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Is it biblical to complain?

This is a bit of a trick question, as it can be answered with both a yes and a no. Is there complaining in the Bible? You betcha! Therefore, if your definition of ‘biblical’ is “contained in the Bible”, complaining is certainly biblical. But if your definition is “right according to the Bible” we end up on trickier ground. Let’s delve a little deeper...

First of all, let’s define what it means to complain. The OED says that to complain is to: “Express dissatisfaction or annoyance about something.” It is to state our discontent about our situation or lot in life. It is to grumble or to moan. It is the opposite of being thankful for what we have. The early indications are that it doesn’t sound hugely biblical in the second sense of the word.

Second, let’s think about when complaining first features in God’s word. It seems to me that Adam was the first complainer when he blamed God for his wife’s behaviour at the time when sin became a thing. “The woman you gave me made me do it!” he complained (this is a paraphrase). Cain moaned about Abel before slaughtering him and becoming an outcast. Moses’ sister Miriam complained and ended up with leprosy! Korah, Dathan and Abiram moaned and were swallowed up by the earth. The Israelites were serial moaners and ended up wandering around the wilderness for 40 years. It’s not looking good for complaining, folks.

But then there’s the other side of the coin. We know that Moses complained to God, and God moved powerfully against the Egyptians. Job lamented his dire circumstances without sinning. And David’s psalms could be considered pretty moan-heavy at times. So surely if it was OK for these biblical bods to get their grumble on, it must be permissible for us, right?

So why is it acceptable in some instances and not in others? First of all, the complaint needs to be justifiable. Moses was complaining about the pharaoh’s treatment of God’s chosen people. Job was moaning about his extreme physical and emotional pain. David was grumbling about the very real dangers he faced from his very real enemies. While they all framed their complaints in “Where are you in this situation, God?” terms, they weren’t blaming him for their circumstances or turning their backs on him. They recognised that he was sovereign and good, despite being in situations that would test the patience of even the strongest believer. In fact, complaints like these often came full circle, ending in the praise of who God is and what he is capable of.

So it would seem that it is biblical to complain to God, but not to complain about God… or the people he has appointed to do important works (that’s pretty much all of us if we’re truly following Jesus, so no moaning about Kenneth and Mary at church!). Proverbs 17:22 says: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” and Philippians 2:14 says: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.” Meanwhile, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us to: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

We know that moaning is not listed among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, so it obviously isn’t something we should be aspiring to. If you’d rather have a joyful heart than a crushed spirit and dried-up bones, you’re better off thanking God for all he has done in your life and the people he has placed around you than grumbling about the things that aren’t going your way. Complaining makes us increasingly dissatisfied, disgruntled and depressed, while gratitude can help us rise above our circumstances and draw closer to our heavenly Father. 

No one likes hanging out with a Moaning Myrtle, and you can’t witness to others about God’s goodness if every other word you speak is a negative one. So let’s do what David exhorts us to do in Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” That has to be better than being eaten up by the very ground we’re standing on!