When Is It Wrong to Complain?

It wasn’t one of my finer moments.

In my senior year of college, some of us were assigned to student teach at a particular public school. One of the young men generously offered to drive us there and back every day. Since most of us did not have cars, we appreciated his offer.

I don’t remember what kind of car my fellow student had, but something about it produced an awful sulfurous smell. I frequently commented on the bad odor as I got out of the car. One morning, the driver looked at me wearily and said, “I know. But I can’t do anything about it right now.”

Then I felt ashamed that I had complained, especially so often. Complaining didn’t help the situation, and it weighed on my fellow student who had been so kind as to give me a ride.

Sometimes It’s hard to know when “stating facts” is complaining. One of my children went through a period where, if I said, “It sure is hot,” he would say, “Complaining is a sin.” I don’t know what inspired him to say that. I am sure I probably spoke to my children about complaining at times, but not like that.

But is every observation about how hot or cold it is or how we’ve had not enough or too much rain complaining?

I want to know when my family doesn’t like food I’ve prepared or a gift I’ve given. I don’t want to keep feeding or giving them things they don’t want. But I hope they’ll let me know their dislikes in a kind way (and they do).

On the other hand, it’s possible to go too far the other way. My mother-in-law almost never complained. But that meant we didn’t know when something was wrong. Sometimes when we’d travel to Idaho to see her, we’d hear about some family problem. When we asked, “Why didn’t you say anything?” she replied, “I didn’t want you to worry.” It actually caused us to worry more that she’d carry the weight of family problems without letting anyone know.

The psalmists poured out their problems and their needs to God. Paul named people who wronged him.

So just stating that something is wrong is not complaining. But how we state it may be.

If you’ve read through the first five books of the Bible, especially Exodus, you can’t help but notice the Israelites’ complaints. They needed food and water, yes, but they didn’t ask God for them in faith. They griped, they threatened Moses, they vowed to turn back to Egypt, where they had it so good (how soon they forgot their woes in Egypt). God patiently met their needs at first. But after a while, after seeing Him provide for them over and over, they should have come to trust Him. He began to deal with them more severely. “ We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:9-11).

Here are some considerations that help me discern when I’ve lapsed into complaining:

Is my complaint a lack of faith, like the Israelites? Do I fear that God won’t provide? Or do I not like the way He has provided?

Is my complaint a lack of gratitude or contentment? No matter how much God has provided, do I want more or better?

Am I being selfish or spoiled?

Do I need to adjust my perspective? When I can’t find my favorite brand of bottled water or toilet paper, I need to remember what a privilege it is to have either of those items.

Am I burdening or discouraging others with my complaint? My complaining of the car’s odor reminded me of Proverbs 27:15: “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike.” Proverbs 25:24 says it’s better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with such a woman. Though I wasn’t married to this young man, I’m sure my complaints were just as irritating as continual dripping.

Does complaining make up too much of my conversation?

Does my complaint need to be said? Sometimes yes. “With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (Psalm 142:1-2). We don’t need to act like Christians never have problems or burdens or issues. It’s okay to share troubles, likes, dislikes, frustrations. We need help and encouragement and comfort.

But sometimes no, as in my complaint about the smelly car. An observation or question (“What’s causing that awful smell?”) would have been one thing. But to continually carry on about it every day was wrong.

When Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned, they didn’t rail against the injustice of it all. They prayed and sang hymns to God. And God used them to share the gospel with the jailer, who became a believer. In Paul’s letters from prison, he shared his needs, but he didn’t grouse about his situation.

But, as I mentioned before, Paul did name people who had wronged him. His purpose, however, wasn’t just to gripe. He needed to warn the church that something with these people wasn’t right. It wasn’t a matter of a personal affront, but of a deeper issue.

After examining my heart for all these issues when I am tempted to complain, I need to remember that God has a purpose even in the everyday irritations of life. Amy Carmichael said, “The best training is to learn to accept everything as it comes, as from Him whom our soul loves. The tests are always unexpected things, not great things that can be written up, but the common little rubs of life, silly little nothings, things you are ashamed of minding one scrap” (source unknown). Elisabeth Elliot said, “An angry retort from someone may be just the occasion we need in which to learn not only longsuffering and forgiveness, but meekness and gentleness; fruits not born in us but borne only by the Spirit” (from “God’s Curriculum” in Keep a Quiet Heart).

God may be using these issues to strengthen my faith or character or rub some of my rough edges off.

Or He may want my different reaction to be a testimony, like Paul and Silas’ was. When Paul writes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” he goes on to say “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16a). Our lack of grumbling and arguing can be a means of shining God’s light in the world.

What do you think? When does stating a problem lapse into complaining?

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

32 thoughts on “When Is It Wrong to Complain?

  1. Amen Ms. Barbara. Sometimes we don’t mean to be overly critical when we speak about some truth (or at least it seems true to us). How we speak, in all things and just not critique or complain, matters if we are to show to Whom (God) we belong. Well said author!

  2. When does stating a problem become grumbling? In my case, too often! This is a great post, truths I try to remember and share with others but sometimes if I’m honest, I get over into complaining.

  3. A thought provoking post Barbara!
    I think taking the advice of Ecclesiastes 3: 7b in that there is;
    “…a time to be silent & a time to speak.”
    Is always a good idea.

    As often what is said in so called ‘fact or truth’ is actually quite insensitive & really only that particular individual’s opinion in the moment.

    Which is quite often received as an offence to the hearer & not constructive at all.

    I appreciate this era of texting, as we can see the words we are sending before we send them & think about how they may be received/perceived by the recipient.
    It really makes us think twice about what we are actually saying & whether it’s necessary to say it at all.
    Blessings, Jennifer

  4. I think the question that I try to ask myself is “what do I hope will happen as a result of my complaint?” If I want to vent anger, shame someone, draw attention to myself, or find some company for my misery, then probably my complaint is sin. If my hope is that my words will be constructive and bring about positive change, or a genuine request for help or a solution, then it may be a complaint that God can use for good. And if so, I need to be careful that my words are seasoned and gracious, and that is too often where I fail. What a good reminder of that challenge!

  5. I like the nuance you provide here. I was worried that the post would veer into never complaining — which, as you address, isn’t necessarily good either. Sometimes I feel like as Christians we have the suggestion to “keep sweet” hanging over our heads and we feel afraid to ever complain. To me at least, complaining is sometimes cathartic — I just need to get something out! But in thinking about people in my life, a few are constant complainers, and that is not pleasant or uplifting to be around. Thanks for some good food for thought on the issue.

    • I’ve wondered over those cathartic moments, too. Like when I come home and vent about the rude cashier or the driver who almost caused a wreck. It helps to let off steam with one who will understand. But I haven’t decided if that’s grumbling or not. I think it might be if I carried on and on about it or let it ruin the rest of my day. But just mentioning it because I’m frustrated–I hope that’s not the wrong kind of complaining!

  6. Great question! I do think it is important to state a fact in order for something to be rectified… We can also state a fact just in passing: “It is cloudy today”. I don’t think either of those is complaining. However, when the comment lapses into nagging or is covered with ungratefulness…that is where the problem lies. But, how do we stop complaining? When we shift our focus to the Giver of all good things! The more we look to Him and thank Him for all He has done, the more complaints will be replaced with praise!

  7. You ask some good questions here, Barbara. I’ve definitely tipped from stating facts into complaining. My kids have been known to call me on that, and it never feels good. But it’s a good reminder for me to watch my words and my heart.

  8. Thanks, Barbara, this is a really helpful post! I like the questions you give us to consider. There’s a situation right now where I need to have a conversation about some things that need to change, but I want to do it in a positive way without it becoming complaining, so I’ll be thinking about this some more.

  9. Our own bodies have a similar set up in our nervous system. The nerves let our brains know of “issues” whether good or bad. Sometimes when a signal is sent it is just a informational message, very short and not intense. Occasionally a signal is sent very loud (pain) and that gets our attention. If that same signal is sent over and over again is would be similar to our complaining. However if there are no signals sent at all it can be a very bad situation and lead to more problems, as in diabetic neuropathy. This same principle holds in the local Church, the members need to let one another know of issues so we know how to pray.

  10. They say that I have half a brain
    (the other half is on a shelf)
    for I will forbear to complain
    ’cause I can hack it by myself.
    I’ve seen whiners, all too many,
    and the damage they can do,
    and, my friend, thus dropped the penny
    and I figure I’ll get through
    without even the barest mention
    of what is not satisfying,
    for this life is caught in tension
    between the living and the dying,
    and though some things may seem a curse,
    d***ed if I will make it worse.

    • There was a story I almost included, but my post was too long as it was. Several years ago, my normally placid husband went through a period of being short-tempered and snippy. I just got irritated, but didn’t say anything. Finally he told me he was having a conflict with someone at work who seemed to have it in for him. When I asked why he hadn’t told me before, he said the same thing his mom had–that he didn’t want me to worry. I felt bad that it hadn’t occurred to me that something was wrong. But I also wanted him to know that that’s one reason I was there–even if I couldn’t help, I could share the burden. I’d much rather do that than have him suffer in silence.

      • I see the point, Barbara. My perspective is limited; terminal cancer leaves ample opportunities to complain, and it’s that place from which I write.

        Complaints do no good; indeed, they tend to block out the appreciation of blessings (which are abundant), so I don’t let myself go there. I will give my wife a factual account of what fell events may befall, but with no commentary.

  11. Barbara, oh how I identify with you. I think I’m just declaring facts, because I also comment with I love the weather, but I’ve learned others don’t hear it that way. Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I want to do better. One observation I noticed in Scripture is that Jeremiah and the psalmist complained to God not behind His back like the Israelites. They wanted to trust Him and walk with Him.

  12. Oh I do try my hardest not to complain. I fail miserably sometimes. And sometimes I can catch myself and turn it around. As I go along in my relationship with God It’s easier for me to praise and worship him through hardships.
    Visiting today from Let’s Have Coffee #7

  13. Love this, Barbara! Sometimes I get so frustrated with my husband’s “stating the facts” as he calls it, but it sure sounds like grumbling to me! “So just stating that something is wrong is not complaining. But how we state it may be.” Is definitely the key!
    But I also feel the prick of conscious myself; though the words don’t necessary exit my mouth, my thoughts certainly go I the direction of grumbling! Great advice here, thank you!!

  14. Barbara, these are really good questions to discern whether or not we’ve branched into complaining. The one about burdening or discouraging others reminds me of how fast negativity (and negative people) can suck the life right out of a room. I want my words to be nurturing and life-giving, especially as I get older.

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