Complaining is a social lubricant that makes conversation easy, whether we’re talking about our families or the weather or the switch from Daylight Saving Time. When we commiserate with one another, we connect.
Some researchers suggest complaining facilitates bonding and is psychologically healthy. Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University, describes complaining as an opportunity to feel understood. Through it, we offer one another “reassurance and support.”
The “bond” created by complaining is why, in its presence, many of us instinctually join in, even when we can’t relate to the specifics of the complaint. Maybe you’re not married to a messy husband, but your roommate is kind of a slob. Maybe your husband isn’t lazy and forgetful, but there was that time when he double-booked your schedules. I don’t know about you, but I have complained about people and things that had not bothered me otherwise, simply to be included.
A couple years ago, I sat with a group of exhausted young mothers as we sipped our coffees and laughed about our weeks. We relished the pause from a frenzy of kids and commitments, and gradually, the conversation drifted from catching up to complaining. At the time, I had one (relatively easy) child, so I listened quietly and sympathetically to their stories of chaotic life with three, four, and five kids. It’s not that I didn’t have complaints of my own, but I didn’t feel qualified to throw in.
One of the women turned to me, the only silent one of the bunch, and said, “This must sound awful to you. I bet this makes you never want to have more kids.” I fumbled for a response. The truth was, I hadn’t been thinking that at all. The reason I had been silent is that I couldn’t relate to their complaining. Their complaining hadn’t scared me. What it had done was make me feel like an outsider.
This can happen in nearly every context and life stage. As a single woman, I listened to married women complain about marital spats and matters of the bedroom, having little to add. As a married woman, I felt that same distance from my friends with kids, struggling to relate to many of their frustrations. After having my first child, the social chasm persisted when I didn’t have enough kids to share in the complaining.
Of course we won’t always be able to relate to each person’s struggles, but my experience points to something inherently anti-social about complaining. Although complaining has the appearance of connection, it also has the effect of alienating or tearing down.
That is why, for all its therapeutic benefits, the church has generally discouraged complaining. Recently gospel singer Kirk Franklin tweeted: “Philippians 2:14......COMPLAINING IS A SIN.” John Piper has shared his own reflections on that passage, confessing his struggle with complaining and its negative affect on his witness. Some Christians have written entire books about “not grumbling or arguing,” such as Stop Your Complaining: From Grumbling to Gratitude, or A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted.
Christian critiques of complaining usually center on our lack of gratitude. While lament remains a time-honored, Scripture-affirmed expression of sorrow, despair, or frustration, complaining has a pettiness and a laziness to it. As Piper describes it, “complaining is usually accompanied by all kinds of rationalizations,” to justify your ungratefulness, martyrdom, or behind-the-back criticisms.
However, complaining isn’t a problem only because of the discontentment it breeds. As my own experience illustrates, it damages relationships. Complaining has the appearance of connection, but much like gossip, it offers a false form of intimacy, without substance. When complaining excludes those with different experiences, encourages dissatisfaction, or needlessly tears people down, it is a bankrupt form of connection.
But what about being authentic? Shouldn’t we avoid the appearance of “Stepford Christianity” and admit that our lives aren’t perfect? When it comes to witness, of course we don’t want to seem so unflappably cheerful that we’re no longer relatable. There ought to be room for anger and disappointment within the church.
Thankfully, Scripture doesn’t present us with a false choice between venting our frustrations wholesale or bottling them up. Instead, it gives us filters for separating the complaint from the lament, and Ephesians 4:29 is a good one:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
What I love about this verse is how much it centers on others. Even in our laments, we are still called to build up and speak grace to people around us. This teaching gives us an antidote to the anti-social effects of complaining. Whereas typical complaining is mostly about us—only hinting at a common grievance as connection—Christian lament bonds us to one another in a powerful way, without the destructive side effects of back-biting, exclusion, or ingratitude. It acknowledges the bad stuff, but points to the good.
I don’t think God calls us to a Pollyanna Christianity. The Psalms prove that faith isn’t about putting on a fake smile or pretending it’s all okay. Instead, Scripture asks us to surrender our frustrations to a redemptive God.
When you’re having a bad day, or someone cuts you off in traffic, or your kids are driving you nuts, you could post a rant on Facebook. Or, you could ask God how, in the midst of even your biggest frustrations or silliest annoyances, he might do a gospel work.