The Annoying, Acceptable Sin Of Complaining

As Mom’s car crossed the Richmond-San Rafael bridge that early afternoon in 1970, my sister and I knew were only minutes away from the train station. We also knew that Granny would probably stay for about a year, primarily to help care for us while Mom worked. We dreaded it, but not because we’d have to share my bedroom during the time Gran stayed. Okay, maybe bunking together bothered us a little — both of us had reached our teenage years by then, and had gotten used to our respective privacy. But we had a much greater concern. One that we hadn’t voiced to our mother until the car carried us across the bridge.

I can’t remember which one of us had the courage to address the proverbial elephant in the room, but one of us finally asked the question that had been consuming our thoughts for weeks: “Is Gran going to complain all the time again?”

Mom chuckled, more out of sympathy than amusement. “Honey,” she replied, “I don’t think Granny is happy unless she has something to complain about.”

We groaned, anticipating an unpleasant year. It never occurred to us that we were actually complaining about our grandmother.

Six years later, I sat with the most popular crowd on the college campus. The new guy, who had transferred from the local community college, had quickly assumed an unspoken position of leadership, and wasted no time in educating the rest of us on the many wrongs of our particular school. We eagerly absorbed his critical attitudes. We’d just missed the Free Speech Movement at nearby U.C. Berkeley, he explained, but it wasn’t too late to speak out against the antiquated policies of our little Catholic college.

Looking back, of course, I realize that only one of our grievances had any legitimate merit. And even with that one, we didn’t really know why the administration made the decision it did. We complained so vehemently because we enjoyed the feelings of moral superiority that accompanied our expressions of “righteous” indignation. That sense of moral superiority allowed me to ignore Mom’s comments that I showed ingratitude for the sacrifices she’d made so that I could attend that expensive private college. I focused so much on waging “righteous” complaints that I wouldn’t consider other perspectives.

I distinguished his complaining from that of Gran, convincing myself that this sort of complaining had a certain sophistication. I prided myself on how erudite my complaining was, deliberately ignoring Scriptures warnings against that sin.

Over the past couple of years, the Lord has convicted me of my habitual complaining, and He’s graciously helped me see how it exposes my ingratitude towards Him. It bothers me, of course, that I’ve become so much like Gran. But it bothers me even more that I sin in this way against a God Who has given me so many wonderful blessings. My so-called sophistication is nothing more than the petulant whining of a spoiled brat.

One doesn’t have to go very far in the Bible to see how God feels about complaining. The book of Numbers is replete with examples of Israel complaining against God in the wilderness, even in the immediate aftermath of His faithfulness to them. Let me cite just one of several instances:

Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. ~~Numbers 11:1 (NASB95)

Yes, Israel’s 40-year journey to the Promised Land included many dangers and hardships. If we’re honest, we can’t criticize them for complaining — the vast majority of us would have complained right along with them! From a human standpoint, their complaining seems perfectly understandable, if not a little bit warranted. As miserable as their slavery in Egypt was, at least they had palatable food, their own homes and relative peace from their enemies.

God, however, had a bigger picture. He knew about the hardships Israel endured as they followed Him to the Promised Land, but He also knew that they needed to confront their rebellion against Him. He brought them through the wilderness to expose their sin so that He could teach them to trust and obey Him.

Along with the hardships Israel faced, they had experienced His kindness and faithfulness. Therefore the hardships of following Him should have paled in comparison to the blessings that He’d given and the even greater blessings that awaited them. Just as I had experienced my mother’s kindness in putting me through the private college, so they experienced the Lord’s kindness as He brought them out of Egypt, led them through the parted Red Sea and fed them in the wilderness. He was good to them, and they knew it!

When Israel complained against God, they essentially slapped Him in the face with their pride.

Complaining operates on the premise that we’re entitled to have everything on our terms and according to our specifications. It can’t dwell with gratitude or humility. Israel had every reason to be grateful to the Lord and humble before Him, but instead they shook their fists and demanded that He make them comfortable. Sadly, we don’t do much better. I know I struggle to repent in this area.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit convicts His children when we sin. In His mercy, He shows us our complaining words and thoughts, gently leading us to confess our ingratitude and pride. He leads us to repent of complaining so that we praise Him for His goodness toward us. And that’s nothing to complain about.

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