The Culture of Complaint

I’m going to take a break from the cheap blogs (don’t worry, there’s more to come) to write about a topic that’s been on my mind lately. In fact it’s closely related to lifestyle and thus holds significance for frugality. So here it is: I believe we are living in a culture of complaint, or at least a subculture of complaint among my generation, the millenials.

What do I mean? Listen in on the conversation of complaint:

“Hey, what’s up?”
“Not much. How are you?”
“Tired. I’m so friggin’ tired all the time.”
“Yeah, me too. And I have a headache.”
“That sucks. How was your day?”
“Awful. I went to the grocery store and kept getting behind slow people, and then some lady in the parking lot almost hit my car as I was leaving. Then I had to go home and clean and everything was a mess, and my vacuum is a piece of crap. And I forgot to buy pop so now I have to go back.”
“I hate the grocery store. It’s just full of million slow people and food I can’t afford. It’s depressing. And I hate cleaning, too. Everything just gets dirty again soon, anyway. What’s the point?”

Basically the entire content of this conversation is complaint. And sadly, this example is typical of the conversations I hold with others. I enumerate the WASP tragedies of my day in a sarcastic, exaggerated way. But I don’t like it when other people complain about their so-called suffering to me. It seems so negative. Of course when I do the same I’m just making observations about my day.

We complain about cold. The snow. The sun. The rain. The laundry. The traffic. The food. Our pets. Our friends. Our families. Our cars. Our hair. Our bodies. The dentist. (This last one I believe in complaining about, for the record, and don’t plan to stop).

I hear the conversation of complaint among myself, friends, the high school students, and strangers. When you don’t know what to talk to someone about, what do you do? Complain about how much snow there is and how much the local sports team sucks. When you know someone well, what do you do? Unload in great detail every pet peeve and inconvenience that affected you that day.

But complaining isn’t just the content of our conversation; it’s also the substance of much humor, the comedy of complaint. We joke about how big our butts are, how stupid those customer service people are, how evil our professor is. Listen to a comedian like Dane Cook and you’ll have the idea. He has quite a rant about people turning around in his driveway, for example.

I realize that comedy seeks to make light of life’s difficulties, and that’s fine. But so much humor is sarcastic (which I love) and negative (which I am). Is it funny? Often. But is it edifying? Rarely. At least not in the larger context of a culture of complaint, when such humor only further engrains whininess in us. Perhaps it would be just as funny to joke about how great things are, for the novelty of it if nothing else. “I’m so glad there’s three feet of snow in my yard. If there’s a fire I could just jump right out of my window and it’d break my fall!” (Okay, we’ll need to get someone funnier to write the grateful jokes).

Some might say that people just need to vent; there’s nothing wrong with letting out some steam when you’re frustrated. I certainly like to do this. But this culture of complaint coincides with the highest rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and other emotional problems America has ever known. So is venting really helping? I’m not suggesting we keep everything inside, but the excessive complaining practiced by many Americans (including myself) may be seriously contributing to our lack of contentment and emotional stability.

In Calm My Anxious Heart Linda Dillow cites an African missionary’s prescription for contentment. The very first point was, “Never allow yourself to complain about anything–not even the weather.” (And this from a woman who lived in a place where the temperature could surpass 120 degrees).

That’s amazing! If a woman living in the African bush can be content and live without complaint, why can’t we, the most comfortable people in the world, be less whiny? We can if we want to be. The secret to contentment is gratitude, and to become more grateful I think we need to repent of our whiny, unthankful attitudes.

I complain about nearly everything, but I don’t like how I sound. I so wish I could stop complaining, but that will have to be a work of the Holy Spirit. There’s no way I can change this on my own. I realize this goal could become legalistic, but when approached with an attitude of gratitude, is seems quite useful. As I said, I give myself (and everyone else) a free card to keep complaining about going to the dentist, but I’d like to be more grateful for the provisions and opportunities God’s given me. And I’d like to be more forbearing in difficult, uncomfortable, or inconvenient circumstances.

Expressing gratitude is just one more way we can stand against the world system and its culture of complaint. And in light of eternity it makes a lot of sense.

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

After a rather ungrateful day yesterday, I thought I’d look back to my notes on Keith and Greg’s Labor Day East Harbor teaching. The following is adapted from their teaching, and it helps me get re-oriented when I get ungrateful.

If you’re like most people, you’ve settled into a life of tolerable misery. Joy seems unattainable, as far out of reach as the stars. You know that Christians should “rejoice in the Lord,” but you blame your temperament, your circumstances, or your relationships for your inability to experience joy. Life sucks, you reason, so pursuing a joyful life is futile. Depression or distraction is much easier.

If this is you, consider the possibility that deep-seated ingratitude, not your personality or situation, is what stands between you and a joyful Christian life. The enlightenment of gratitude can transform your relationship with God and other people. Your faith can grow, your character can change, and your relationships can be revolutionized if you are willing to cultivate a grateful heart.

Learning Real Faith
Gratitude is an important part of our faith. Colossians 2:7 says we should walk in Christ, “having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” We will become more grateful as we experience and acknowledge God’s goodness in our lives. Such gratitude will fertilize our faith as we learn to trust God more.

Tapping into the Power of God
As our faith increases, so will God’s power in our lives: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14). The growth cycle of faith and gratitude should spur us to express thankfulness to God for the victory He gives us. This is an important way of glorifying His power, not our own.

Practicing Stewardship
Showing gratitude is also a way of practicing stewardship. When we thank God, we acknowledge that all we have is His, which in turn motivates us to use these provisions for Him. In Colossians 3:15-17 the thankful attitude of stewardship is the refrain: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual sons, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” The words be thankful literally mean “show yourselves thankful.” A mature steward will not only feel thankful, but will also express thankfulness to God and others.

Attracting Others to Christ
Such a grateful attitude attracts others to Christ, which is why Paul tells the Colossians to pray “with an attitude of thanksgiving” before telling them to “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col. 4:2, 6). A thankful prayer life will empower us to draw others to God as His grace permeates our lives. When people see that we are thankful to God, from whom all good gifts come, they will want to know more about Him.

Experiencing the New Creature in Christ
Only as we learn to be grateful can we fully experience being a new creature in Christ. If we truly appreciate what God has done in freeing us from the power of sin and giving us a new life in Him, then we can present our whole selves to God to be used by Him (Romans 6:9, 11, 13). Presenting our bodies “a living and holy sacrifice” is the only logical response when we are grateful for our new freedom. We are guilty of a crime that requires the death penalty, but have been acquitted by a merciful Judge. Certainly gratitude and devotion are only natural reactions in this case.

A life of gratitude is a completely different existence than the ungrateful rebellion we are born into. It is characterized by qualities that are impossible to achieve or imitate without a grateful heart. When we realize that we deserve nothing, yet have been given much, an indescribable joy infuses our experiences. Suddenly, we look around and see that all that we have has been given to us, and we start to appreciate the provisions, abilities, and people we so often take for granted. Certainly this is cause to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Php. 4:4). Finally, we can stop worrying and whining and instead “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Php. 4:6).

When we are grateful for everything God gives us, we develop a deep-seated contentment that no experience of temporary pleasures can bring. Paul says that he “learned to be content in whatever circumstances” (Php. 4:12) precisely because he could “rejoice in the Lord always,” no matter the situation. He saw God’s hand at work in the midst of shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonment, and continually found cause to give thanks. Too often we adopt the American attitude instead of the biblical view, wishing our car was faster, our home bigger, our clothes nicer, and our technology newer. Our never-ending wish list will only be complete when we choose to be thankful and content for all that we have been blessed with.

Able to Freely Love and Serve
It’s only at this point of contentment that it’s possible for us to freely love and serve others. Once we are no longer consumed with our own desires, we can begin to sacrificially love. Paul urges that “entreaties and prayer, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men” (1 Tim. 2:1). One of our first steps in loving others is to pray for them, giving thanks for their role in our lives, for the opportunity to serve them, for the vision God has for them…the list could go on and on because there is so much to be thankful for! And our prayers for others should not be restricted to a close-knit circle of friends. Rather, our prayers should extend to “all men,” even those in other countries.

Christ reminds us in Matthew 10:8 that “freely you received; freely give.” God’s love and grace come at no cost to us, so there’s no good reason not to share these riches with others. One good way to “freely give” is to “consider how to stimulate one another on to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:25). Let your friends know how much you admire their willingness to serve God, or their courage in taking a new step of faith. Such encouragement is edifying, motivating, and much-needed.

Gratitude gives us hope in the midst of sufferings, as we look forward to the perfect eternity God promises. When we realize that we deserve hell but have access to heaven instead, it makes sense to “greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). It is crucial that we learn to rejoice even in trials, so that we are ready “to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Expressing our gratitude for eternal life should begin here on earth, and it is this hope that allows us to rejoice always.

Even as the world threatens to destroy us, “we exult in hope of the glory of God … and we also exult in our tribulations,” because we know that God can use our situation to develop perseverance, proven character, and hope (Romans 5:2-4). Growing gratitude results in direction: we know God is transforming us in this life and will perfect us in the life to come. We have much to be grateful for in the Holy Spirit, who does this work within us and guides us in the truth (Romans 5:5, John 16:13).

As God completes his good work in us, we experience the victorious life of freedom from sin and a new ability to love: “thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin you became obedient from the heart…and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17,18). As humans, we are not capable of independent self-rule. By default, we are slaves to sin, but when we choose to come under God’s leadership instead, we are suddenly free to live a life of love. There couldn’t be a better cause to rejoice!

Answered Prayers
Gratitude can transform our prayer life as well. The old shopping-list approach to God can be replaced with a vibrant, pervasive gratitude that seeks to know more of God’s goodness while always giving thanks. The Bible says to “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2), and as we relate to God with this new attitude, we will begin to see life through God’s eyes. And as we pray according to His will, we will see more of our prayers answered.

Giving to God
Finally, only gratitude will enable us to give to God as we should. While He doesn’t need anything from us, He certainly deserves our praise. “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15). Our praise is a sign that we know who He is and what He has done. So “praise the name of God with song and magnify Him with thanksgiving, and it will please the Lord better than an ox or a young bull with horns and hoofs” (Psalm 69:30, 31). God is more pleased with our thanksgiving than with token sacrifices or acts of duty. He made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross because He wants us—heart, mind, soul, and strength. And when we cultivate a grateful heart, we can know Him in the way He intended, both honoring Him and giving Him thanks.