I am English and so not complaining is part of my DNA. We complain by staring at someone moodily or sighing disdainfully or – if you really want to show your displeasure – tutting loudly.
I also live in Australia and here, complaining is seen as just whinging. (By the way, the stereotype of a “Whinging Pom” has some truth in it. And I mean that with the deepest fondness for my people.)
In either country, complaining is a negative thing. It’s impolite or its arrogant and boring, or all of the above. But where does complaining come from? It comes from an inadequately met need (I really needed you and you weren’t there for me). Or a hurt (It feels like you’re being really cold towards me). Or an un-fulfilled agreement (I order a steak and chips and you brought me low-fat yoghurt).
We stifle these thoughts. We swallow the things we would say. That’s all well and good. We don’t need to be permanently at war with people, and frankly complaining can be habit forming. But if we don’t put voice to our hurts somehow, what we are swallowing becomes resentment. It tricks us into thinking our feelings don’t matter and shouldn’t be voiced.
The one person we can tell anything to is God. So why don’t we complain to him? Well, if complaining is whinging or impolite, surely he’s the last person we would speak to! Really? Even when the bible says that he’s the first person we should speak to? Check out 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18!
There are some barriers when we talk to God, I think. I certainly feel like I have to have a certain tone or demeanour. I feel like I need a formula because he’s, you know, God. So I pretend those negative feelings aren’t there, or I pray for things like help with my patience with people, or extending grace to people. Essentially I’m praying for those feelings to go away.
Trying to make feelings go away without dealing with them invariably comes back to bite us in the bum. You can squash the feelings down, you can suppress them and cover them up, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.
The incubation period for various illnesses can vary before they start showing symptoms. The incubation period for negative feelings is the same, and one day, it will suddenly affect your relationships or your mental health or your ability to operate freely and without barriers.
So what to do? I read something about the Book of Job recently that I’d never noticed before. If you don’t know Job, he’s a faithful guy who is beset by the worst possible set of calamities to see if, while he’s faithful in the good times, would he reject God in the bad times. All the way through, a series of friends tell him these traumas must be happening because of something he did so he should repent and perform the right ceremonies and be right with God again. All the way through, Job refuses and says I know I’m right with God and God knows it too – and I’m not going to perform some empty rituals to prove it. God doesn’t want empty rituals. He wants an honest heart.
But the guy is suffering unimaginable anguish, and he does start complaining (have a look at Job 23:1-4 and in each speech he starts to go on a bit. I mean, understandable….but…you know…. But then when God answers, he rebukes the friends for their lack of wisdom and says they have not spoken the truth as Job has (Job 42:7). Job, who has complained and whinged. That is the true and honest heart. Job was faithful but he was honest in his words. He laid bare his heart as he was hurting.
Complaining doesn’t mean we are unfaithful or ungrateful. It means we are being honest. The Psalms are full of complaints – accusing God of leaving them, of not listening to their prayers, asking when he will come and save them. It’s honest.
We can learn so much from this. We don’t have to pray like we’re statues – “Oh exalted God, how great thou art to me, please Lord of all the heavens make me penitent and pure….” Pft. If that floats your boat, then great. Go for it. There are no rules for prayer. Me? I think its OK and honest and biblical to pray “God, this thing happened today and it really hurt me. Help me process it!” It’s OK to acknowledge those feelings and sit in them while you process them with God’s help.
This is still a faithful prayer. It is an honest prayer. It is also a healthy and useful prayer – it does something with those negative emotions. Instead of trying to make them go away, it sends them to God. It is not stifling, its active. That’s one of the things that Job teaches us and its one of the things that Psalms shows us.