SUNDAY SERMON: The Useful Complaint

Rev. Stephen Baldwin 

OT: Exodus 17.1-7

NT: Matthew 21.23-32

I once saw a t-shirt that said, “I don’t like to complain; I LOVE it.”  Today’s passage from Exodus is full of complaints. Last week they were hungry. This week they are thirsty. But it’s completely understandable. If you followed Mayor Deena Pack on foot out of Ronceverte on the way to Renick and months later were walking in circles in Covington, you’d be upset too!  

Do you know anybody that likes to complain? Of course you do. We all do. You might even have shared a few yourself. A complaint, quite simply, is an expression of dissatisfaction. 

The soup doesn’t taste right. You missed a spot. What were you thinking? This weather just won’t make up its mind.

In my line of work, I hear a lot of complaints. Just the nature of the business. There’s one lady that calls me at least once a week. She always starts with the same issue. “We need a Wendy’s in Union, WV!” There’s a man who always calls right after her, whom I believe to be her husband, who always leaves the same message. He tells me his name, his employment history, his volunteer activities, his desire to get more jobs in southern WV, his belief that politics is corrupt, his opinion that the minimum wage should be higher, and then you can hear someone in the background say something to him and then he says, “and we need a Wendy’s in Union, WV!” 

I’ve been studying complaining lately, for fun, because I’m a nerd. And what I’ve found is that there are generally three types of complaints. 

The first type is the chronic complaint. Offered by someone who just can’t ever be pleased with anything. This type of complaint is chronic, continual, nonstop. These folks have actually rewired their own brain so that they see the world through a lens of negativity and what is wrong. You can imagine how unhealthy that type of complaining might be. 

The second type is what we would call venting. Getting something off your chest. Putting to words what’s been racing through your mind all day. Your spouse asks, “How was your day?” and you unload with the thing that happened this morning that you haven’t stopped thinking about since. Research indicates that people who vent often aren’t just doing it to get it off their chest, though. They’re doing it to elicit a response from whoever they’re talking to. So simple venting can be healthy, but venting with an agenda generally isn’t very good for the soul.  

The third type is the useful complaint. Where you are trying to solve a problem. You say something to your child about a task they were charged with completing a week ago. You’re not looking for a fight; you’re not angry; you’re just trying to solve a problem. 

The third type is the one mental health professionals suggest we employ. Chronic complaining only makes us and those around us sad. Venting is passive aggressive and usually just makes us more anxious. But when you offer a useful complaint, you identify not only a problem but a solution. 

The Israelites were deep into chronic complaining and venting. With good reason. Which led Moses to schedule a meeting with God. 

Moses said, “They’re complaining again. I just can’t please these people. What should I do with them?”

Which type of complaint would you call that one from Moses? A useful one. Because it leads somewhere. Moses doesn’t just complain about the people. Moses doesn’t just vent about his situation. Moses asks, “What should I do?” And God has a suggestion. 

“Go on ahead of the people. Take your staff and a few elders. Strike the rock at Horeb, and you will find water.” 

Moses did as God instructed. He struck the rock, and water flowed from it. Water from a rock! The most unimaginable thing possible happened. Because Moses refused to be stuck in the mud of complaints. Because God works in mysterious ways to answer our prayers. 

Lots of folks spend lots of time arguing over whether Moses was literally able to turn a rock into water. That misses the point. The point is that God provides for all our needs. The point is that we are only in a position to be aware of God’s providence if our mindset is right. If all we do is complain, we will miss it entirely. But if we are open to God’s mysterious ways, then we will live in gratitude for all those tiny miracles that occur in the course of a day. 

This week I came home around 830pm, and there was a group of folks on the porch of the church. We host a recovery group every Friday night. They’re usually done by 8pm or so, but this time they had a bigger group than normal, they were having a good meeting, so they just kept on meeting. And I felt overwhelmed with gratitude to God. Gratitude for second chances. Gratitude for these folks who are trying so hard to be there for their families. Gratitude to the church for hosting this each week. Gratitude to God for loving us all, all the time. 

There are plenty of things we could be down about. But gratitude is what carries us. Through the desert. Through complaints. Through tough times. Amen.


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