Who speaks for us?
With everything going on around the world, I nearly forgot that this week marks the beginning of Lent. The 40-day-period, named after an old English word meaning ‘lengthen’, is an opportunity to reflect on the cross and resurrection as we approach Easter. Christians have traditionally used this time to either give or take something up, and as I pondered what to do this year, I was drawn to a previous Lenten fast.
I have an unhealthy penchant for chocolate, coffee and pretty much any other food that is bad for you. So, like many, I have often fasted sweet treats in an attempt to spend more time feasting on God’s Word. However, a few Lents ago, I opted to abstain from something which, at the time, seemed like an easier option: being negative. No complaining, no speaking badly of anyone or anything, no negativity in any form.
I failed on the first day. And the second. And the third. And probably every other day after that. Consciously monitoring and modifying my speech revealed just how engrained negativity was in my thoughts, language and actions. It also exposed the ease with which it often became my default position.
I’m well aware there is plenty to complain about right now, both globally and on a personal level. The number of people experiencing mental health struggles is tragically, but unsurprisingly, through the roof and I am not in any way delegitimising the genuine pain many of us have encountered.
Life is really tough and there is a biblical precedence for lament. In the psalms alone we see a plethora of brutally honest exclamations and anguished cries. But there are many times, certainly in my life, when I complain unnecessarily and whinge about things in a way that is unhelpful – both to myself and those around me.
Complaining can be cathartic and even liberating at times, but here are four reasons why it’s actually incredibly bad for us:
Complaining Damages Us Physically
According to research from Stanford University, even half an hour of regular complaining can physically damage a person’s brain. Negativity peels back neurons in the area of our brain (the hippocampus) that deals with problem solving, emotion, memory and knowledge (cognitive function).
When we complain, we are likely to become more aggravated which, in turn, leads to a release of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone floods our bloodstream each time we complain – rather than a good old rant making us feel better, it actually results in further frustration.
Even with my many failings, I felt much better at the end of my 40 day Lenten fast. Situations weren’t as stressful, people annoyed me far less and joyful anticipation replaced dread ahead of some future scenarios.
“You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” Philippians 4:8, The Message
Complaining Distorts Our Thinking
Complaining often leads to seeing the worst in a particular situation or person. It’s very hard to then shift that perception or remove unhelpful preconceptions. Complaining makes things look worse than they actually are because our negativity blinds our rational thought.
There was a song called ‘Heaven’s Eyes’ in the 1998 DreamWorks Pictures film The Prince Of Egypt, which was about looking at situations and people through God’s eyes rather than our own. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but we’d do well to apply heavenly eyes to the situations where often our preconditioned response is to whine. Let’s not forget that the person who is doing our head in is infinitely precious to God – their name is written on the palm of his hands (Isaiah 49:16).
Giving up being negative for Lent forced me to either shut my mouth or find the positive in situations and individuals. I am a musician and before this seemingly-never-ending lockdown put an end to any semblance of fun, I used to regularly play and watch lots of gigs. At one point during my 40 day Lenten fast, I frequented a number of open mic nights, all of which seemed to feature some pretty terrible musical performances! Those evenings certainly pushed my patience to the limit, but even there I managed to find good things to say.
I would now give my right arm (or left arm, or any part of my body quite frankly) to be in an actual pub with actual people and actual live music – no matter how disastrously out of tune. I clearly had no idea how good I had it back then!
Complaining Becomes A Habit
Due partly to the physical damage in the brain, it is very easy for complaining to become a habit. The more we complain, the easier it becomes to complain again and, before we know it, we are champion moaners.
It is hard to break a habit, but it is possible – my Lenten fast, while horribly flawed, certainly helped me on my journey. The more we actively stop ourselves from moaning and being negative, the more we will hopefully actively build good habits, seeing the best in people and finding glimpses of hope in the darkness.
Maybe I moan more than the average person, but trying to actively curb complaining made me realise how often I automatically slipped in to it. I noticed that silence was often filled by me whining about the weather (I am a Brit after all), a physical ailment or an impending situation.
Things began to (very slowly) change when I stopped looking inwards and started looking upwards. One thing that particularly helped was to write down five things I was thankful for at the end of each day. I carried this on post-Lent and now often find it difficult to stick to just five, even in the midst of a really difficult day. As the oft-repeated refrain in Psalm 118 – which doesn’t shy away from the difficulties we may encounter – reminds us:
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”
Complaining Is Unhelpful For Those Around Us
When we complain, it doesn’t just affect us; we’re also bringing those around us down, pulling them into our despair. We have the opportunity to help others look through heavenly eyes, to point people away from our complaints to the God who makes beauty out of ugly things.
If we break something in the West (which happens a lot in my house, because I’m super clumsy – maybe it’s the perpetual sugar high!), we tend to either throw it away and consider it useless or we fix it with glue and try to cover up the cracks. In Japan, they sometimes mix gold powder with the glue, which makes a feature of the cracks. The brokenness becomes beautiful.
This Japanese art of mending broken pottery is called ‘kintsugi’, which means ‘golden joinery’. And I think this is what God does. He restores, redeems and makes beautiful even the most bleak, ugly and flawed situations and people.
Although we may desperately want to moan, our positive comments can be vehicles of grace, helping reveal the infinite love and mercy that God has shown to us. As Pope Francis says in his book ‘The Church Of Mercy’:
“God’s love for us is so great, so deep; it is an unfailing love, one which always takes us by the hand and supports us, lifts us up and leads us on.”
In the midst of our darkest times, we can be utterly assured of God’s love and comfort. If we want other people to also discover the unshakable hope of the gospel, let’s try and stop our complaining getting in the way of them doing this.
I genuinely felt like a new person at the end of my attempted complaint-free Lenten fast. Of course, I still constantly slip into moaning and negativity, but what if we all made a conscious effort to start looking with heavenly eyes a bit more? To do a bit less complaining? Maybe, just maybe, life might look a little bit better for you and for those around you. That’s why I’m going to give it another go this Lent.
Who’s with me?
Do everything without complaining and arguing…Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night…” Philippians 2:14-15 (NLT and The Message)
Ruth Jackson is a producer and youth specialist for Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? radio programme and podcast
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.