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?

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