Are We Complaining Too Much?

by Craig Thompson on November 21, 2016

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Authenticity. It’s a big buzzword today, popular among millennials, pastors to millennials, mom bloggers, and . . . missionaries. Sharing shortcomings and struggles has many benefits, not the least of which is showing other imperfect people that they’re not alone.

But where that sharing grows and grows, there is bound to be pushback. One person’s honesty is another person’s whining. One person’s transparency is another’s self-centeredness. One person’s telling it like it is is another’s pity party. One person’s authenticity is another’s complaining.

So, are we complaining too much?

I think about that quite a bit. I believe it’s important to share openly and honestly, but when I get ready to do just that, Philippians 2:14 often comes to mind. Actually, it’s not the verse itself but the children’s song based on it: “Do everything without complaining / Do everything without arguing / So that you may become blameless and pure children of God.”

Maybe it’s not enough to ask, Are we complaining too much? Can we, in fact, complain at all?

According to many Bible translators, when Paul tells us not to “complain,” he’s actually warning against grumbling, murmuring, bickering (The Message), and—my favorite—kvetching (The Complete Jewish Bible). To me, those carry a decidedly more negative connotation, and it’s this kind of ill-tempered muttering that I see angering God in the Bible.

Our word complain, though, isn’t always bad. Rather, it depends on how and why we voice our concerns. Yes, no one wants to be labeled a complainer, and a popular eulogy is “Through it all, she never once complained.” But when a patient complains of chest pain, doctors consider that a good and necessary thing. How else can they give the hurting the treatment they need?

In fact, I’d like to redeem the meaning of complain somewhat. Coming from an Old French word meaning “lament,” its Latin root, plangere, means literally “to beat one’s breast.” Lamenting. Beating one’s breast. Don’t we see that in the Bible—lamenting for self and community? Don’t people lament in the Old Testament? Don’t we have a book titled Lamentations? Don’t we hear lamenting in the Psalms? Didn’t Paul, didn’t Jesus, lament?

Are we complaining too much? No, I think not, at least not yet. And here’s why I think we have a ways to go before we get there.

For too long, the church has put missionaries on precariously high pedestals, and because of the continued pressures to raise funds and promote ministries, missionaries can find themselves taking part in the pedestal building, as well. It will take a while for us, with repeated reminders, to dismantle the platforms.

Living overseas can be very difficult, and we need more, not less, authenticity so that others who are struggling won’t have to say, “I must be the only one.” Transparent sharing also helps future missionaries have realistic expectations so that they can better prepare for future challenges and fend off disappointment.

The transitions of cross-cultural life involve loss, which leads to sorrow. This sorrow is real, but how many times I have heard someone preface their expressions of grief with “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but. . . .” Missionaries tend to be a conscientious lot, and they’re well-versed in verses stressing self-denial. Thus they are prone to guilt when speaking of their problems: “Others have it so much worse than I do.” But when sorrow remains hidden, when it is disenfranchised because of those around us or because of our own shame, it can morph deep inside us into depression or rise to the surface as anger. Simply not voicing it doesn’t make it go away.

And while our honest lamenting does not tell the entire story, it is part of that story. Some day when the definitive book on missionary life is written, the whole volume won’t be titled It’s Tough, but at least one very important chapter will be. This is actually where I think a big problem comes in. We too often want every part of the story to represent the whole story, with a beginning and an end, with a problem and a resolution. But with such requirements, we silence those who need to speak while their stories are unfolding.

I think of Psalm 88, a psalm of lament that reveals no happy ending. Rather, its final words are “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend” (NIV). I am comforted to know that this psalm is part of scripture. Psalm 13, on the other hand, begins with “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” but then ends with “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (NIV). But I have to wonder about the blank space, the empty line, between verse four and verse five, where the change occurs. Many are living in that space right now, and I can hear them saying, “Yea, though I walk through the valley between verses.” How long did it take David to come to the place where he could voice those hopeful words, and finish writing the psalm? Or if he could say them even in his despair, how long did it take for him to truly feel them in his heart? Can we share our stories before we get to the other side?

Having said all that, I do understand that we need to be careful in our authenticity.

In today’s world, we have the ability to share in real time, through blogs and any number of instant-messaging platforms. This is a double-edged sword, and there’s certainly room for a healthy hesitancy. Not every frustration needs to be expressed publicly and immediately. Not every complaint needs to be posted or published. Not every lament needs to be spoken from a pulpit (though some very much do).

Sometimes it’s best for us to confide in a safe person, face to face. Sometimes, we need to share in a small group or closed forum, where outsiders will not overhear and misinterpret our most raw feelings, but where insiders will understand.

And, yes, we do need to watch our attitudes. Job complained, but he didn’t curse God. In our anger and sorrow, we should not sin. And as Paul writes, we shouldn’t gripe or grumble or bicker or kvetch.

Also, while there are many commonalities among members of the mission community, my experiences will not always match yours. Therefore, I should avoid claiming to represent everyone else. Likewise, I shouldn’t be so convinced of my own perspective that I discount others who have a rosier view than me. Just because others tell happy stories doesn’t mean that they’re hiding something.

No matter the cautions, though, honest lamenting is messy. It is and always will be. Thank you, Lord, for your patience. Missionaries are people, too, and amongst the authenticity, there will be some negativity, whining, self-centeredness, and a pity party or two. When that happens, let’s be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to leave angry comments. Let’s listen with grace.

In the not-so-distant future, we may look back on this time and say (with our hands forming air quotes), “Remember when it was all about ‘being authentic and vulnerable,’ ‘sharing your story,’ and ‘being real’?” Maybe by then we’ll have new buzzwords for the same things. But my hope is that, instead, we’ll simply talk about—and practice—honesty and empathy and sincerity. I’m pretty sure those never go out of style.

[photo: “Frustration,” by Jason Bolonski, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    This is such an important subject, Craig, and I’m glad you started the conversation. What constitutes too much whining (public OR private)? When are we being “authentic” with an inappropriate audience or timing? I have often thought authenticity is the new god and people rush to tell the WHOLE world too soon. That doesn’t mean we don’t tell the whole story *somewhere* right away, it just means maybe we don’t need to tell the world the story right away. And maybe it means the “world” never gets to hold some of our burdens — the whole world hasn’t earned that right. Then again, I do believe there are ways to tell our stories, even the most difficult ones, that don’t reveal the tenderest parts and that still tell how hard and tough things are.

    I know for myself, too, I can really get down on life and get stuck in a complaining rut, even with God. I forget to worship Him, I forget to praise Him, I forget to thank Him. This week even, I am coming out of a complaining rut (it has been a BRUTAL last month or two) and beginning to worship again, and surprise surprise, it really does make my morning time with God so much more fulfilling, and it strengthens me for the day so much better. But then, thankfulness is a spiritual discipline for me that I am not all that good at sometimes! So my experience might not apply to others.

    Your thoughts tie in really well to Rachel Jones’s from last week — “how much awesomeness can we handle?” Perhaps it is the pressure to keep coming up with newer and better stories — especially in this digital age but also among missionaries from longer ago. We feel this pressure to come up with better and better stories, and we feel a lack of permission to tell the hard stuff. Perhaps it is not outright cause-and-effect, perhaps it is just two sides of the same coin. Whatever it is, I do think they are related and that we as missionaries *should* be pushing back against both the need to tell awesome stories all the time and against the expectation never to whine or, as you affectionately called it, kvetch.

    • Craig Thompson

      Being sandwiched in between Rachel’s post and yours puts me in good company. Three posts in a row that include the word “complain.” What are the odds? Thanks, Elizabeth, for your comments.

  • Viola Palmer

    Oh my! This really hit me! We have turned all friends into donors, even my pastor sits on the board so I can’t talk to him. I feel like my prayer times have dissolved into just tears and yes, sometimes I am just angry at God for all that has happening to my husband and I. We have been career missionaries for over 30 years and now back in the U.S. We have always been a ‘we’. Now my husband is hired and I am feeling like chopped liver.

    • Craig Thompson

      Oh, Viola, I feel for you. I do hope you can find safe people to share with. What you are describing is so difficult – not feeling able to talk openly with others because they are in positions of authority. Thank you so much for your years of service to the Lord, and thank you for your honesty here. You are not alone.

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