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We expect Christians to be optimistic and joyful, and with good reason: God is sovereign and loves us with a steadfast love. Therefore we must be blessed, we expect to be blessed, we say that we are blessed, and in fact we are blessed.
We confess this in Sunday worship and in daily life. Often, perhaps usually, we are not merely trying to buck ourselves up. We really mean it. Of course we are also called to encourage others and ourselves as we walk with God, to be singing spiritual songs, and so on. And to say people need encouragement is to admit that life is not simply a bowl of cherries.
In fact the Bible is not shy about presenting life’s struggles to maintain either spiritual or worldly well-being. The Psalms are notoriously blunt about this. They in particular complain of our being forsaken by God, beset by enemies, and afflicted by life in general. I think we have trouble with that because we are afraid of being called complainers. We fear that complaining shows a lack of faith. Complaining is for shirkers. It shows weakness and undermines our work by demoralizing us all and diminishing our productivity. So good team workers mustn’t complain.
In reviewing these thoughts with a couple of friends, I remarked that in spite of this reasoning, the Bible seems nowhere to condemn complaining categorically. Complaining seems more like anger, which is fitting at the right time, in the right place, with the right person. (In contrast adultery is categorically wrong; it never occurs at the right time, in the right place, with the right person.)
Sometimes complaining can be good. A plaintiff may complain to a judge about an injustice she has suffered, and a shopper may return defective merchandise. These are legally and socially recognized contexts for addressing these problems. Spouses and close friends similarly create contexts for sharing their troubles, letting their hair down after work, and so on.
So why does complaining in general get such a bad rap? Why does “complainer” carry such a sting? Partly, no doubt, we are tempted to over-generalize from contexts in which complaining is out bounds, spoken at the wrong time, to the wrong person, etc., and some complaints are just in themselves unreasonable.
But I suspect that’s not the whole story. In my forty-plus years in Iowa I have come to see how complaining strikes lots of practical, hard-working people as a waste of time at best; perhaps worse. It seems futile and undignified, and therefore mindless. Complaining seems to be an implicit confession of defeat, one brutishly burped out of us like a groan or a sigh.
And there we have it. We are weak, and we are not in control. It is easy to despise weakness. The good life would consist in having it all together, a sort of “perfection”, which the ancient Greeks mostly thought of as god-like. Such a life is not expected to be without mishap or misfortune. But when external circumstances knock us flat, (even the gods cannot control everything), we believe that at least we should control our inner selves. We must respond nobly, leaping to our feet like a gazelle, biting our lip like a grim plugger. Admiration for such inner toughness at least is a widely prized legacy from ancient stoicism and beyond.
Who could fault such nobility of character? Like the well-schooled stoic he was, St. Augustine himself thought it weak and ignoble to weep and grieve over earthly losses, as if our true happiness could depend on worldly circumstances and transient things…until his mother died. In his Confessions he recalls weeping and grieving immoderately for his mother, gaining some little composure and perspective, and then rebuking himself for having so clung to mortal flesh.
Given Augustine’s famous otherworldliness, we might expect the self-rebuke over grieving to be his last word on the subject, but it isn’t. Nor does he simply forgive himself because we are told to weep with those who weep, nor because grief is not after all “unforgiveable.”
God made us for relationships. If on the death of one’s mother perhaps a good stoic will not weep, but a good person will. Over-attachment to earthly things may be idolatry, but our emotions need time to process life’s losses.