“Do everything without grumbling.” Philippians 2:14

Grumble. It’s onomatopoetic. The first two letters sound like a growl. Grrrr. Many people grumble their way through life, always growling about this or that, or this AND that. You know the kind of person I’m talking about. You might be the kind of person I’m talking about. Grumblers are everywhere.

In one of my churches many years ago was an elderly fellow I’ll call Sam. Sam had been in that church since its founding I believe. He had served it faithfully in many, many ways. But he was a grumbler. That man could pick out the gnat of a complaint and grumble about it to anyone who would listen and to a lot of people that didn’t care to listen. He was a walking incarnation of a chronic growl.

One time Sam was driving with a good friend of mine and carrying on about the general decline of the world, one of those “going to hell in a hand-basket” kind of talks. So engrossed was he in the constellation of gripes that he passed up the exit they were to take. When my friend could get in a word, he said “Mr. Sam, where are we going?” Sam, completely oblivious to the real problem at hand energetically replied “We’re going down! That’s where we’re going! We’re going down!”

Now eventually Sam turned around and got to where he was supposed to be, and I’m quite sure he’s arrived at his heavenly home where he’s supposed to be. And he could have gotten to both places without all the useless complaining along the way.

All of us can get to the place we’re supposed to be in life without grumbling, and grumbling usually keeps us or delays us from getting there. That’s why the Bible so often warns us against grumbling, complaining, and arguing.

The people of Israel grumbled when Moses was leading them out of bondage. It got on his nerves too. He called them a stiff-necked people, and in Deuteronomy Moses himself sounds a little bit cranky, no doubt due to all the grumbling he had to put up with.

The New Testament presents many warnings against grumbling. Jesus told His disciples to stop it (John 6:43). Peter and James included a prohibition against it in their letters. Perhaps most memorably, Paul, when listing various sins, noted especially the grumbling Israelites and that some of them were “destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10). All grumblers should be grateful that God has modified His methods.

Grumbling is such a way of life for many people that books have been written about it.  Robert Hughes in The Culture of Complaint was one of the first authors to address the problem. He noted our cultural tendency to fix our dissatisfaction on someone else or something else. We have a penchant for making ourselves victims. We decide that our happiness or joy is someone’s responsibility. “We have met the enemy, and it is someone else,” is our mantra. The problem could not possibly be with us. So we complain, convinced that if everyone played their role according to our expectations then we would be happy. “Just do what I want, and you won’t hear me complain.” Ugh.

We have a real uphill battle here. Grumbling is a mental habit that becomes fixed over time so that our default setting becomes complaint. Neurologists, especially those who are interested in behavior modification, have a principle that goes like this: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Every thought, every mental habit is the result of a series of synaptic responses, a mental construct. It’s literally a neuronal pathway that fires again and again in your brain.

Think of a field of tall grass. You walk across it the first time and you bend the blades in such a way that you make something of a pathway. The next time you cross that same field you’re likely to follow the same path. Eventually the grass gets worn down so that the pathway is obvious, and in fact you wouldn’t consider taking a different path because it would mean going through tall grass again.

Your brain is like that field of tall grass. Your mental habits, good and bad, are well-worn pathways through your gazillion neurons. If you’re a complainer, then you have a neural habit that will be very hard to break. The same is true if you’re a worrier, or if you struggle with fear, or resentment, etc. etc. The stakes are huge. One recent article I read noted unsurprisingly that grumbling wires your brain to be anxious and depressed.

Which brings us to the solution. Prayer and meditation also form neural pathways. A quiet time forces us to walk through the grass field in a different way. Practiced daily, even for only about 10 minutes a day, we’ll develop new ways of thinking that divert us from the well-worn path of grumbling and help us to find genuine serenity. Try it and in as little as two weeks you’ll notice a change in your outlook.

Now this is absolutely a classic case of a battle that will not stay won. It’s going to be a daily fight. Those pathways of complaint never go away. We have to engage consciously, daily, even moment by moment in the kind of spiritual practices that keep us from becoming grumblers.

THE chief spiritual antidote to grumbling is gratitude. Gratitude lists are pure spiritual gold. If you find yourself grumbling, try listing three gratitudes for every grumble. Pretty soon your complaints will diminish and you will absolutely find yourself to be more at peace with yourself and this world that just won’t cooperate with you. You’ll discover that life isn’t an endless series of problems to be solved, endured, or complained about. It’s truly amazing how much better your life will be when you unclench your fists and just open your hands to receive God’s grace.

I had to speak to Mr. Sam about his grumbling one time, and to his lasting credit he came back to me and told me a story about how he was going to try to change. He said he kept a folder of newspaper and magazine stories that outraged him (I’m not making this up). He said he realized that folder was just giving him ammunition to grumble, so he decided to throw it away. He did, though his pathways were pretty well-worn and he still tended to default to complaint. It was life-long habit.

Do you have a folder (real or mental) that you need to throw away? Has grumbling taken up too much of your life? Take seriously the scriptural prohibition against it. Understand that modern neuroscience has literally demonstrated the wisdom of ancient scripture. Stop growling. Keep praying. Learn to be quiet and still. Your grumbles will turn to gratitude.


Dr. Terry Ellis

August 13, 2017

  1. As always, very timely reminder.