We all have days where the circumstances of life are overwhelming: things don’t happen they way we think they should or the way we want. In those moments, complaining comes naturally. Our hearts are sometimes quick to express our irritation and pronounce judgments of “right” or “wrong” against whatever or whomever it may be. But is it okay to complain? Is it a sin?
The Bible has much to say about God’s sovereignty in every area of life. He is in complete control of our lives. He created us for a very specific purpose: to glorify Him in all circumstances.
Complaining is the antithesis of glorifying God in every situation. Through various examples and direct teaching, the Bible calls believers to do all things without complaining (Philippians 2:14).
Instead, believers are called to rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). As difficult as it may be to put the sin of complaining to death, the Holy Spirit empowers those who are in Christ to walk in holiness (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
This is the first occurance in the Exodus-Numbers account of the people complaining against Moses. Although they had just passed through the sea on dry ground and watched the Egyptians destroyed as they tried to cross, the foremost display of God’s power on their behalf (see Exodus 14:29-31), they quickly distrusted the power of God to sustain them.
In these verses, Paul is speaking to the idea of complaining in secret. Specifically in 1 Corinthians, Paul has in mind the people of Isreal’s murmuring or grumbling in the wilderness after being delivered from Egypt.
The brother of the Lord, James, reminds his readers not to complain (stenazō) against each other. His mention of “the judge” should remind believers that complaining is contrary to the will of God.
The word here translated as “grudging” (gongysmos) speaks to the idea of grumbling as one might find between two people in a secretive discussion, a private complaint.
- Adam (Genesis 3:12). After he had disobeyed God’s command and was given a chance to confess his sin, Adam quickly shifted the blame and complained against the good gift that God had given him: Eve.
- Moses (Numbers 11:11-15). In these verses, Moses complains to the Lord about the burden of the people of Israel. Moses complains that they (Israel) are too stubborn to accomplish God’s purposes in and through them. God graciously responds to Moses by empowering the elders of Israel to help bear the burden (Numbers 11:16-18).
- Israel (Numbers 16:1-15). The congregation of the people of Israel complain against Moses and Aaron, and ultimately the Lord, in the wilderness. After leaving Egypt for a deserted place, the people begin to relish the memories of having meat to eat in Egypt. While their complaints are seen negatively, God graciously responds to them by giving them meat and bread to eat.
- Job (Job 7:11). After experiencing the depths of suffering—losing his children, his livestock, his health, the respect of his friends and wife—Job complains that life itself is worthless and without hope. He moves to justify his complaints to his hearers, saying he would find more comfort in “strangling” and “death” (7:15) than in living any longer. It is clear from verse 20, where Job directs his speech to the “preserver of men,” that he is speaking to God. At the end of the book (chapters 38:1-42:2) the Lord answers Job and Job repents of speaking of the Lord without knowledge. Yet again, however, the Lord dealt graciously with Job, and “blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning” (42:12).
In Numbers 11, the people of Israel complain and God responds. After seeing his works—being delivered through the Sea, the sights and sounds of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, his provision of meat and bread from heaven—the people continued to complain against God’s goodness to watch over his treasured possession.
The people of Israel, as recounted in the stories across the biblical books of Exodus and Numbers, are the epitome of grumbling in the Old Testament. In fact, the Hebrew words for “grumble” and “complain” occur more often in Exodus and Numbers than in all of the other books of the Bible combined. Such “grumbling” is used to talk about the people’s grumbling against Moses and/or Aaron (Numbers 16:41), grumbling against the leaders of Israel more generally (Joshua 9:18), and even grumbling against God himself (Exodus 16:7-8).
It is clear in Scripture that complaining about others is not of God and thus sinful. There are times in the Old Testament when God’s judgment is carried out against those who complain. The underlying reason often stems from the fact that complaining is often viewed as displeasure with God himself.
Miriam and Aaron’s complaint against Moses, though targeted at his Ethiopian wife, was ultimately displeased with God’s choice of Moses, revealing their own prideful hearts. Numbers 12:10 reveals God’s judgment, as Miriam had become leprous.
In the book of Proverbs, complaining is linked with the foolishness of consuming too much wine (Proverbs 23:29).
And yet there is grace for those who complain. The gospel corrects our discontent hearts (Matthew 20:20-28), teaching us to forgive those who complain against us (Colossians 3:13).
Many places in the Bible refer to God as a Father, as one who wants to hear our concerns, who wants us to share our fears and hopes and dislikes with him. He is a loving God and wants to comfort us in our complaints.
The Psalms themselves are full of individual and corporate laments, wherein the authors pour out their hearts to God, grieve injustice and sinful practices, and ultimately place the good, the bad, and the ulgy in God’s hands to do what only he can do.
The Psalms of lament show us that it is good and right to call out to God, to lay our deepest hurts and fears and struggles at his feet, and we can do so even when we are angry or emotional wrecks. God can handle our complaints.
There should be a distinguishing point between complaining and sharing our concerns with God and actually complaining about God. When we bring our complaints to God, we hold out our complaints in faith, trusting that he alone is able to meet us in our present situation and bring about his good and perfect will. When we complain about God, we are denying the good works that God has done. Such a sinful disposition is as dangerous to our own hearts and consciences as it is a poor witness to others. Instead of negativity and ingratitude, we are to be filled with the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
Complaining is like rust to relationships: it eats away at the good and leaves things weaker than they were before. Ultimately, complaining is often related to a lack of trust in the God who is working all things for his glory and our good.
In the Bible, we can see various dangers associated with complaining:
- leads to destruction (1 Corinthians 10:10)
- is a result of forgetting God’s goodness (Numbers 14:2)
- leads to bitterness (Job 7)
- hinders spiritual growth (Galatians 5:18-24)
- is a poor testimony to unbelievers (Matthew 5:16)