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Complaining? It’s a question of Providence.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 04, 2017

When we are children we tend to complain incessantly. We are bored or hungry or don’t like how we’re being treated. Often we are so focused on some desire (such as “electronics time”, not that this was a problem when I was a kid) that we cannot even consider doing anything else. We hurt and crave comfort. We deliberately annoy our siblings, which in some ways is just another way of complaining.

In exasperation, our parents gradually begin to punish us for complaining, very commonly under the heading of “whining”. Finally, with respect to the little boredoms we find so intolerable as kids, we start to hear the refrain that “only boring people are bored.” Sad but true. And it is even more true that only spiritually underdeveloped people are bored.

St. Paul famously claimed: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). Well, maybe he did. But there was certainly a part of his adult life when he complained vehemently about Christians. Presumably St. Paul understood adulthood not in a purely natural way but as a kind of spiritual revolution: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12).

Complaining can take several forms in adults. A telling example is irritability, which is little more than another way to complain . No matter how we put it, the question for us is: Have we undergone that spiritual revolution?

Back to the Old Testament

Fortunately, we have a highly-developed context in Scripture for considering this problem of childish complaining, which we are nearly all so slow to outgrow. The history of God’s relationship with His chosen people in the Old Testament is one long story of murmuring against the LORD. From the Exodus to the time of Christ, the Jews complain again and again about the plans God has made for them in taking them to be His own. In fact, early in their history the Jewish people had already raised the basic task of complaining to something of an art form through their perfection of the rhetorical question.

Among more mature souls, the dangers of the rhetorical question could be overcome by pushing it a healthy step further, over a kind of emotional precipice, making it a staple of classic Jewish humor. But that takes spiritual maturity, which was so often lacking: “Why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink” (Num 20:5), Or, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (Num 21:5).

There are dozens of such expressions, but here is my favorite: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Ex 14:11) The Chosen People were coming close to the classic humor there, but without having tumbled over that critical edge I spoke of, which is really the precipice of trust. It is from that precipice that we fall into the Father’s arms, bubbling over with laughter. In the reality, though, Moses did not find their complaining funny. He himself claimed that this people was too much to bear, and God was none too pleased.

It is just here that we begin to discern a great lesson. Moses and Aaron put it to the people this way:

For what are we, that you murmur against us? ...When the LORD gives you in the evening flesh to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the LORD has heard your murmurings which you murmur against him—what are we? Your murmurings are not against us but against the LORD. [Ex 16:7-8]

Against the LORD

Make no mistake, our own murmurings are against God too. What it means to complain, at its deepest root, is to murmur against the God Who has chosen us as His own, as if the dispositions He has made for us are somehow not only inadequate but grossly inadequate. So often we forget that God’s beneficent Providence encompasses all, and that whatever occurs, no matter how difficult for us to take in stride, is for our good. Indeed, it is ordained to draw us into closer union with God, to place all our trust in Him: To fall over that precipice into Daddy’s arms, and—in the spirit at least—to laugh.

The New Testament goes even further than the Old. It contains a treatise against complaining. We find it in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which I will quote at some length:

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness…. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose…. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? ...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Rom 8:24-39]

Just in case we do not trust Providence sufficiently (and, to ask the obvious rhetorical question, who does?), Our Lord and Savior also tried to make the matter clear: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Lk 12:6-7). This is so true that we are to do the exact opposite of complaining, even in prayer: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:9-10). Only then may we turn to our own needs.

What we realize only very seldom is that our petty complaints from day to day are all murmurings against Divine Providence, that is, against God. Somehow, He has not arranged things to our liking. Were there no hard beds at home that we had to come to this hotel for a sleepless night? Was there no bad job in my own neighborhood, that I had go all the way downtown to be fired? Was there no doctor with children, that my own child had to get sick? Were there no really annoying people in the store, that the sales person had to be rude to me? Were there no over-proud Dallas Cowboy fans at the football game, that the Washington Redskins had to lose?

Subtract the humor in the last example, and it goes on and on and on. It is all murmuring against God, and against a Love we cannot always appreciate. This recognition is not an instant cure. In my own case, more is needed, and I am sure that we all have new habits to form. But this recognition makes an extraordinarily good start. It gives us what we need to take the next step, the step over the edge. It enables us to pass from discomfort to humor and so on to trust. And though this trust is not the same as a purely natural happiness, it is still a breathless freefall of uncomplaining spiritual joy. Our Father’s arms are open wide, and Daddy does not miss.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Aug. 07, 2017 1:18 PM ET USA

    Also guilty as charged! Had I lived in the time of Moses, I definitely would have been among the whiners wanting to return to Egypt.

  • Posted by: winnie - Aug. 05, 2017 10:11 AM ET USA

    Guilty as charged! Thanks for helping me examine my conscience,