Last year was a season of losses for me. It started in the spring when I was hospitalized 21 days for double pneumonia. The lung infection was bad enough, but the extended stay in bed left my right arm thick with lymphedema. Some of it was related to my long-ago therapy for cancer, but this was different. After my lungs cleared, I was sent home, but with a bulkier arm that was hard to lift.
Then in late summer, I developed a second respiratory infection, much worse than the first. During another lengthy hospital stay, I noticed more problems with my right arm. The doctors, however, stayed focused on the more life-threatening issue with my lungs. When the infection cleared and I was ready to go home, it was obvious my arm had suffered more damage. The already minuscule muscles I had used to feed myself were gone. Even with my hand splint, I could not lift the spoon to my mouth.
Decades ago, after suffering quadriplegia in the wake of my accident, doctors warned me that my partially paralyzed muscles would atrophy, and I knew that my “good” arm and my fragile lungs would eventually deteriorate. I just didn’t realize how hard it would be, losing the capacity to breathe well and losing my independence at mealtimes. Like I said, it was a tough year.
My flesh is wasting away, and who would blame me if I complained? Certainly not the world — it’s natural for them to expect an old lady in a wheelchair to grumble over her losses. But followers of Jesus Christ should expect more from me. Much more.
Why Do You Quarrel with God?
The Bible first addresses complaining in the book of Exodus. Things start off well enough after the Lord performs a great miracle at the Red Sea. At first, everyone’s ecstatic about walking through a sea parted on either side like glass skyscrapers. With their hearts bursting with joy, the entire fifteenth chapter is one long praise song:
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:1–2)
A few verses later, though, their song fizzles. Only 72 hours of traveling in the desert without finding water, they grumble and demand of Moses, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24).
How ironic that they should complain about water! Didn’t they recall that God had just parted a whole sea of it? Their memory was jogged when God made bitter desert water good enough for them to drink. Yet only a couple of campsites later, they put up another stink about water. This time Moses replies, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Exodus 17:2).
Moses sharply rebukes them for disputing with the God who has just wondrously rescued them out of slavery. So, “he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Exodus 17:7).
Do Not Harden Your Hearts
Nowadays, who among us would dare quarrel with God like that? Yet we do, every time we bellyache, quibble over some inequity, or whine about God’s timing or lack of provision. Even when we mutter (thinking it’s barely audible), all of our bemoaning is an assault against one Person: Jesus, the great I Am, who spilled a red sea of blood to wondrously rescue us out of slavery. When things don’t go our way and we grumble about it, we are inasmuch stamping our foot, crossing our arms, and demanding, “Lord, are you among us or not!”
Psalm 95:7–10 is a repeat of the Exodus debacle, except this time it’s not Moses speaking; it is Yahweh himself. And he has a message for us:
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. . . . They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways. (Psalm 95:8–10)
When God’s people make a habit of complaining, they’ve gone astray and abandoned God’s ways.
“If this is what Jesus endured to rescue me, I refuse to dignify any sin that impaled him to that cursed tree.”
“Wait a minute,” some might say. “Cut us some slack — we’re just letting off a little steam.” If complaining were only a slip of the tongue, I might understand — especially if that person were an immature believer. But when a Christian’s default setting is to grumble, it develops into a character trait — a complaining spirit. A rebellious spirit. Some Christians may not see themselves as stiff-necked rebels when they squawk if it rains on their picnic, but Scripture speaks of a complaining spirit far differently.
Trembling over Our Grumbling
Whenever a group of Christians tour Joni and Friends and stop by my office, I like to spend some time and explain to them the reason behind my smile in this wheelchair. After introductions and a few comments, I’ll pick out someone to reach for the Bible on my shelf and flip to the book of Jude (I have the page marked). Then I’ll ask, “Read the fifteenth verse, please.”
Adjusting her glasses, the reader will say,
Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him. (Jude 14–15)
“Who are these ungodly people?” I’ll ask. “Pedophiles? Mass murderers? Drug dealers in schoolyards?” A few will nod. I then turn to the one with the Bible and ask her to read the next verse: “These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires” (Jude 16).
I close the little lesson, explaining how we tend to think of sin on a sliding scale. We place on one side gross wickedness like barstool swearing and Satan worship, and on the other nitpicking (complaints that appear respectable). We think we are not as ungodly as those evil reprobates who take part in orgies and follow the horoscope. We’re not ungodly at all; we’re merely spewing off about things now and then.
Jude’s scathing judgment, however, proves that God does not split hairs when it comes to sin, especially the sin of complaining. So, he does what we’d consider scandalous: he places grumblers at the top of a sordid list of apostates, connivers, and loud-mouthed boasters “for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13).
It should make us tremble.
My Life Is Not My Own
After those two times in the hospital, I began rigorous home therapy for my damaged lungs. Twice a day, I must wear a tight vest that violently vibrates my chest for fifteen minutes as I inhale steroids through a nebulizer. “How long do I have to keep this up?” I asked my pulmonologist.
“Indefinitely,” he replied, “if you want to live.”
I was numb. That first week I tried to ignore the whole routine, the terrible jackhammering of the vest-machine, as well as the pungent vapors from the nebulizer. I viewed the routine as an unpleasant detour, an inconvenient interruption until I could get back on the main road of life. Ah, but this is your life, I heard the Spirit whisper.
Did I have a right to complain? Actually, I possess no real rights. I laid them all at the foot of the cross, agreeing with 1 Corinthians 6:19–20: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” The Son of God was ripped to shreds, and then hung up to drain like a bloodied piece of meat on a hook. And if this is what Jesus endured to rescue me, I refuse to dignify any sin that impaled him to that cursed tree.
I will not coddle anything that helped drive the nails deeper. I relinquished my right to complain so that I might glorify Almighty God through my hardships. Anything less shrinks my soul.
Woes of a Complaining Spirit
A complaining spirit abuses the kindness of Christ, for God “raised us up with [Christ] . . . so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6–7). God will one day raise us up to showcase the riches and kindness of his grace through us. I dare not diminish that glorious moment with a negative tongue. A grumbling spirit would only prove from heaven that I viewed his kindness as sorely lacking to me on earth.
A complaining spirit reveals a warped understanding of God’s ways with suffering. Through the years, Christ has used my quadriplegia to wrench my heart off of this world and affix it to his own. Jesus has captured my heart, totally ruining me for worldly delights (thus lessening any tendency to complain). My satisfaction is not bound to earthly things; I have been set free to pursue the joys of eternity (2 Corinthians 4:18). Complaining lessens the eternal reward my suffering might have gained. It shrinks my heavenly inheritance.
A complaining spirit weakens our confidence in God’s promises. Psalm 106:24–25 says, “Then they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in his promise. They murmured in their tents, and did not obey the voice of the Lord.” The Christian who wallows in complaining is tempted to believe that God might leave him, that God isn’t always helpful in times of trouble, or that divine grace is lacking for every need. He’s increasingly suspicious whether God’s word is always trustworthy. He feels that suffering is not worth what little eternal benefit it earns (Hebrews 13:5; Psalm 46:1; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Psalm 62:8; 2 Corinthians 4:17).
Chest-percussion therapy at home was a kick in the right direction. Without wasting another week, I decided to use that time to memorize Scripture. My husband opened the white three-ring binder containing passages I’ve either memorized or am in the process of learning by heart. He placed the binder on my bed where I could see it, and while the nebulizer hissed, and the vest rattled my chest, I memorized a batch of Scriptures. Ephesians 1 and part of chapter 2 have become an inoculation against any thought of murmuring, as has the Nicene Creed and Psalms 84, 92, and 121.
I’m sure you’d agree that suffering naturally contains the seeds of complaining. But when cultivated by the Spirit of God, suffering “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
Grumbling Is a Contagious Disease
Every morning a girlfriend or two arrives at our home to start the coffee and give me a bed bath, do toileting routines, get me dressed, and sit me up in my wheelchair. Sometimes I can hear them in the kitchen getting things ready, and I think, Lord, I’m in enormous pain, and I have no strength for this day, let alone for these dear helpers. I have no smile for them. But you do! So, please let me borrow your smile.
By the time they open the bedroom door with a fresh cup of coffee, my attitude has been cast for the day. I have God’s smiling grace. I am ready to serve them as they serve me. Ephesians 4:16 says we are one with other believers, and we are expected to act like it: “From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” My work in the body is to build others up, facing my problems with them in mind.
If I were to growl about my pain and paralysis, it would diminish the spiritual walk of these girls. It would sow negative seeds of discord, releasing them to complain about their own headaches and hardships. This exact thing happened in Numbers 14:36–37: “The men whom Moses sent to spy out the land . . . returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land.”
I cannot provide a better service to the people around me, including the girls who help me in the morning, than to not complain.
Will We Expect More of Us?
Whatever happened to my arm and the problem with feeding myself? Well, it never got better, but I don’t want any complaint to dare shrink my soul, dishonor my Lord, diminish my inheritance, or impact others negatively.
So, every Friday evening, my neighbor Kristen comes to our house around mealtime to cut up my food and lift it to my mouth so that I can enjoy dinner while my husband enjoys his. But to make sure I don’t allow myself a centimeter of self-pity, I’ll always take a moment to bless her hands: “Lord, shine your favor on Kristen, who is serving you tonight by serving me” (Colossians 3:23–24). The blessing probably helps me as much as it does her.
Do I sound like a saint on a pedestal? Hardly. For I should not be the exception. After all, Titus 2:7 was written for all of us: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works.” And there’s nothing good about a complaining spirit. Yes, followers of Jesus Christ should expect more from one another. Much more.