Originally published: November 22, 2016 on www.relevantmagazine.com
When you’re a Christian, gratitude matters.
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 the war going on in Mosul and suddenly, you feel guilty for not appreciating everything you have.
After feeling a little ungrateful myself, I wondered if there was anything holy in the experience or if I was just lacking perspective. A case of the “poor me’s” is impossible to avoid every now and again. But the question remains: Does ungratefulness have any virtue in it?
Research tell us complaining is normal. We complain to avoid certain responsibilities, raise our self-esteem, vent to our closest friends, or influence a person’s actions. But, psychologists also tell us that we complain for other reasons. We complain to start a conversation, ask for validation, point out something that needs to be fixed or create rapport.
In 2002, a student at Iowa State University studied the practice of venting and looked at how it affected our experience of being angry. The verdict? Venting tends to feed the flame.
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 his interviewer about the Israelites 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.”
Rabbi Kelman is right.
There’s an enormous difference between good complaining and bad complaining, and it’s important to know which is which. You’ve heard about the double-edged sword. Well, this is one of them. When we complain we have the power to be constructive or destructive. Even when we say something as commonplace as, “I’m sick of my job” or “it’s unfair that I have student loans”, we lose sight of God. We dismiss him. We might even blame Him.
Remember the Israelites from the rabbi’s example? The Israelites are wandering in the desert after escaping from Egypt and they’re pretty miserable. And hungry. They tell Aaron and Moses:
“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:1, New International Version).
We are all like the Israelites. We forget that God is participating generously in our own lives. God rescues the Israelites after more than 400 years of slavery. God freed the Israelites from the very people who beat them, abused them, separated them from their families, and treated them as though they were less than human. And they accuse God of starving them in the desert. So what does God do? He sends manna from the skies.
It’s important that when we complain that we don’t lose sight of God’s love for us.
It’s natural and easy for us to point out what’s wrong, but, it can completely undermine our relationship with God and each other. We have to tread lightly with this one. It really is a double-edged sword.
God doesn’t expect us to pretend like everything is perfect, especially when He knows our thoughts and needs. But sometimes, our complaints and burdens allow us to build intimacy with God and with one another. Without these moments, we would all think the same. We wouldn’t ask questions. We wouldn’t grow.
It’s the image of Jacob wrestling with God in the desert. Jacob challenges God. 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).
As Christians, we are called to wrestle. And sometimes, our complaining or lack of gratitude points to things that are not yet as they should be. Let them point you back to the One who can make them so.
To read the snarkier, unedited version of this article or see more examples of audacious complaints from the Bible, go to: When It’s Okay to Be Ungrateful