faith, Uncategorized

When It’s Okay to Be Ungrateful

For those of you who have already read “Is Feeling Ungrateful Actually That Bad?”, this is my stream-of-consciousness version that has more bite. Some of it will be a little Deja Vu, but, hey, let the thoughts marinate.

There will be talk of pet peeves and a wrestling match at the end!


When you’re a Christian, gratitude counts for a lot. It’s not an official fruit of the spirit, but it might as well be. There’s something special about gratitude. It helps you to acknowledge all of the things you would normally take for granted. And that’s important. But sometimes gratitude is in short supply and it can make you feel like a bad Christian. All someone has to do is bring up a real tragedy (like starving children) and then you’re wishing you hadn’t said anything in the first place.

the question

does ungratefulness have any virtue in it?

why we complain

what psychologists have to say about complaining

Psychologists tell us that it’s normal to complain. We complain to avoid certain responsibilities, raise our self-esteem, vent to our closest friends, or influence a person’s actions, all of which seem off-base. But, psychologists also tell us that we complain for other reasons. Good reasons. We complain to start a conversation, ask for validation, point out something that needs to be fixed or create rapport.

what Brad learned about venting

In 2002, Brad Bushman, a student at Iowa State University, studied the practice of venting and looked at how it affected our experience of being angry. His question and research paper title was: Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame?  The verdict? In general, venting tends to feed the flame.

what Dr. Kowalski learned about pet peeves

In 2014, Robin M. Kowalski, a professor of Psychology at Clemson University, published a study on how happy people complain. She was interested in how mindfulness (the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something in the present) and complaining might relate to each other. So she investigated how we express pet peeves. She asked study participants to write them all down. Let’s imagine.

Theoretical list of pet peeves for Dr. Kowalski

  1. drivers not stopping for pedestrians at a crosswalk
  2. the sound of an old school alarm clock
  3. holding on the phone for more than 5 minutes

Okay, now Kowalski has lists of pet peeves. Then she hands her study participants a questionnaire to help measure levels of happiness, depression, relationship and overall life satisfaction, and this is what she finds out:

People who complained with the hope of enacting a certain outcome were happier than people who complained “just to complain”.

Essentially, happier people complained to resolve something. And less happy people complained to express something and express something alone.

 complaining to find a solution

In the New York Times article, “Complaining Is Hard to Avoid, but Try to Do It With a Purpose”, the writer interviews a Jewish educator, Rabbi Jay Kelman, about what the Bible has to say on the topic of complaining. The Rabbi tells him about the Jewish people who were wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt. He says,

“They complained about drinks, the leadership, the desert. They’re taken out as slaves from Egypt and they’re kvetching about everything. But there is a distinction between good complaining and bad complaining. You should complain about social justice. It shows you are concerned. You don’t want to be too indifferent to complain. But along with the complaint there has to be action.”

 the perfect segue

Rabbi Jay Kelman gives us our first biblical example of grumbling. Our second is the book of Lamentations, where we become privy to someone’s private complaints from thousands of years ago. And these are some of the things we hear:

  • “Jerusalem remembers the day she lost everything” (Lamentations 1:7, The Message)
  • “[God] turned me into a scarecrow
        of skin and bones, then broke the bones.
    He hemmed me in, ganged up on me,
        poured on the trouble and hard times.
    He locked me up in deep darkness,
        like a corpse nailed inside a coffin.” (Lamentations 3:4-6, The Message)

audacious complaints

These are audacious complaints. Jerusalem falls. The Jewish people are forced into Babylonian captivity. And the writer of Lamentations has some choice words for God. Is there a purpose in the writer’s complaints or is the writer just complaining?

what we find in Lamentations

The writer’s complaints have a progression.  The writer grieves for his people and then intercedes for them.

We start with

“God Locked Me Up in Deep Darkness”


and end up with “Give Us A Fresh Start”.


The writer accuses and then pleads. He asks for mercy. That is the purpose of his complaint. Towards the end of Lamentations 5, he writes, “Bring us back to you, God”. His complaint is motivated by reconciliation.

conflict has the potential to create intimacy

In some miraculous way, conflict has the potential to create intimacy.

It’s the image of Jacob wrestling with God in the desert. Jacob puts God in a headlock (my own interpretation). God dislocates Jacob’s hip. God tells Jacob, “Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through” (Genesis 32:28). Imagine that.

The key ingredient to this whole thing is the “coming through”. The reconciliation. That’s the specific outcome we ought to be hoping for when we voice our complaints.

A divine imperative to “wrestle”

The truth is we kill the potential for intimacy when we avoid conflict. God warns us about the dangers of complacency. Of “being lukewarm”. Of “becoming dull of hearing”. In Proverbs 1:32, we are told, “for the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them”.

If we don’t fight, then nothing changes. We continue to think the same. We forget to ask questions, and we don’t grow.

God wants things to change.  He has called us to bring about his redemptive purposes in the world, and sometimes that starts with a purposeful complaint.

So wrestle.

Remember, we are the Israelites. We are the God-Wrestlers. And, like those before us, we have a lot of fight in us.

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