Simply stated, complaining is giving expression to one's self-centered discontentment. It's a heart murmur with vocal chords.
It should be pointed out that complaining is not the same as grieving. The Bible clearly invites us to mourn when it is time to mourn. Neither is complaining the same as speaking out against injustice, danger, or heresy. The Bible gives us guidelines on when and how to do that. Complaining is not even vocalizing the deep distresses of heart and soul when life is difficult, provided we do so in a biblical manner. The Psalms are loaded with such laments.
Complaining is much more sinister because it involves the assertion of self to secure one's comfort, rather than the denial of self to promote God's glory. It is significant that Paul denounced complaining while shackled in prison-not exactly the best of circumstances. For Paul, complaining was not a legitimate response, even to the lousy accommodations of a wicked world.
Recognizing God's sovereignty in his circumstance, Paul viewed himself primarily as a prisoner of the Lord, not as a prisoner of Rome. Thus, he must have reasoned that since he was incarcerated, it was because God wanted the people around him to hear the Gospel. He had the choice of either telling them his own bad news through complaining or telling them God's good news through evangelism. Paul chose the latter, in part because he discovered an important key to victorious living. Most people think they will stop complaining when they finally get happy. Paul indicates that people will get happy when they finally stop complaining! The difference is profound.
Paul implies in Philippians 2:14-16 that complaining Christians look and sound like the depraved generation of which they are a part! That's a serious charge, but the stakes are high. What unbeliever would want to accept Christ into his life if Christ apparently made no difference in the life of a Christian?
Paul's admonition to avoid complaining is rooted in his understanding of the Old Testament. One of the saddest cases of God's people complaining is recorded in Numbers 14, where God said to those who complained: "Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. ... Doubtless ye shall not come into the land."
What a tragedy! Israel complained about their leaders, their food supply, and the difficult challenge to occupy Canaan. God was fed up with such relentless carping. In fact, 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. It was God's way of telling them to "walk it off"!
The end result was that many died in the wilderness and thereby were denied entrance into the land. Why such a harsh 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!
Like father, like son
It stands to reason that if God, as recorded in the Old Testament, was so intensely opposed to complaining, then we might expect His Son, Jesus Christ, to be equally serious about it in the New Testament. After all, Jesus said, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). Like Father, like Son.
Sure enough, the New Testament indicates that Jesus was every bit as intolerant of complaining as was His Father in the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus repeatedly sets Himself against one of the most menacing types of complaining-people complaining about other people. And Jesus responds the same way every time.
Jesus and the "complainiacs"
Jesus actually fielded complaints against five different types of people: the fortunate, the insensitive, the unspiritual, the outsider, and the wicked. When all the complaint stories are studied together, several truths emerge about how Jesus handled complaints about other people:
- Jesus never gave the complainer the satisfaction he was looking for;
- Jesus never allowed the complainer to persist in his complaining;
- Jesus never tolerated an excessive ripping apart of the character of another person, even the ungodly;
- Jesus often turned the tables and offered a penetrating insight about the complainer's own heart; and
- Jesus sometimes even issued a spiritual warning to the complainer himself.
Essentially, Jesus responded to every person's complaint about other people with a simple and sobering rebuke: Complaint denied!
The story of the heir and his brother in Luke 12:13-21 is a case in point. In this story a man complains to Jesus about his brother's failure to divide the 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! Such accounts are numerous in the Gospels.
The antidote to complaining
Are you a "complainiac"? Have you ever complained about people who were less fortunate than you, insensitive toward you, less spiritual than you, outside your group, or just plain wicked? In light of the biblical evidence, believers must understand that such complaining does not enjoy the sanction of Heaven. Jesus Himself rejected these types of complaints and often used them as boomerangs to challenge the complainer spiritually.
As it was in the days when Jesus walked the earth, so it is today. Desiring that His followers in this generation "do all things without complaining," Jesus, in love, often tells us: Complaint denied! Blessedly, the Scriptures go beyond pointing out our faults; they also show us the better way.
How does a person eliminate complaining from his mouth? Is it just a matter of sticking a sock in it? Absolutely not! God uniquely deals with each of His children at the heart level. A liar does not cease to be a liar when he stops telling lies; he ceases to be a liar when he starts telling the truth.
Likewise, a complainer does not cease to be a complainer when he stops complaining; he ceases to be a complainer when he starts giving thanks as a way of life. Christian gratitude must be cultivated in order to conquer complaining.
Ultimately, we must recognize that Jesus Himself was not a complainer. He was a worshipper. And the prayer that He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane must ever be our prayer as well: "Father, not my will, but Thine, be done" (Luke 22:42).
Passages that show how Jesus addressed complaints
Complaints about 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 insensitive people
- Martha's complaint about Mary (Luke 10:38-42)
- The invalid's complaint about those who ignored him (John 5:1-8, 14)
Complaints about unspiritual people
- John's disciples' 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 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 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)