I am, by nature, a critical person.
Ask my mother. As a child, I once chided her for singing out of tune in church: an uncalled-for correction that I look back on now and cringe. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that there were appropriate times, places, and subjects for critique, and that this was not one of them.
Fortunately for me, critique is built into my profession: I’m a scholar. I critique the work of others; I critique my own work. So when I say I am a critical person, I mean that I am a person who scrutinizes subjects for their merits and their faults. I am accustomed to observing something closing and measuring it out. I analyze. I consider. I offer observations.
But critique can fly off the rails quickly. As a child, I didn’t know that criticism ought to be deployed with care and consideration, at the right time and to the right audience. And as an adult, I’ve learned that my tendency to critique can transform very quickly into a tendency to snark, to fault-find, to mock.
And to complain.
It didn’t occur to me how much of a complainer I am until this past Sunday’s sermon, when my pastor – after the hymns and prayers, just when I had settled into the sermon – asked us all to move seats. I rolled my eyes at my husband and, with more than half the congregation, huffed and sighed and hauled all my worldly goods over to the opposite side of the sanctuary.
Probably some silly ‘experiment’, I thought wearily. I’m so tired of gimmicks. Can we not just have an ordinary service? Is the Word of God not good enough today? Or is this the new thing in church now: we can’t have a service without some interactive component?
“If you’re irritated at having to move,” my pastor announced, “then you have good company in the Israelites. Today, we’re talking about complaining…”
Fault-finding. Nitpicking. Irritation. Dissatisfaction. For complainers, nothing is satisfactory, and everything can always be improved. The room is too cold. The pastor’s too dull. The book is too dry. The drive is too long.
We complain more than we realize. We do it when we’re unhappy, for sure, but we also do it to bond with others: over how long a line is, how horrible a supervisor is, how much we don’t want to be where we are. We do it when we’re tired. We do it out of habit.
And, as my pastor pointed out, when we complain, it frames our perspective. When we focus on what makes us unhappy or what we don’t like, that’s what we think about. We shutter the ways in which God might be working. We sour. We idealize a past that never was as good as we pretend it was to critique a future we won’t permit to come to fruition.
At church, we made a one-week commitment not to complain. It’s been difficult for me. Today, coming home, traffic was a bear. I caught every light leaving the city, and various jams added fifteen minutes onto my commute. It was raining. Stopped in traffic coming home, I shifted uncomfortably, complaint hovering on my tongue, and tried to figure out how to reframe it. It’s raining now, I thought, but it’s so much worse when it rains on the morning commute – I’m glad it didn’t today. And I was. A small moment of gratitude in the car, unexpected, when I tried to see where not complaining got me.
It’s not that our souls can never cry out in discomfort, irritation, confusion, or hurt. We’re welcome to pour everything out to God. But so much of what we express to others or to ourselves comes from an unthinking spirit of relentless criticism and dissatisfaction, an entitlement that never seems to know quite what it wants. When we pause in our complaining and think about how we might reframe a situation, more often than not the Spirit of God is revealed. We can reconsider our own circumstances, adjust our orientation properly, and then carry ahead with a better perspective.
Go ahead: try it. One week without complaining. I’ve only made it one day and, God knows, I may not manage the rest, but I’m trying. And it’s already made a difference in my attitude.