbling, although it promises to see through the sham, actually creates the sham. We see clearly in Numbers 11 that grumbling is deceptive. It deceives us about the past, present, and future.

Grumbling deceives us about the past. Where were these fond memories of Egypt coming from? Did the Israelites forget that their children were killed, their backs were broken, their freedom was stripped?

We can easily catapult a false sense of the “glory days” into complaints about today. C.S. Lewis puts it well in Screwtape’s letter on Gluttony:

“The woman is in what may be called the ‘All I want’ state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servant or any friend who can do these simple things ‘properly’ – because her ‘properly’ conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as ‘the days when you could get good servants’ but known to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table.”

     Although dwelling on old “memories” seems a sweet pastime, it can also be a road to deceit if it’s one more excuse to complain about the present. When we worship the past, we resent the present.

Complaining deceives us about the present. Notice in the middle of the Numbers 11, the author inserts a description of the manna the Israelites complained about, verses 7-9:

“The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand-mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down. “

Why is this here? Because it counters all the Israelite’s complaints. Despite what the Israelites say, the manna WAS delicious, free, plentiful, etc. Although they complain they have “lost our appetite” in the ESV, literally the Hebrew word means, “We are wasting away.” In other words, although their “clothing did not wear out and your foot did not swell” (indicating scurvy, due to malnutrition) (Deut. 8:4), they had convinced themselves they were going to die. Grumbling deceives us about our present situation, making it seem lamentable, dull and dangerous when in truth, it is God’s good gift to us (that’s why it’s called “the present” – thank you, Kung Fu Panda).

Grumbling deceives us about the future. I’m convinced that one of the reasons the Israelites lack endurance is they believed claiming God’s Promised Land would be a cake walk. When we idolize the future, we complain when we get there. When we fail to take hold of God’s promises, we set our hope on the idol of circumstance, and that’s a recipe for complaining.

Think of Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. A bitter old woman in a pasty yellow dress, a rotting wedding cake on the table, clocks stopped at 20 till. Why? Because as a young girl she romanticized her future wedding, she worshiped it. When her fiancé left her at the altar, she couldn’t live. Throughout the book, Havisham uses her bitterness to hurt men and embitter young women toward potential suitors. She never recovers from her idolatry of the future. Idolatry of the future will always lead to dissatisfaction in the present, even (especially) when we’ve “arrived”.

    Thirdly and finally, grumbling is insatiable.  Jonathon Edwards once compared sin to fueling an unquenchable fire. The more fuel we add, the hungrier and larger the fire grows. When we complain, we’re not solving anything – we’re adding fuel to the fire of a discontented heart. This is why James compares the tongue to a fire that can set a forest ablaze (James 3:5-6). Complaining burns away the goodness of God in our lives, and leaves us unable to hold, appreciate and receive the good gifts we have now. Again, C.S. Lewis says it well in “Abolition of Man”:

“…You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

Complaining is insisting always that we can “see through” the good things God has chosen for us. But when we “see through” everything, eventually we’re left with nothing.

Replacing our Grumbling.

    So what do we do now?

First, we recognize that we are the problem: “The Fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our-selves,” said Shakespeare. We must recognize that our lack of contentment isn’t the fault of our circumstances; it’s the fault in our own attitude.

Secondly, we need to find satisfaction in Jesus. Jesus himself said concerning the manna:  “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35.) When we’re satisfied in Christ, it’s hard to complain. We do this, of course, by not living on “bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”. (Deut. 8:3.)

Third and finally, we receive Jesus’ substitution for our complaints. In the book, “The Kite Runner”, there’s a beautiful scene where the main character, Amir, falsely accuses his best friend Hassan of stealing from his father. When Hassan is brought into the room, he is asked if he is guilty, and Amir realizes his predicament: if Hassan says “No”, he’s doomed. Everyone knows Hassan would never lie. But Hassan says “Yes, I did.”

This is what Jesus did for us – he took our unjust grumbling upon himself, and said, “Yes, I did.” If we really believed that, we wouldn’t live a life of grumbling. If we really believed that, we couldn’t stop offering up to Jesus the fruits that flow from a heart of praise (Hebrews 13:15).

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25 Responses to What’s so Wrong With Complaining?

  1. Pingback: What’s So Wrong With Complaining? | Scribblepreach

  2. nmcdonal says:

    Hey Tim – thanks so much for hosting this and the last post. Looking forward to interacting with your wonderful community.

    • Tim says:

      My pleasure, Nick. I really appreciate how you took the issue of complaining and explored the subset of complaining that we call grumbling. Your insights on where it comes from and how it affects our interactions with God are excellent.

      You should do a follow-up post on biblical complaining and whether it’s possible to honor God today under the New Covenant with our complaints/laments. Up for it?


  3. This is sound and useful too. We’ve been teaching our son about the annoyance of complaining. It’s also ungodly! He’ll be even more delighted that he’s stopped complaining.

    • nmcdonal says:

      Thanks, Sarah. Of course, you wouldn’t be complaining about your son’s complaining, would you…Ha! Seriously, though, there’s a fine line between complaining and admonishing, exhorting, teaching and lamenting, to Tim’s point above. I haven’t explored it fully, but I bet it’d be an interesting conversation.

  4. Tuija says:

    Thanks for this. I wholeheartedly agree – and yet I find myself grumbling ever so often. Like today. (Well, we did not sleep much last night. DS had/has a stomach bug, most likely norovirus – I’ll spare you the gruesome details.) It’s days like this when I need to remember to turn to God for strength, grace and hope.
    Then again, I think in situations like this it’s OK to say to God that the cirumstances are tough right now – and ask, cry for His help. It’s not grumbling, I think, as long as my attitude toward God is that He can (and wants to) help. I’d define grumbling as an attitude that dwells in bitterness and negativity and does not even bother to ask God for help.

    • nmcdonal says:

      I think that’s really helpful, Tuija. What’s the difference between David’s lamenting in the Psalms and the Israelite’s grumbling? I think you’re right – the Israelites were wanting to cling to their grumbing, while David wanted to release his cares to God. Good insight.

      • Tuija says:

        I kept thinking about this subject all day yesterday. For myself, I realized that the defining point between “legitimate complaining” and grumbling is the element of self-pity. God has convicted me that self-pity is a sin, pretty much for the same reasons you define grumbling as sin. They are so closely related that in fact the grumbling you talk about is like a vocal expression of the attitude of self-pity within. If I let self-pity take over my thoughts, I’m blind to God’s love and sovereignty – in fact I choose not to see them.

        And another point about grumbling, which is also a point that you make saying that grumbling is insatiable, is that it does not really look for solutions or ways to make the situation better. I have sometimes felt that grumbling is like a bonding process for many people here in FInland – for example, employees at an office grumble together about the workload and if someone actually suggests a solution or offers a positive viewpoint, it’s like she is setting herself apart from the the others – disrupting the bonding process somehow. “You’re not supposed to solve the problem, you’re supposed to complain about it!” I had thought that maybe Finns are particularly negative, so it’s interesting to hear that you think U.S. society is also ‘based on grumbling’. I guess it’s human nature, not a national characteristic 🙂

        • nmcdonal says:

          That’s such a great point. I have seen that same dynamic at work with a group of grumblers as well. I guess in some ways, grumbling is a way to feel part of what C.S. Lewis calls the “Inner Circle”. We’re the privileged, the knowledgeable, the few who “get it.” Interesting observations – thanks.

  5. I am often tempted to grumble. And I unfortunately give in to that temptation! For me, the balancing discipline is gratitude. When I intentionally take time to list things I am grateful for, I find myself focused on that instead of what I don’t have!
    Ironically, as you pointed out, the more we have, the more we complain. We’re coming into the season of Lent. A time when we might make do with less, say no to our whims and appetites. The beautiful irony might be in the converse of the statement I just made: the less we have, the less we complain. We embrace simplicity, learn to discern the difference between needs and wants. We see the beauty, the abundance, that’s hidden in the discipline of simplicity.

    • nmcdonal says:

      Really interesting point, Keri – the less we have, the less we complain. I guess it’s the old Solomon principle: If you don’t want to feed your ox, don’t buy one!

  6. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this post. I had been thinking about giving up complaining for Lent — your post is a sign that I should.

    Still, I think there are many complaints in Scripture (Jeremiah, Elijah, Psalmist(s), etc.) that God doesn’t seem upset about. I like Tuija’s comment above about the difference between complaint that reaches out to God for help, and plain old bitter grumbling. I agree, and I think it’s helpful to make some distinctions:
    – Complain TO the person involved, not ABOUT him or her (I shake my head at people who vent in the newspaper about bad service at “a certain unnamed business” or who gripe about their mother-in-law’s latest sin: if they haven’t dealt directly with the situation, what good does complaining do?)
    – Complain about injustice, not inconvenience.
    – Take it seriously when those who have less power or status complain. Sometimes the only way those who are oppressed can respond is to cry out in complaint. We should listen, not just tell them to be content with their lot.

    Just one last small thing: I think Hassan from the Kite Runner is one of the most beautiful, grace-ful characters in recent literature. But Jesus did not lie in order to take on our sin, so I think it’s important to make that distinction. Had Hassan told the truth, he would have done nothing wrong.

    • nmcdonal says:

      Really, really great points on the difference between justified and unjustified complaining. Maybe it would have been better to stick to biblical terms – “grumbling” is always forbidden in the Bible, and I think it encompasses the opposite of everything you listed above. Great insights.

      On Hassan in the Kite Runner – I’m always a sucker for the fine-toothed theological comb, but I’ll have to ask for a little laxity since illustrations are like parables: they’re only making one point. And the point wasn’t how Jesus took our sin, but the fact that he suffered the injustice of being a blameless man being blamed for the sin of His accusers. As to how that happened, you’re absolutely right – Jesus actually embodied our sin, and didn’t have to lie in order to take it.

  7. Brown Girl says:

    Thank you very much for this post. Most needed.

  8. Aimee Byrd says:

    So many good points in here, and very timely as we are discussing contentment in Bible study tomorrow (Heb. 13:5,6). I love what you said about being deceived about our past, present, and future. I can compare that to our verse which affirms the assurance of the sufficiency of Christ as he says, “I will never leave or forsake you.”

    • Tim says:

      You reminded me of Hebrews 13:8 too, Aimee. (Although that might be jumping ahead for your study group!)

    • nmcdonal says:

      Aimee – thanks for your thoughts. Being in seminary, I feel like it’s a daily challenge to stop romanticizing about what life is like outside the “bubble”, and to focus on my ministry and spiritual growth here and now. Blessings.

  9. Adriana says:

    Such vivid examples and excellent thoughts.You obviously read widely!

    I don’t have one complaint about this post! 😀

    You mentioned the Kite Runner. Loved the female perspective in Khaled Hosseini’s other book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. As a wife and mother it was sobering to contemplate the tremendous turmoil Afghan women have endured. (Very difficult to complain about anything at all after reading such things.)

    I just learned that his third book, And the Mountains Echoed, will be released May 21, 2013.

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