Is it selfish to complain? Only if it’s also selfish to be happy

December 15, 2014
My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory, over Clemson.

My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory over Clemson.

I’m almost embarrassed to say how happy I was a couple of weeks ago when my beloved alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology, defeated its in-state SEC rival to win the Governor’s Cup. I say I’m almost embarrassed because of course it’s unwise to let a group of 18-22 year-olds affect my happiness to such a great extent. So the voice of reason within said, “Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.” And we have done it before, although our current losing streak had been five years.

Still, the next day at church I disappointed a few Tech fans who wanted me to gloat. But it’s not my style. Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.

Happiness from sports is a zero-sum game. One team’s happiness from winning always comes at the expense of the other team’s misery from losing. Since we Tech fans, unfortunately, are much smaller in number than University of Georgia fans, our team’s victory in this game inflicts a disproportionate amount of pain on our state. Not that I mind!

Predictably, this pain was reflected in my Facebook feed that afternoon. One clergy acquaintance posted that he was tempted to complain about so many things regarding his team’s performance and the coaching decisions but decided not to—which is probably for the best. But I gently disagreed with the reason he gave for not complaining: all the “real” suffering in the world, from ISIS’s campaign of terror against Christians to parents in his church who are grieving the death of a child.

I replied, “Yes, but by that standard what right do any of us ever have to complain about anything?” Football is trivial relative to the scale of suffering in the world—as are most things that occupy our time and give meaning to our lives. Yet, my clergy friend and I both spend money on our respective teams’ games and merchandise. Why do we do that when that same money could go to help relieve suffering in the world? Why do we even spend time watching football games when we could more productively spend that time working for justice in the world?

Do you see the problem with my friend’s logic?

If we can’t complain about “little things”—for the sake of what other people are dealing with—then we can’t complain, period. Because no matter what we’re going through on a particular day, there are always at least tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are going through something much worse.

Moreover, if we can’t complain about little things then, by all means, we can’t let ourselves be happy with little things, either! For example, how can we be happy with presents that we receive on Christmas Day when so many people around the world have nothing, or next to it? How is our happiness not selfish? How can any of us be happy until God finally balances the scales of justice in Final Judgment?

Obviously this is not a Christian disposition. For one thing, God’s Word is filled with righteous complaining and complainers. God seems O.K. with that, even as he also tells us repeatedly and emphatically to rejoice in all circumstances—no matter how favorable or unfavorable, how significant or insignificant.

God gives us gifts—even like football, which I’ve blogged and preached about before—and he wants us to enjoy them.

3 Responses to “Is it selfish to complain? Only if it’s also selfish to be happy”

  1. Good perspective, Brent. I agree with you. On the other hand, the Bible is full of injunctions against grumbling and complaining (see Exodus, for example). Refraining from complaining doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy or rejoice over things. I think a better reason to refrain from complaining is that God is in control, and that we know how the story turns out. It’s not that we’re comparing our circumstances to others’, but that in the end, God wins!

    For the complaining that is affirmed in the Bible, it is the “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and God’s kingdom and promises that give rise to the complaining. It is a more outwardly focused and eschatalogical complaining.

    Of course, individual complaining about our own circumstances is part of the lamentations tradition. It is coming to grips with the fallenness of our world and of ourselves. It is the acceptance of our own pain and disappointment, verbalizing it to God as an expression of the relationship we have with him. (Similar to how we share with our spouse our inmost thoughts, frustrations, and griefs.)

    So I agree with your point about your friend’s logic being off-base. There are other reasons, however, to advocate against complaining, while still making room for personal expressions of pain. I enjoy reading your blogs!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Tom!

      Yes! Exactly. My problem is refraining from complaining BECAUSE it’s selfish—because, after all, you have it so much better than others.

      • brentwhite Says:

        It also occurs to me that our reason for not complaining is rooted in an understanding of God’s sovereignty to which too many Methodists are allergic. As if believing that God is in charge and has things under control means we’re Calvinists all of a sudden!

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