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Dig Out the Root: Complaining as Bad Theology

Scripture’s stance on complaining is sobering. It comes not only through exhortations in the epistles, which are explicit enough—1 Corinthians 10 lumps complaining with idolatry, sexual immorality, and tempting God—but it also comes through the stories: Cain lashing out at Abel, Miriam struck with leprosy, Korah swallowed by the earth, the Israelites made sick on quail, a whole generation barred from the Promised Land, Naomi retreating into bitterness, Jonah rebuked by a withering vine.

Contemplating these stories, asking of each “What is the cause or motivator of the complaint?”, would be a healthy personal meditation or classroom conversation. And it would lead to a surprising insight: while the particulars differ and deserve investigation, the taproot of all these characters’ complaints seems to be a low view of God, expressed in distrust of His providences or discontent with His provision.

Miriam and Korah, blinded by self-importance, did not trust God’s providential appointment of a leader. The Israelites, steeped in the savors of Egypt, had no palate for God’s provision of manna. Naomi, reeling from loss, could not discern God’s love in His hard providences and unlikely provisions. All these characters’ murmurings are grounded in gross under-estimation of God’s love, wisdom, goodness, mercy, kindness, compassion—and, when I dig in the dirt of my own complaints, I quickly hit the same root.

This has profound implications for the ways we fight grumbling. So often, we chop off foliage rather than dig roots. We tell our children, or our students, or ourselves, to “just stop complaining”—as if it’s a mere matter of strategically shutting one’s mouth. To the contrary, Scripture’s stories reveal that the problem becomes behavioral because it is first theological. Its solution is not better discipline, but better worship.

“God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). He has knit our bodies marvelously (Ps. 139:13-14). He “disciplines the one he loves . . . that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:6, 10). He prunes every fruit-bearing branch “that it may bear more fruit” (Jn. 15:2). He “works all things for good for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28), through suffering “working a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

What if these words were the focus of private and family devotions, filling our minds and hearts? What if they shaped our first response when we spoke or heard a complaint, so that, instead of wallowing in pity, or snapping “Buck up!” “Deal with it!” “Get over it!”, we pointed our own and others’ hearts to God’s love, kindness, purpose?

We, weak creatures that we are, need to be “strengthened with power through His Spirit in our inner being” to even “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:16-19). But, if we set our hearts on this knowledge, then we shall be “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17); and in place of complaining, those roots will grow praise.

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