As the electricity snapped off sometime in the middle of the night, my husband and I groaned as the fan’s blades slowed to a stop, leaving a stuffy heat beneath our mosquito net. It was going to be hard to sleep well.
In the morning, I cooked pancakes and eggs by candlelight on our gas cooker. By 9 a.m. the lack of electricity meant the water pump at the bottom of our hill had stopped working, and now we were without water in the kitchen sink, too.
We’d lived in Uganda three years by this point, and knew power could sometimes be out for days, which turns me into a fridge Nazi: “Do not open that door!”
To top it off, the kids had forgotten to plug in the “school” laptop last night, so mine was the option for homeschool, which meant getting my own work done did not seem likely. I scrambled through phone calls before my phone battery died. The power company wasn’t picking up.
But suddenly, around noon, the bathroom light flickered on. Was this power before 6:30 p.m. (the time it usually came back on)?
What I felt when the electricity flicked on: delight. But immediately after: some legit guilt. I trudged back out to my now-celebrating children and confessed the rottenness I’d been harbouring, which I’m sure had leaked out all over them.
Was it okay for me to wish I had power for the stuff I needed to accomplish? Sure.
It’s not wrong for a mum in the desert to want water for her baby. (Hagar did it.) It’s not wrong to want food when you haven’t eaten for days. (Jesus did it.) It’s not wrong, even, to wonder how God’s going to accomplish something. (Mary, David, and a whole lot of other people did it.)
Was it okay for me to mention it? Sure, if I can do it with grace (based on the principle in Ephesians 4:29. Usually, this nixes “venting”.)
It doesn’t take living in a developing nation to squeeze complaints from my heart. It happens too when I’m living in a developed country: a broken contact lens, an appliance breaking when I needed it most, people in my small group.
Wanting—and expressing what I want—doesn’t seem to bother God. But what turns these moments into good ol’ fashioned grumbling?
Through some soul-searching, journalling, and digging into the Bible, here’s how I came to sense the difference between complaining and speaking the truth.
|Easy irritation; low threshold of frustration||Gracious humility—acknowledging our own brokenness, as well as the lost beauty and goodness|
|“I deserve…”||“I would like…”|
|Looks for fault, blame, or punishment||Honest about what’s hard so God can be honoured in that, too; honest for the purpose of reconciliation|
|Inner attitude says, “God didn’t get this right”||Inner attitude of Godward trust—“Not my will, but Yours”—believing that He cares|
|Dwells in dissatisfaction, anger, bitterness||Dwells on God’s faithfulness, timing and plan|
|Looks to circumstances for tranquillity||Looks to God for peace|
|Impulsive; destructive||Guarding our months to make sure speech builds up|
Feeling frustrated or disappointed isn’t wrong, but it’s what we do with them—do we incessantly complain about our “bad luck”, and about how “unfair” life has been to us?
One of the ways we can turn complaints on its head is by gaining a new perspective on things. Author Kristen Welch writes, “Nothing makes us more grateful than perspective. I think it’s the key to loosening the chains of entitlement in our culture.”
The image of Jonah came to my mind as I ruminated on this subject. Picture Jonah, sitting out in the baking sun, hoping to get a front-row seat at the obliteration of Nineveh. He first basks beneath the lush shade plant God provides. Then rages when the plant’s consumed by a worm: It is better for me to die than to live. A leering entitlement to grace.
When I think of God’s frustration with the grumbly Israelites in the wilderness, the issues that popped up over and over on the way to the Promised Land were unbelief and entitlement (e.g., Exodus 16:6-8, Numbers 21:5). Those don’t shout humility or a pervasive trust in God.
Maybe that’s why Paul counsels, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15).
My friend’s attitude has helped revolutionise my approach to my bad days in a way that veers away from complaining. Before he lost his wife to Lou Gehrig’s disease, he recalled a profound moment with God. He did his best to care for her as her body spiralled downward—caring for her adult body as one would an infant—but one day he simply lay on his bed, overcome by loss.
While lying on the bed, he sensed that God seemed to be pointing him toward thanks. Not able to immediately turn to gratitude, my friend started small. He thanked God for the ability to breathe; for the bed he wept on; for the air conditioning. From there, his gratitude snowballed, steering him into praise.
Gratitude doesn’t insist on positivity; it insists that God is good. It tips my chin away from my own navel, from my expectations, to look at the divine gifts: A faith that sustains me as I walk through my most profound valleys. A peace I couldn’t articulate if I tried. The unflagging, low-grade bubbling (and occasional geyser) of joy.
And the gifts keep on going, when they’re based on something other than my own near-sighted ideas of justice, good, and peace.
As my son loves to quote, Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. As we mature in Christ, graciousness stretches our patience; mercy triumphs over judgment. Greater gratitude, peace, maturity, tender-heartedness, and self-control increase the muscular tone of my rather weenie patience physique—and all these help me patiently endure power cuts in the middle of hot sticky nights, broken contact lenses, and the difficult people in my life.