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Everybody's a Critic

September 17th, 2008

We should not test the Lord, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:9-11)

Everybody’s a critic. complaint box

Police in York, Pennsylvania say that they’ve made an arrest after an attempted bank robbery there. “Attempted,” because the would-be robber walked away with no money at all for his troubles. And his troubles were considerable, and they started the moment he approached a teller window and demanded that she empty her cash drawer.

The first teller fainted. But another teller showed the robbery hopeful that her drawer was completely empty. Then she showed him the other drawers; they were also completely empty. It was the beginning of the day, apparently, and the tellers were waiting for a manager to come from the vault with the cash. The 48-year-old robber showed up at maybe the worst possible time of day for a bank robbery.

What’s really funny, though, is what happened when the would-be robber saw the empty drawers. Upset that his robbery was going so badly, he threatened the teller.

Threatened to complain to the manager about the service he was receiving.

Police say that he didn’t get the chance to follow through on his threat because they rounded him up about two blocks away, after a drive-through customer identified him.

No word yet on how well he likes his jail cell.

Oh, we can be world-class complainers, can’t we? Gifted grumblers. Don’t you know people who can always find the gristle in every steak? Whose glasses are always half-empty? Don’t you know people who you can always count on to tell you why things aren’t nearly as good as you think they are? Maybe it’s not so much that you know someone like that, and more that you are someone like that.

When you answer the question, “How are you?” do the questioner’s eyes glaze over within the first ten minutes of your answer? You might be a complainer.

All kidding aside, God seems to take chronic complaining among his people pretty seriously. The Old Testament even talks about God punishing people who bad-mouthed him during the time of the Exodus with death. Seems harsh, I know, but when you think about the implications of chronic complaining it makes a certain amount of sense. Complaining led to Israel worshipping the golden calf. It led to low morale and reduced motivation. It brought about fear, suspicion, and jealousy, and ultimately compromised relationships.

Really, the problem with chronic complaining for people who believe in a powerful, loving God who has intentions for his people’s ultimate well-being is that complaining undermines faith. What does it say about my trust in God if nothing in my life is ever “right” enough? What does it say about my trust in him if all I ever do is complain and grumble about the load he’s placed on me, or the path he’s laid before me, or the gifts he hasn’t given me?

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that I’ve never seen God strike anyone dead for complaining – even people who complain a lot. I suspect that’s largely because of his patience. It might also have something to do with his experience of being human through Jesus. But I can tell you pretty confidently that the habit of complaint will not serve your health well: spiritually, emotionally, or physically. That’s what it is, by the way – a habit. And, like most habits, it quickly becomes something that you do regularly, constantly, and – and maybe this is the worst part – unthinkingly. Finding reasons to complain becomes your default setting. Looking for the negative in every situation becomes a knee-jerk reflex. And it’ll make you bitter, angry, depressed, and harsh.

I think that’s why Paul urges the church in Corinth to take a lesson from the experience of their spiritual ancestors, the ones who got on God’s bad side by grumbling and complaining about the road he had them walking. He reminds them – and us – that as believers in Jesus we are those “on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” That means that God’s ages-old purpose for the redemption and repair of his creation have begun and are being brought to completion in our lives though Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit. His grace is being poured out on us like many of God’s people who came before us couldn’t begin to imagine.

What, exactly, do we have to complain about?

Oh, I know – you have reasons. It’s not as if your life is all roses. And, actually, there’s solid biblical ground to cry out to the Lord in distress. The Psalms are full of what might be taken at first glance to be complaining. The difference, I think, is that the “complaints” of the Psalms come in the context of prayers for deliverance. They show dependence on God, and trust in him, rather than lack of faith. When we come to God in humility and tell him of our pain and fear and confusion, believing that he can help, we will find him full of grace, compassion, and salvation. When we come in a self-important huff to stuff his complaint box and tell him how to be God – well, that may be something else again. And when we don’t come to him at all, content just to rail and whine and find fault, we wind up demonstrating to anyone who might be watching that our belief in a loving, kind, powerful God doesn’t go very deep or very far.

Let me suggest an antidote for complaining to you, if I may. Actually, it isn’t really my suggestion. I’ve borrowed it from someone else, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) It’s a matter of developing different habits to replace the impulse to complain. The habit of joy: finding reasons to celebrate the good things that God does and gives in your life. The habit of prayer: being a person who often turns your mind to communion with God, and for whom it’s easy to turn complaints into prayers for deliverance. And the habit of giving thanks: developing your ability to see all the reasons to praise God for what he has given you, instead of the comparatively few reasons to complain. If you’d like to feel happier, more optimistic, and closer to God, then try developing those habits. It might take a while. But give it a little time, and see if you don’t feel more comfortable in your own life and happier in your own skin.

At the very least, they’ll probably like you better at the bank.


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