Sometimes, we understand something best by taking a look at its opposite. And when it comes to living the grateful life, a quick examination of our complaining is revealing.
In their classic Saturday Night Live sketches, the hilariously whiny-voiced Doug and Wendy Whiner drive people to drastic measures by their perpetual pessimism and self-centeredness. Their combination of always seeing the negative in every situation and having a me-first perspective fuels their whining and ours as well.
Psalm 100 is our great Thanksgiving psalm and is even labeled as such in its superscription. But just a handful of psalms before it is Psalm 95, which starts out very similarly, only to end up in Whiner Land.
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
The psalm starts out with fireworks. Praise blazes out in songs of joy. At least, that’s what is called for. The response to who God is and what he’s done is laid out and called out. But then the psalmist lays out another possibility, calling on the listener to reject the second possibility out of hand. It’s the response of hardened, astray hearts which descend into grumbling.
In Hebrew, Meribah means “quarreling” and Massah means “testing.” But these words are also place names. It’s there that the Hebrews whom God had freed from Egyptian slavery complained about a lack of water and Moses whacks a rock in frustration. Since the two names are often paired together, it’s believed they are twin names for the same place because they’re twin attitudes for the same rejection of God.
Complaining is equated with quarreling with God. It’s an argument with God in which we tell him that he’s not enough and what he’s done for us isn’t enough. It’s like the kid who sits among all of the torn and scattered Christmas wrappings, with toys to the left and to the right, and says, “Is that all?” It’s a rejection of the goodness of God by saying, “Because you haven’t done this one thing for me, you really haven’t done anything for me at all.”
A complaining heart measures love by the moment. It says, “If you love me, you’ll do this for me right now.”
In other words, complaining is about me. It reduces everything down to me. “What do I get out of this?” “How does this make me feel?”
The culmination of the whining of the wandering Hebrews was restlessness. The restlessness within them was matched by God’s refusal to let them “rest” in the promised land.
The Scriptures offer us a different image, showing us what kind of life emerges from the grateful life. We see it from two angles in Philippians 2:1-11 —
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Paul starts by reminding the Philippians of what they have — “if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion” — and tells them it should lead them into the grateful life.
What we discover is the grateful life isn’t a passive life. The grateful life is a life actively turned outward toward others. It knows what it’s received and turns that receiving into giving.
In the second half of the passage, Paul points us to Jesus, who starts with everything. He’s God. That’s his nature, his form. He’s equal with God the Father and he knows it.
But Jesus doesn’t use his position of power as something to be used for his advantage. Instead of grabbing from others and taking what he’s grabbed for himself like a crooked cop, he takes from himself and pours himself out for others.
When you know what you’ve got, as Jesus does, you don’t have to grab for more. Out of your plenty, you can give to others.
Gratitude begets generosity.
In the first half of the passage, Paul points out our wealth in Christ and then calls us to turn our gratitude into generosity by thinking about others and their interests (and not just our own). Having received, we give.
While the Israelites in Psalm 95 ended up restless because of their complaining, Paul shows us how, out of our fullness in Jesus, to become like him in a poured-out life. Pouring ourselves out for others doesn’t leave us impoverished and needing to grab for ourselves, but restful in the knowledge that the God who exalted Jesus will also glorify us at the right time and in the right way.
True thanksgiving doesn’t passively pray, “Thanks for my family. Thanks for the food. Pass the turkey.” It gets up from the table and serves others, knowing its plate will be full when it gets back.
Questions for reflection
1. In Hebrew, Meribah means “quarreling” and Massah means “testing.” In the psalm, complaining is equated with quarreling with God. It’s an argument with God in which we tell him that he’s not enough and what he’s done for us isn’t enough. Where in my life right now am I complaining? Where am I telling God that he’s not enough and hasn’t done enough for me?
2. The whining of the Hebrews ended up in “restlessness.” They wandered in the desert without rest. Am I at rest in my life? Where am I not at rest? How might this be related to a complaining heart?
3. What would it look like for me to trade my complaints for gratitude?