Murmuring, grumbling, complaining. We are all guilty of it, and we really don’t stop to think about what it costs us. Not only does it turn us into people that others don’t want to be around, it can actually change the course of our journeys. We say it’s just harmless venting, and yes, there are times that we need to vent a little bit, but spending our time complaining or murmuring about our situations, or about other people in our lives, is something we should not be doing. Period.
When God delivered Israel out of their bondage in Egypt, He intended for them to inhabit the Promised Land. The journey from where they were to where they were going was an 11-day journey (Deuteronomy 1:2), and yet it took them FORTY years to make it (Numbers chpt. 14). They wandered around in the desert for 40 years because they did nothing but murmur and complain at almost every turn. In Numbers chapter 14, God even said, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in Me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? How long will this wicked community grumble against me?” God goes on to say He was going to destroy them, but Moses interceded and asked Him to spare them. God agreed to spare them, but then said not one of those who murmured and complained against Him would see the Promised Land. The consequences these people experienced as a result of their complaining cost them far more than they would have ever expected, and an 11-day journey became one of 40 years. God still took care of them during their 40 years of wandering, but it could have all been over much sooner, if only for a change of perspective.
How many times have you or I extended the amount of time we had to spend in certain circumstances just because we refused to stop complaining, gossiping, or getting caught up in the opinions of those around us? Sometimes we can be swayed by group complaining. After all, negativity is far more contagious than anything positive. We get into situations where we feel justified in talking bad about someone, because we feel they deserve it. People who have mistreated us, or even made poor personal decisions that affect us, are easy targets of our complaining, but we better be careful. The more we complain, the more we “wander” until we change our perspective. Israel eventually stopped complaining and trusted God, but it was at such great expense. A generation of people (and complainers) died in the wilderness and never actually got to enter the Promised Land. They missed out on the most amazing blessings and stayed stuck in a difficult and discouraging situation, because they chose to complain about everything instead of being grateful and trusting God to work things out. Again, I ask how many times do we extend our own challenges because we do the same thing?
God tells us over and over to be grateful, but He also tells us to stop complaining! Philippians 2:14 says to do all things without grumbling or arguing. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” There are many other verses that tell us to speak words that lift up and encourage, not tear down and destroy, and even with all of this knowledge of what God expects from us, we just don’t seem to be able to stop the grumbling. We can’t seem to let go of criticizing others around us for not responding to things like we think they should. We walk around thinking our way is the best way, and eventually it diminishes our ability to actually listen to the people around us. You’ve probably heard the saying, “God gave you two ears and only one mouth, because you should listen twice as much as you speak.” We are losing the ability to listen for the purpose of truly hearing, and it is harming us and our society.
When we listen to others, we are able to discern far better the reason for their reactions and even emotions at times. We learn each other and can read between the lines to the deeper meaning (or problem) behind the words someone is speaking. But listening this way requires humility. You cannot truly listen to someone else while being full of yourself. Being so convinced we are right takes up all the space inside us that is needed for seeing things from another point of view, one that may actually be better than our own. We have to humble ourselves in order to listen, and we need to listen as though we are trying to learn something. When we have an interest in something, we listen to information and instruction about it completely differently. We WANT to know all we can about the subject. The same is, or should be, true about listening to others. We should love each other in such a way that we want to know all we can about each other – not for the purpose of judging, but for understanding how to help and encourage each other more effectively. Based on the way we listen, it’s obvious we aren’t nearly as interested in each other as we claim to be. I recently came across a verse that has become a prayer for me, even though Isaiah 50:4 is actually a statement of something God has already done. Two of the phrases struck me and have become this prayer: “Lord, instruct my tongue with a word to sustain the weary, and waken my ear to listen like one being taught.” I want to love and care for others in a way that causes me to humble my spirit and speak words of encouragement. I want to set aside my expectations of who or what they should be and listen as they teach me who they are, because that kind of perspective can change the world one person at a time.
We all have situations in life that are extremely difficult at times. We deal with all kinds of problems and challenges, some that are gut-wrenching or heartbreaking, and it’s easy to see why we might fall into a perpetual state of complaining. When we are hit with trouble from every side, it’s hard to keep pressing forward or even to hold to our faith while standing still. Romans 4:8-9 reminds us, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” That sounds encouraging, but the truth is, in the heat of our troubles, we don’t believe those words are true. Not only that, it feels good to complain! It really is true that misery loves company. We’ve elevated complaining to an art in our society. We’ve become a people who actually tries to “one-up” each other in the difficulty of our circumstances. It’s like we wear our troubles as a badge of honor! We’ve all known people who seem to only have words of negativity about themselves or others around them. They are the ones always looking to gossip or share negative things about someone else, often in an attempt to make themselves look better or seem more important. We’ve known people who complain or grumble in order to look more like a martyr for doing something. We’ve known people who also live like Eeyore with a “poor, pitiful me” mentality. As people of faith, when are we going to wake up?! When are we going to admit that our complaining comes not just from a place of feeling slighted by others, but by believing we have been slighted by God (though we probably wouldn’t admit that out loud)?
So how then do we set aside our tendency to grumble and complain? We do it by changing our focus. I realize that is easier said than done, but some of the best advice on what we should be doing is found in God’s word. Philippians 4:8 tells us exactly what we should be thinking about. “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” This isn’t just advice for people of faith, but for all mankind. How do we stop complaining? By dwelling on THESE things! I’m not saying it is easy to do, but we absolutely have the power to focus on whatever we choose. We need to surround ourselves with friends and family who can listen to us vent for a bit, but then gently help us shift our focus. Thinking on the things mentioned in Philippians 4:8 doesn’t mean we won’t feel the emotions that sometimes overwhelm us. We will still get frustrated, sad or even angry, but we don’t have to continue ruminating on the difficulties we face day in and day out. My great-grandma liked to say, “You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you don’t have to let it build a nest.” We can’t keep thoughts from popping into our head at times, but it doesn’t mean we have to let them take up residence! And by the way, we also don’t need to let everything that pops into our heads pop out of our mouths!
This world is in need of joy; WE are in need of joy. That means we also need each other! We need to focus on loving each other and helping each other, rather than “wallerin’ around in our troubles” (and yes, I just used the word “wallerin’”). When we complain, we end up cutting off support we would otherwise have, because people don’t usually want to be around a complainer. More importantly, it grieves God to hear us continually complaining about our lives. He loves us and has promised He is working everything out for our good. He just wants us to trust Him because He sees a much bigger picture than what you or I can see. So often, we are just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, complaining about where or how God is leading us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to risk wandering around in my own personal wilderness for 40 years, when I could have walked through it in 11 days by trusting God, focusing on the good, and simply biting my tongue. Lord, instruct my tongue with a word to sustain the weary, and waken my ear to listen like one being taught!