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Thou Shalt Not Whine

To complain is a normal human response to the difficulties of life. But Christians have in scripture a contrast between the spiritually-healthy practice of lament and the soul-corroding practice of murmuring.

Years ago in my single days, I rode in a car with one of my best friends and his young son.  As we drove, his son (let’s call him Johnny) sat in the back seat and whined loudly and incessantly about a number of his discomforts and grievances.  Not having been a parent, I assumed my friend could speak some stern words, or invoke a reliable formula of punishment or reward, to stop Johnny’s whining.  My friend tried a number of different approaches, but the whining continued and even increased in intensity.  At one point I had had enough, and I pulled out a quarter and made Johnny an offer.  I would flip the coin and we would see the result; if it were heads, Johnny could continue whining as much as he wanted, and his father and I would just have to suffer it without complaint.  If it were tails, Johnny would need to stop whining and articulate his concerns in a calm and reasonable way.

Johnny went silent (which we considered a blessed respite), and then said he was excited about the coin toss.  When the coin landed, it was heads.  My friend and I shouted our frustration over our loss, while Johnny laughed and celebrated his victory.  For the rest of the car ride, Johnny sat and smiled, savoring his triumph … with no further whining.

When my children were young, I used this trick several times when whining reached crisis levels, always with the same result: however the coin landed, the result was yelling and laughter, with occasional do-overs of the coin toss that turned into a “best of 5” game of chance, but no further whining.

The sudden shift away from whining behavior, facilitated by a fun game, offered opportunities for my girls to recognize their emotional empowerment, the reality that they are not passive automatons capable of only a whining response to adversity and discomfort.

A larger example of the coin-toss mechanism for emotional regulation is found in President Russell M. Nelson’s November 2020 exhortation to gratitude.  Consumed with strife over the COVID pandemic and political troubles, some commentators balked at President Nelson’s message of emotional empowerment. Some labeled it “tone deaf” or “clueless,” preferring instead messages that would validate feelings of anger and grievance. 

But in my view, it is important that President Nelson gave his message, figuratively speaking, from two pulpits.  The first is from his prophetic pulpit in Moses’ seat (Matthew 23:2), and the second pulpit is his moral pulpit as a man who knows sorrow and tragedy, having lost a wife and two daughters and also having endured an endless stream of persecution for decades as a leader of the Church.  With all of his possible reasons for personal resentment, it was President Nelson who in the October 2018 General Conference introduced the Church to the great, mournful hymn of Christian gratitude, It Is Well With My Soul.

When I speak of whining, I speak from hard-won personal experience.

M. Scott Peck famously began his book The Road Less Traveled by saying,

Life is difficult.

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead, they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race, or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.

As have I.  When I speak of whining, I speak from hard-won personal experience.  I also speak from personal experience when I add my feeling that whining—and here I’ll shift to the scriptural term of murmuring—is a destructive counterfeit to holy, growth-oriented experiences of mourning, lamentation, and grief.

In Jewish tradition, the righteous principle of lamentation is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. The Psalms and the emotionally intense writings of Jeremiah are great examples of this scriptural genre, but they are predated by stories of Moses, whose ministry includes some powerfully emotive expressions of frustration and sorrow.

Numbers 11, which I often affectionately call the “Meltdown of Moses,” presents the reader with a shocking narrative of prophetic venting in which the contagious whining of the children of Israel pushes Moses emotionally over the edge. After hearing the children of Israel complaining over lack of variety in their manna-heavy diet, and sensing the Lord’s anger at their ingratitude and shortsightedness, this ancient prophet does something more than reprimand the people on the Lord’s behalf.  He turns to the Lord and doesn’t hold back his true feelings:

Why have You done evil to Your servant, and why have I not found favor in Your eyes, to put the burden of all this people upon me?

Did I conceive all this people, did I give birth to them, that You should say to me “Bear them in your lap as the guardian bears the infant,” to the land that You swore to their fathers?

From where shall I get meat to give to all this people when they weep to me, saying “give us meat that we may eat”? I alone cannot bear this people, for they are too heavy for me.

And if thus You would do with me, kill me, pray, altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and let me not see my evil fate” (Numbers 11:11-15, Alter 2019).

In modern lingo, Moses seems to be saying if you are going to insist that I lead this group of people alone, then just shoot me.

In response, the Lord declines to acknowledge Moses’ feelings, and with calm, matter-of-fact language He offers Moses a plan for delegating his prophetic responsibilities and then provides the children of Israel with a flock of quail to accommodate their cravings.

This is not Moses’ first emotional confrontation with the Lord.  In an earlier narrative, after Moses and the Levites violently put down the idolatrous rebellion among the children of Israel, Moses turns to the Lord and offers one of the most remarkable prophetic pleadings in all of scripture:

I beg You! This people has committed a great offense, they have made themselves gods of gold.  And now, if You would bear their offense …, and if not, wipe me out, pray, from Your book which You have written (Exodus 32:31-32, Alter 2019).

In modern lingo, Moses is saying please forgive these people. And if you’re not willing to forgive them, then I’d rather you withhold forgiveness from me too.

This is an extraordinary expression of the love Moses had developed for the frustrating group of people he was leading. And also in this instance, the Lord responds without any acknowledgment of Moses’ feelings. He simply explains to Moses that punishment and forgiveness will happen on the Lord’s terms.  In both of these stories, the Lord’s refusal to explain all of His thought processes contributed to the frequent irony that characterized Moses’ ministry. 

In a landmark talk on the pain of irony, Elder Neal A. Maxwell said “The larger and the more untamed one’s ego, the greater the likelihood of his being offended, especially when tasting his portion of vinegar and gall. Words then issue, such as Why me? Why this? Why now? Of course, these words may give way to subsequent spiritual composure.” In the Exodus passages we are shown this stark contrast between the habitual complaining of the children of Israel and the spiritual stature of Moses, who at times found himself consumed with frustration, yet ultimately, in each instance, accepted the Lord’s program and returned to prophetic composure.  In light of this, Moses’ biographer gives us one defining characteristic of the prophet: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).

A crucial difference between murmuring and mature expressions of complaint lies in the intent.

In scripture, prophetic complaints are usually in response to irony.  The prophets say to the Lord: You have all power, and yet your people suffer. You promised us x, and yet we are experiencing y.  Jeremiah’s first communication to the Lord is astonishment at his prophetic call, and his second communication to the Lord is jarring, as he goes so far as to accuse the Lord of lying to Israel in prophetic promises of peace and deliverance: “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! surely thou hast greatly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, Ye shall have peace; whereas the sword reacheth unto the soul” (Jer 4:10).

Perhaps, then, a crucial difference between murmuring and mature expressions of complaint lies in the intent; prophetic lament is based on what prophets perceive as incongruities in God’s plans and promises versus observed reality.  As Moses demonstrated, prophetic lament happens as the prophet, fully committed to God’s purposes, struggles in frustration to see how present circumstances are achieving those purposes.  Murmuring, on the other hand, is not principled.  It is motivated by unrealistic yearnings for comfort, for satisfactory answers, for mortality to reflect our notions of fairness, and for other people to take responsibility for our well-being.  Murmuring is a common response when we face hard, principled decisions that might drive a wedge between ourselves and people we love.

M. Scott Peck continues his important insight:

What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems, depending upon their nature, evoke in us frustration or grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or anger or fear or anxiety or anguish or despair. These are uncomfortable feelings, often very uncomfortable, often as painful as any kind of physical pain, sometimes equaling the very worst kind of physical pain. Indeed, it is because of the pain that events or conflicts engender in us all that we call them problems. And since life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy.

Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually  (p. 4).

In a murmuring heart, these higher aspirations for growth and development are not present; the only consideration is one’s immediate experience of hurt feelings or disappointment. A mature spiritual perspective, on the other hand, can fully experience pain and irony while also patiently seeking and incorporating transcendent meaning. In his book The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described his prison-camp experience of transitioning to spiritual maturity:

Here is how it was with many others, not just with me.  Our initial, first prison sky consisted of black swirling storm clouds and black pillars of volcanic eruptions — this was the heaven of Pompeii, the heaven of the Day of Judgment, because it was not just anyone who had been arrested, but I—the center of this world.

Our last prison sky was infinitely high, infinitely clear, even paler than sky-blue.

… And as soon as you have renounced that aim of “surviving at any price,” and gone where the calm and simple people go—then imprisonment begins to transform your former character in an astonishing way. To transform it in a direction most astonishing to you.

… Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with [an] equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your own uncategorical judgments.  You have come to realize your own weakness—and you can therefore understand the weakness of others.  And be astonished at another’s strength.  And wish to possess it yourself.

… Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering.

Solzhenitsyn’s personal journey of growth began as he let go of the false idea that he was somehow entitled to a life free of unfairness. Our sense that the world is supposed to meet our expectations for fairness and comfort and predictability is an unfortunate cause of a tremendous amount of psychic distress. M. Scott Peck makes the bold assertion that “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”

In its unhealthy forms, nostalgia—the sentimental belief that things were better in the past—can be a form of murmuring. Nostalgia often combines murmuring with flattery: The past was better than the present. The past was us. As I fully acknowledge the perils inherent in nostalgia, I also suggest that there are valuable lessons to be learned from people who did not live with our modern comforts and conveniences. For people of faith, learning of the toughness and resilience, and grit of previous generations can be an important exercise as we strive to cultivate those qualities in current generations.

Latter-Day Saints go beyond the telling of stories of toughness and courage; we try to reenact them with Trek and similar activities for youth. In an era where most people prize human narratives that are flawed and relatable, there is value in helping youth in their formative years an experiential glimpse of the different emotional toolset our forebears employed in their struggles to survive and thrive.

New efforts to publish Latter-day Saint women’s history have the potential to revive toughness and courage as valued characteristics of the Latter-day saint psyche. In my recent reading of Karen Lynn Davidson and Jill Mulvay Derr’s biography of Eliza R. Snow, I was constantly in awe of Eliza’s strength and resilience in extraordinarily difficult times.  Her biographers relate her experience of the winter 1838 expulsion from Missouri:

Eliza long remembered their flight in the harsh December weather. After they had traveled about two miles, she recalled in her brief “Sketch of My Life,” she was walking alone ahead of the wagons “to warm my aching feet” when she “met one of the so-called Militia who accosted me with ‘Well, I think this will cure you of your faith.’ Looking him squarely in the eye, I replied, ‘No, Sir, it will take more than this to cure me of my faith.’ His countenance dropped, and he responded, ‘I must confess you are a better soldier than I am.’ I passed on, thinking that, unless he was above the average of his fellows in that section, I was not complimented by his confession.”

Eliza R. Snow’s courage in circumstances of turmoil and suffering, and her further ability to draw revelatory insight from those experiences, put her in a unique peer group shared by the great prophets and scriptural figures of history.  The telling of her story in my family has been another form of the coin toss; a demonstration that to murmur is only one of several possible responses available to us as we experience the discomfort and irony and incongruities of life that, in the words of Dr. Peck, create our courage and wisdom.  As popular culture increasingly views whining and murmuring as acts of authenticity (and therefore courage), our answer to this trend can be to tell the stories of people like Eliza R. Snow who have modeled to us authentic toughness and courage.

All of this is not to pretend that the Christian life is free of real frustration.  Christian toughness includes resolve that is accompanied by frequent grief and mourning.  To feel despondent over a sense of God’s absence, or to lament unfairness and injustice, are deeply Christian responses to life that are reflected in scripture and in the stories of great disciples in our midst. However, scripture tells us to mourn with those who mourn, not to whine with those who whine or to murmur with those who murmur.  These distinctions are important, with profound consequences for our spiritual life.  To mourn and lament are part of spiritual development; by contrast, whining and murmuring stifle growth and keep the soul stunted in a spiritually juvenile state.

The greatest manifestation of Christian spiritual development is the healing of the soul, the turning of the coal of past grievances into diamonds of wisdom and poise.  C.S. Lewis described it in The Great Divorce:

The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven”, and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.’

Echoing this teaching from C.S. Lewis, Solzhenitsyn said of his brutal prison-camp experience that he learned that “the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but … in the development of the soul,” and further that “it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.”  His reflections culminate in a declaration that is absolutely breathtaking:

All the writers who wrote about prison but who did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse prison. I … have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation:

“Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

As current social trends like intersectionality valorize the refusal of healing, the souls of converted and healed Christians (and the poise with which they confront challenges), will stand in ever-sharper contrast to the wailing and gnashing of teeth among the unhealed and unconverted.  C.S. Lewis correctly intuited that heaven is being lived here and now, and so is hell.  An important point of contrast between the two is how we respond to the pain and unfairness of a fallen world. The choice before us as Christians has never been about which aggrieved group or political party to follow; it is whether we will follow prophetic guidance to the revealed Christ and His healing power, and radiate His healing influence into the world around us.

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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