Several years ago, a man joined a monastery, where, in addition to the vows of celibacy and poverty, he was required to make a vow of silence. According to the rules of the monastery, the man was allowed to speak only two words a year, and only during his annual review in front of the evaluation board. The new monk served his first year in absolute silence. At year’s end, when his performance was being evaluated, he finally was permitted to speak. The two words he uttered were, “Food cold.”
The monk served his second year in absolute silence. At year’s end, his two words to the evaluation board were, “Bed hard.” The man then served his third year in absolute silence. At the end of the year, when he showed up for his final review, his two words were, “I quit.” To which the monastery leader responded, “Your decision doesn’t surprise us; after all, you’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.”
If only my complaining were limited to two words a year, how much more peaceful and quieter my life would be! “Do all things without complaining,” said Paul in Philippians 2:14. But is that really possible? Can a believer truly live a complaint-free life? It sounds unattainable, but God’s commands are meant to challenge the ruts and routines we sometimes carve out for ourselves in this life.
What Is Complaining?
Believers who want to heed Paul’s admonition first need to know what complaining is. Simply put, complaining is giving expression to one’s self-centered discontentment. It’s a spiritual heart murmur with vocal chords. It’s the verbal vomit that spews forth when we don’t get our own way. Sometimes our complaining takes on less verbal forms, too—a rolling of the eyes, a grinding of the teeth, huffing and puffing, stomping off, or body language that conveys defiance, disrespect, or disapproval.
It’s important to point out that complaining is not the same as grieving. God invites us to mourn when it is time to mourn. Neither is complaining the same as speaking out against injustice, danger, or heresy. Scripture gives us guidelines on when and how to do those things. Complaining is not even vocalizing the deep distresses of the heart when life is insanely difficult, provided we do so in a godly way. The Psalms are loaded with vivid laments to God that are both real and raw. Complaining is much more sinister because it involves the assertion of self to secure one’s comfort at all cost. It’s a lashing out rather than a looking up.
What We Usually Complain About
What do I find myself complaining about the most? In a word—people. People! (I wonder if some of them complain about me.) As I reflect on this dynamic in my own life, I find that most of my internal complaining (which may be quiet but is still sinister) usually revolves around people who don’t think the way I do. They’re different from me in their interests, worldview, politics, attitude, demeanor, etc. They may be media figures who mislead the public. They may be pundits who cram eight or nine logical fallacies into a single sentence. They may be church members who refuse to change and enter the 21st century. They may be curmudgeons who have little good to say about anything. Irritating people come in many forms.
Other sources of my complaints include life situations I don’t particularly like but are usually out of my control. The weather. The stock market. Long lines at the store. Excessive taxes and regulations on small businesses. Slow cars in the passing lane. The Phillies and the Eagles. What are the things in life that irk you enough to complain? I don’t really like myself when I go down the path of internal negativity.
Shackled Yet Free
Significantly, Paul denounces complaining while shackled in a jail cell—not exactly the best of circumstances to endure. Apparently for Paul, complaining is not a legitimate response even to the lousy accommodations of a first-century prison system. Instead, recognizing that God is in charge of the affairs of this life, Paul views himself as a prisoner of the Lord, not as a prisoner of Rome. He may have reasoned, “If I’m incarcerated right now, it must be because God wants the people around me to hear the gospel. I can tell them my own bad news through complaining, or I can tell them God’s good news through service and proclamation.” Paul chooses the latter, in part because he discovered an important clue to victorious living and gospel winsomeness.
I tend to think that I’ll stop complaining when I finally get happy. Paul seems to suggest that I’ll get happy when I finally stop complaining. The difference is practical and profound. He argues in Philippians 2:14-16 that murmuring Christians look and sound like the depraved generation of which we’re are a part. That’s a serious charge, but the stakes are high. What unbeliever would want to follow Christ if he apparently makes little difference in my own life?
Paul’s admonition to avoid complaining is rooted in Israel’s history. One of the saddest cases of the nation’s griping is recorded in Numbers 14, where God says, “In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you . . . who has grumbled against me.” For them, entry into the Promised Land was denied, in large measure because of their complaining. What a tragedy! Israel griped about their leaders, groused about their food, and grumbled about their difficult challenge to occupy Canaan. God was fed up with their incessant carping, as their long and hot wanderings in the desert reveal.
According to Deuteronomy 1:2, it should have taken the Israelites less than two weeks to travel from where they had received the Ten Commandments to the edge of the Promised Land. As it turned out, their trip took forty years. No doubt the scenic route was God’s way of telling them to “walk it off!” Why such a storm of judgment? From God’s perspective, to complain is to doubt his promises and provisions. To complain is to slander his sovereignty and assault his lordship. To complain is to accuse God of being a bad Father.
Thoughts of complaint easily become words of criticism—verbal grenades launched against other people’s character, beliefs, speech, or behavior. Recently I found myself in a meeting trying to debrief a certain event with others when I felt myself verbally “crossing the line” in my critique. Evaluative assessments—even negative ones—are sometimes necessary, but they should never be used to make someone look small. I feared that I had unnecessarily diminished someone, so I quickly apologized and reeled myself in. Others didn’t think I was being unkind, but my own perception was that I could have said it better. Avoiding the desert is a conscious choice.
Jesus and the ‘Complainiacs’
Interestingly enough, the Bible indicates that Jesus was every bit as intolerant of complaining as his Father. In fact, Jesus repeatedly set himself against the most menacing and destructive type of complaining there was—the kind where people complained about other people. In other words, criticism. In the face of that kind of speech, Jesus responded the same way every time.
All told, Jesus fields complaints against five different types of “other people” in the Gospels—the fortunate, the insensitive, the outsider, the unspiritual, and the wicked. Two of the fourteen complaints about other people occur within parables, which Jesus may have crafted from real-life scenarios common in his day.
Complaints about Those ‘Fortunate’ People
- The Heir’s Complaint about His Brother (Luke 12:13-21)
- Peter’s Complaint about John (John 21:20-25)
- The Ten Disciples’ Complaint about the Two Disciples (Matthew 20:20-28)
- The Hired Worker’s Complaint about the Landowner (Matthew 20:1-16)
Complaints about Those ‘Insensitive’ People
- Martha’s Complaint about Mary (Luke 10:38-42)
- The Invalid’s Complaint about Those Who Ignore Him (John 5:1-8, 14)
Complaints about Those ‘Outside’ People
- John’s Complaint about the Unknown Exorcist (Luke 9:49-50)
- James’ and John’s Complaint about the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56)
Complaints about Those ‘Unspiritual’ People
- The Disciples of John’s Complaint about the Disciples of Jesus (Matthew 9:14-17)
- The Pharisees’ Complaint about Jesus’ Disciples (Luke 5:27-32)
- Judas Iscariot’s Complaint about Mary (John 12:1-8)
Complaints about Those ‘Wicked’ People
- The Jews’ Complaint about Pilate (Luke 13:1-9)
- The Pharisees’ Complaint about the Adulterous Woman (John 8:1-9)
- The Man’s Complaint about His Younger Brother (Luke 15:25-32)
When all the complaint stories are taken together, several truths emerge about how Jesus handled people’s complaints about other people:
(1) Jesus never gave the complainer the satisfaction he was looking for;
(2) Jesus never allowed the complainer to persist in his complaining;
(3) Jesus never tolerated the excessive ripping apart of another person’s character, even the ungodly;
(4) Jesus often turned the tables and offered a telling insight about the complainer’s own heart; and
(5) Jesus sometimes even issued a spiritual warning to the complainer himself.
Essentially, Jesus responded to every complaint about other people with a simple and sobering challenge: “Complaint denied!” (Such consistency may be a subtle hint at his deity.)
The story of the heir and his brother in Luke 12:13-21 is a case in point. A man complains to Jesus about his brother’s failure to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus responds by stating that his own sacred mission does not involve being wedged into the middle of such disputes. Furthermore, Jesus warns the complainer about his own inclination toward covetousness, and then tells an instructive parable about the foolishness of greed. The warning is severe, and the man’s complaint is ultimately denied.
The Antidote to Complaining
Are you a complainiac? Have you ever grumbled about people who were more fortunate than you, insensitive toward you, outside your group, less spiritual than you, or just plain wicked? In light of the biblical evidence, believers should take to heart that such complaining does not enjoy the sanction of heaven. Jesus himself rejected these types of complaints and often used them as boomerangs to spiritually challenge the complainer.
As it was in the days when Jesus walked the earth, so it is today. Wanting his followers in this generation to “do all things without complaining,” Jesus often says to us, in love, “Complaint denied!” While that can be a tough message to hear, the good news is that Scripture goes beyond pointing out our faults; it also shows us a better way.
The antidote to my complaining and criticizing is not just a matter of changing my speech. God deals with each of his children uniquely and deeply—at the heart level, where real transformation begins. His emphatic “no” to one type of behavior is an invitation to practice his emphatic “yes” to other types of behavior.
For example, liars do not cease to be liars when they stop telling lies; they cease to be liars when they start telling the truth. Likewise, complainers do not cease to be complainers when they stop complaining; they cease to be complainers when they start giving thanks as a way of life. Christian gratitude is the attitude that must be cultivated in order to conquer complaining and criticizing. As with all spiritual disciplines, this is a lifelong journey of trial and error, cultivation and pruning.
Ultimately, we do well to remember that Jesus himself was not a complainer. Instead, he gave thanks as a way of life. Before he fed the 5,000 (Matt 14:19), before he fed the 4,000 (Matt 15:36), before he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:41), before he distributed the bread and cup of Holy Communion (Matt 26:26-27), before he broke bread with the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:30), Jesus expressed sincere gratitude to his Father. Undergirding this lifelong gratitude was the world-changing prayer he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father . . . not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). May that be our prayer as well.
I am reminded in this regard of one of my favorite TED Talks—Benjamin Zander speaking on “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.” He ends his presentation with these words:
It really makes a difference what we say, the words that come out of our mouth. I learned this from a woman that survived Auschwitz, one of the rare survivors. She went to Auschwitz when she was just fifteen years old. And her brother was eight. And the parents were lost. She told me this. She said, “We were in the train going to Auschwitz, and I looked down and saw my brother’s shoes were missing. And I said, ‘Why are you so stupid? Why can’t you keep your things together for goodness sake?’” The way an elder sister would speak to a younger brother. Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him because she never saw him again. He did not survive. And so, when she came out of Auschwitz she made a vow. She told me this. She said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life, and I made a vow. And the vow was: I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.” Now can we do that? No, and we’ll make ourselves wrong, and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.
It’s a possibility I want to live into, as well. And with God, all things are possible.