“Do all things without murmuring and arguing…
…and in the same way you must be glad and rejoice with me”
(Philippians 2:14, 18)
Do you want to make 2019 a better year? A lot of us do. So let’s talk about how to bring more positivity into the next 12 months…
…by addressing the opposite.
I’m taking this sideways approach because of my Methodist roots. Our denomination started with a guy named John Wesley, a church of England priest who lived in the 1700s. John Wesley was really… methodical… about how he lived out his faith (get it?). Among his methods were three simple rules: (1) do no harm; (2) do good; and (3) stay in love with God.
It’s that first rule that applies here. If we want to be more positive, then we can start by avoiding the harmful opposite: being negative. And the everyday way most of us are negative is by complaining.
Complaining is annoying, and harmful, and counter-productive, and – did I mention, annoying? And I speak as one with authority, because of my backpacking experience.
There’s something about backpacking that lends itself to complaining. I spent a few years leading 4.5 day backpacking excursions for youth, and let me tell you: 4.5 days is plenty long enough to hear a lot of complaining.
“My feet hurt.”
“How much farther?”
“I smell bad.”
“Why are there so many bugs?”
“Why are there so few toilets?”
“This water’s too cold.”
“This weather’s too hot.”
“Where is camp?”
“There’s dirt in my macaroni and cheese.”
Okay, so some complaints are legitimate. But some complaints are unnecessary, or silly, or just pale in comparison to the grand scheme of things. Like if we’re up at a beautiful view – a place like Buzzard Rock, where you can see so far you’re supposed to be able to see into 7 states. We might be up there on a sunny, bluebird day… and all I hear is “It’s too windy” or “I hate Ritz Crackers” or “I wish we were at camp.” Man, look around! How can you complain when we’re in a place like this?
But teenagers aren’t the only ones to complain in the wilderness. The people of God actually have a long, long history of that.
I mean way long – like 3,000 years long. It goes all the way back to the Exodus.
When we talk about “the Exodus” in Biblical terms, we’re talking about when God’s people, the Israelites, were set free from their slavery in Egypt and left that place a new land, a land God had promised them to have for their own. But it took them a while to get there – 40 years, as a matter of fact. 40 years wandering around in the Wilderness between Egypt and what would become Israel.
It’s a very different kind of wilderness: ours, here, is full of trees and creeks and mountains. Theirs, there, is a deserty, brown place where water and food is scarce. 40 years they meandered around in that wilderness.
If we can complain a lot in 4.5 days – how much complaining do you think they could do in that harsh wilderness over 40 years?
“This water tastes bad.”
“This food is boring.”
“We had it better when we were slaves.”
“We’re tired of our leader.”
“We want to go back.”
Those are all actual things the Israelites complained about in the wilderness – some of them, many times over. When I read their story in the Bible, I can’t help but get annoyed. Whine about this, whine about that – all while God is saving them and feeding them and leading them, and doing all this great stuff! They’re just a big bunch of babies, complaining their way from Egypt to the promised land. And there’s nothing worse than having to listen to a bunch of complainers, amIright? Other people’s complaining ruins my perfectly good time. I’d rather go without Netflix for a week than be around a complainer. I hate it!
(Do you see what I’m doing there?)
That’s right – I’m complaining about complaining.
And the scary thing is: there’s a chance we’ve all done that before. We as a culture complain a lot, so much that we don’t even know how much we’re doing it. We can even go around complaining about complaining, oblivious to how silly that is. See, it’s usually easier to see other peoples’ problems; it can be hard to see our own.
I know, because I’ve done it.
For a little while, I had a friend – let’s call her, Debbie. I really liked Debbie. We liked to read the same books and we both had 2 kids and we lived near each other – we had a lot in common. And she was really smart and funny – when we talked, I always learned something new and had fun learning it.
But man, could she complain. She was like a gold-medal-winning, five-star-certified complainer.
What made it especially frustrating was that she had a pretty good life: a nice home, a good job, good friends… But that stuff didn’t seem to stand out for her. When we talked, it was exhausting how much she complained. “There’s nothing good to eat. My kids are driving me crazy. My house takes too much work to keep up. My feet hurt.”
It drug me down, you know? She was a Debbie Downer. But she didn’t see that at all. She actually saw herself as a really loving, upbeat person – I know, because she told me just that a couple times.
So one day, after an especially negative visit with Debbie, I was venting to Alan about it. “She is always complaining.” And then I started talking about the rest of my day: “My schedule was too full. I never finished my to do list. I’m tired. My feet hurt.”
And all of a sudden, it dawned on me:
I’m not so different from Debbie.
I’m a complainer.
I think I’m complaining way more often than I realize.
Until that moment, I could see Debbie’s problem – but I couldn’t see mine. Once I recognized it, I knew I needed to stop.
This is what I want for all of us, as we set a more positive course for a new year: to recognize our harmful complaining and work to stop it.
We complain for a lot of reasons. Sometimes our reasons are legit – something is actually wrong, and we need to say something about it in order to fix it. But sometimes we complain just because it gives us something to talk about. “How’s the weather?” “Oh, it’s too rainy / too dry / too cold / too hot!” Other times we complain because it’s kind of fun. “Isn’t the food terrible? Let’s make fun of it together!”
But here’s what makes complaining dangerous: Whatever we talk about most will eventually define us. It takes up more and more of our brainspace. It becomes the focal point for our lives.
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my focal point to be negative stuff. I don’t want to be like the Israelites in the wilderness, where God is doing all these miracles for them and all they can think about is how they don’t like the food and water they’ve been (miraculously) given. I want to focus first on all the goodness God gives me, everyday – I want that to define and fuel and guide my life.
And honestly – if I focus on that first, I can still have plenty of space left to deal with the negative – but in a much better way.
So here’s my challenge to you, should you choose to accept it: Find a bracelet (even a rubber band will do). Put it on one wrist. Every time you complain, take it and move it to the other wrist to make yourself mindful. And then – as a bonus – pause to name something positive that you’re thankful for instead.
Become aware of your harmful complaining.
Then do no harm.
And may that practice fill your year with good.