To complain is to express dissatisfaction about something. To grumble is to complain with a bad attitude. We most often think of complaining as whining or grumbling. It goes beyond mere expression of a less than satisfactory situation to include a certain attitude about it—perhaps entitled or judgmental. It also usually implies showing discontent with no recognition of personal responsibility in the situation nor effort to change the situation or one's attitude about it. Expressing dissatisfaction is not always wrong. But dissatisfaction with our circumstances that presents itself as complaining undermines the peace, joy, patience, and other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) we may experience, and it can harm the witness that Christians present to others.
At the worst, when we complain we are essentially saying that we don't like what God is doing or allowing in our lives and that we don't trust His sovereignty. Often, when we complain we are focused on the wrong things (James 4:1–3).
Complaining has a long history, starting with Adam. When confronted with his disobedience, Adam complained to God that He was at fault for making Eve and that Eve was at fault for giving him the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:12). Moses complained at the burning bush (Exodus 3—4) and more than once about the grumbling and idolatry of the Israelites (Exodus 17:4; 32:31–32).
Psalms is said to reveal every human emotion, and complaining is not left out (Psalm 2:1; 12:1–2; 22:1). However, as stated above, it is possible to complain without sinning: Job did it (Job 1:22; 2:10). It is not wrong to express dissatisfaction with a fallen world and a yearning for God's redemption. But it is wrong to do so with a disrespectful attitude toward God or a focus solely on selfish gain and comfort. It is not wrong to ask God questions, but it is wrong to question God's motives as if we were His judge.
Rather than grumble about our hardships, we can imitate the attitude of Paul. We can stand secure in our justification before God through Christ, at peace with Him and knowing we have access to Him by faith (Romans 5:1–2). We stand firmly in His grace and rejoice in hope (Romans 5:2). "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3–5; cf. James 1:2–4). Rather than complain, we trust that God is at work and rely on Him for our joy and to give us endurance to press forward (Romans 8).
Often we are more likely to complain about small matters than about true suffering. But such complaints are unbecoming for children of God. Paul writes to the Philippian church to guard its witness by not complaining: "Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:14–15).
Our complaints, at best, should enter into our prayer life so we can ask God about how He wants us to handle situations and to do something in our lives, even with our circumstances, that will bring glory to Him (James 1:5; Romans 8:28–29). We should also seek God's forgiveness when mistrust or selfishness or pride are the true source of our complaints (1 John 1:9).
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