Do all things without complaining or disputing that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. —Philippians 2:14-15 (NKJV)
The other night, we had friends over for dinner, and I am ashamed to admit that most of the words that came out of my mouth that evening were words of complaint. Oh, they were cloaked in cleverness, and I made my friends laugh in sympathy over my supposed plight. But after they left, I had a bad taste in my mouth, the taste of grumbling.
I was disgusted with myself. You see, I have been trying to stop complaining. Sad to say I haven’t had much success with it. Turns out I complain a lot more than I thought I did. But this evening with my friends was the worst complaint-fest I’d had in months.
Ordinarily this would have led to a rousing bout of beating myself with ugly words, a game I’ve played for decades. But I have given that game to God. He made it clear that He doesn’t like it when I call myself ugly names any more than He likes it when I call others ugly names. It’s all the same to Him. So, no self-flagellation in the aftermath of this bacchanalia of bellyaching. What’s a girl to do? Well, if you’re a girl like me, you’ll think about what went wrong and why it went wrong and how you could handle it differently next time. And you’ll pray for the grace to make a different choice.
So: what went wrong? My tongue started flapping, and I followed it, rather than biting it and forcing it to change course.
Why did that go wrong? There are so many reasons I was complaining, habit being chief among them—I’m an old dog and this whole not-complaining thing is a new trick—but I see two huge reasons my tongue wagged in almost uninterrupted complaint.
First, I was tired. Exhausted, actually. I am not my best self when I’m tired. I keep learning this lesson, that my spiritual and emotional health are deeply dependent on my taking care of myself, getting adequate rest, taking time to be silent and alone, and not getting overextended or overwhelmed. This month has been total extraversion and overextension. That night, I was depleted.
Second, I feel self-conscious when I don’t complain. I think there are three reasons for this.
One, complaining is socially accepted. More, it’s socially expected. No one wants to hear about how awesome your life is. As soon as you start in that direction, you’ll be labeled a braggart. Instead we brag about how hard our lives are, about how many times the baby (or the cat) woke us up last night, about how tired we are, about how the kids are mouthy or the boss is being a jerk. These things bond us to one another, remind us we’re all in this together, and no matter how good things are, they ain’t perfect.
Two, choosing not to complain is radically countercultural. When everyone’s gathered around the water cooler—or the dinner table—to kvetch, it feels awkward to not join in. To avoid temptation I may have to excuse myself from these little kvetch-fests. I may lose some relationships because they’re built on a foundation of complaining that I no longer participate in. I may end up lonely.
Three, I feel uncomfortable with abundance. I’m hyper-aware that not everyone has the abundance I have. I complain to draw your attention away from the abundance of my life and toward its lack. Lack is comfortable; it keeps the discomfort of abundance at bay. Lack says, hey, I’m just like you. Lack is a shield I place around myself so that you won’t envy or think ill of me. Lack is socially acceptable. Abundance is not. So I complain, to show I lack.
Next time around, I can acknowledge these self-conscious fears beforehand—or even in the moment—and give them to God. I can remind myself of the truth and take it to heart to combat my fears:
Understand that solidarity becomes destructive when it’s rooted in something unhealthy or even wrong. Complaining falls squarely in this camp. You cannot—indeed, you do not want to—build relationships upon a foundation of grousing.
Be willing to be lonely. Yes, loneliness is uncomfortable. Depending on how deep or prolonged it is, it may even be painful. But it is also fruitful, for in loneliness you cling more closely to God.
Receive and rejoice in abundance. The habit of complaining to show lack is disingenuous—because your life is really, really good. It always has been. Yes, you’ve had grief along the road, and no, it’s not perfect. But it’s good. And to whine about it is a kind of lie. It’s a blind, and it blinds you to abundance.
I can be diligent about caring for myself. Since I am spiritually stronger and just generally a kinder, more humane person when I am not frazzled and fried, I can prioritize rest and rejuvenation and ensure that I’m getting my recommended daily allowance of sleep and silence.
I can pray for God’s grace to live a life of grateful praise. After all, He wants to heal and transform me. And He’s the One who has the power to.
And should I do all this and still indulge in another rousing round of grousing, I can confess and repent of it, just as I did of my recent orgy of complaining during that dinner with my friends. And then I can start afresh.
This reality is a big reason I think Paul tells us not to complain—because we have no cause to: every moment we can begin again. God lavishes His lovingkindness and forgiveness upon us with more abundance than we can ask for or even imagine. Whatever the past, if we repent, He forgives it. Whatever the future, He holds it. Whatever the present He is with us, empowering us to live forgiven and free. That is the reality we live in, so let us do all things without complaining that we might shine like lights in the world.