By Rick Ezell
I was at lunch with Bill, a friend, when Jon sat down at our table. Uninvited, I might add. Jon began to dominate the conversation. He whined about the weather. He criticized the waiter’s service. And when he tasted the food, he went into a full rant about how horrible it was.
Bill asked Jon, “What’s gotten in to you? It seems that all you can do is gripe.”
“Well,” replied Jon, “I guess complaining is my spiritual gift.”
Jon is like certain people. They never seem to speak unless it is a word of complaint.
Why do we find ourselves harshly criticizing someone from church? grumbling bitterly over minor annoyances? demanding that people and groups meet our needs? critiquing how organizations are run? raising our voices to prove a point?
We know in our spirits that our words are destructive, wrong, and sabotage our witness. Why do we repeatedly complain and criticize, no matter how many times we resolve to “do better next time”? All too often we can relate to the apostle James’s assessment, “No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
Complaining is a kill-joy. It makes us and everybody around us unhappy. Yet the habit is hard to break because many people’s natural tendency is toward negativism.
Types of Complainers
Complainers show up in a multitude of forms, and they’ve been around a long time.
They wake up being negative and stay that way all day long, saying: “It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this. Everybody else gets all the breaks.” Case in point: David. The Old Testament hero was a constant whiner. Just read the Psalms. The truth is: life is not fair. God never said it would be. As long as we complain about life not being fair it only makes for more misery. But it will not change the fact that life is not always fair. We do know that God is fair and he will settle the score.
Forever the victims, their favorite line is: “No one appreciates me.” Martyrs are downers, unhappy about the pain in their life, reluctant to do anything about it, and more than happy to spread their pity and joyless life around. Moses is the prime candidate. He thought he could do everything alone. He didn’t need any help. But he almost broke under the weight.
Their lives are like a rear dog on a dog sled team—the scenery never changes. Solomon suffered from this complaining curse. He wrote, “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4).
They are never satisfied. Nothing or no one is ever right or good enough. They love to point out others’ flaws and mistakes. The writer of Proverbs spoke of some wives, but it’s applicable to all people: “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm” (Proverbs 27:15). And “Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife” (21:19). Nothing is ever right for nagging perfectionists. Nothing destroys the warmth of a home or a church quicker than complaining.
Constantly complaining and giving unwanted advice, critics can be judgmental, arrogant, and nitpicky. Nehemiah encountered three when he led the people of Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. “When Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us” (Nehemiah 2:19). Critics find a cloud in every silver lining. They often run in herds. They work behind the scenes, murmuring and whispering. You often see them in corners whispering with hushed breath.
They spread rumors and damage reputations. Paul spoke of them in his first letter to Timothy: “gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (1 Timothy 5:13, English Standard Version). A person’s reputation is their most precious possession. Gossips rob people of their good name. They are the over-the-fence or at-the-water cooler types who find it hard to keep a secret, damaging individuals and organizations.
Steps to Conqueror Complaining
So what do we do to rid this toxic talk? Here are a few steps.
1. Acknowledge the complainer in you.
Often the most difficult part of conquering complaining is recognizing it in yourself. If someone recorded your conversations for a week, what would it reveal about your speech? As you examine the six types of complainers listed, which are you most like? Complaining isn’t just a bad habit; it is a sin. We need to admit it and confess it. Remember that God takes complaining very seriously. The Hebrew people wandering in the desert on their way to the promised land complained repeatedly. God destroyed them in the desert because of their grumbling.
2. Accept responsibility for your own life.
“If it is to be, it is up to me,” states the familiar adage. A mother asked her small son what he would like for his birthday. “I’d like a little brother,” the boy said. “Oh my, that’s such a big wish,” said the mother. “Why do you want a little brother?” “Well,” said the boy, “there’s only so much I can blame on the dog.” Many times our complaining is just an attempt to blame other people for the problems we have created. Don’t complain how the ball bounces if you drop it. We have no right to complain if we brought on the problems in our life. Many times complaining is just an excuse to be irresponsible and to not accept the fact that we caused the situation. We reap what we sow; therefore we have no legitimate right to complain about the results.
3. Give thanks.
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Instead of complaining and arguing, give thanks. As we begin to grasp all God has done for us, and as we decide to focus on those things daily, our hearts will overflow with gratefulness. We can’t always be thankful for the circumstances, but we can be thankful in the circumstances. God’s purpose for our life is greater than our problems, so in everything we can give thanks.
4. Look for God’s hand in circumstances.
We will have problems; life has its share of frustrations, obstacles, and difficult people. Yet God often uses those to shape us more like his Son. The reason we are told over and over in the Bible not to complain is that complaining, in essence, is rebellion against God. When we complain about the circumstances beyond our control, we are not trusting God. Often the things we complain about the most are the very things God uses to make us more like Jesus.
5. Practice positive speaking.
Complaining is a habit. Habits are only broken by replacement with something else. Take out the negative complaining and replace it with positive speaking. To practice positive speaking, you may have to talk less. Like the old saying, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.” You may have to slow down your speech. Sometimes our mouths are engaged before our brain. Words have a unique characteristic: Once spoken they can never be retrieved.
I heard an amusing story about a minister who announced he was passing out miniature crosses made of palm leaves. “Put this cross in the room where your family argues most,” he advised. “When you look at it, the cross will remind you that God is watching.” A woman walked up after the service, shook his hand, and said, “I’ll take five.”
The fact is that having a cross in a room won’t stop complaining. Crosses in churches have not stopped people from complaining for generations. The problem with our words is not with our mouths; it’s with our hearts. We need to allow God to transform our hearts. Until then, sermons or crosses won’t do much good. The cross must not just be in the room; it must be in the heart.
Rick Ezell is a pastor and author in Greer, South Carolina.