Pastor David B. Curtis

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How to Handle Criticism & Complaints

Philippians 2:14-16

Delivered 01/09/2000

I don't think that there is any doubt about the fact that we live in a very complaining society. People gripe about everything. Complaining seems to have become the great American past time. It's interesting that the most indulged society is the most discontent society. The more people have, the more they seem to be discontent with what they have and the more complaining they seem to do.

We have a whole society with a critical mentality, constantly attacking everything. And this critical, complaining attitude has found its way into the church. The church is full of complainers.

We must understand that few sins are as ugly to God as the sin of complaining. The Church at large does much to feed this thing by continuing to propagate their self-esteem, self-fulfillment garbage that feeds discontentment. There seems to be very little thankfulness or gratitude today among God's people, and very little contentment.

Criticism and complaints are the thorns along the path of life. People who fall into this behavior make themselves and everyone around them unhappy. Unfortunately, it is a difficult habit to break. Some people seem naturally negative--finding the worst in every situation.

The pastor of a small church had a critical lady in his congregation. On the day of the annual church picnic, it suddenly occurred to him that no one called and personally invited her to attend. He dialed her phone number and when she answered, he confessed the oversight. He then said that he really hoped she would still attend. She replied, "It's too late to say you are sorry. I have already prayed for rain!"

The Bible says God wants Christians to be different than that. Our scripture today instructs its readers to -

Philippians 2:14-16 (NKJV) Do all things without complaining and disputing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

Let me give you four principles that will help you deal with criticism and complaints:

1. Be Honest with God and yourself .

If you struggle with a negative attitude, admit it is a problem for you-- not for other people, but for you.

Proverbs 28:13 (NKJV) He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.

Often the most difficult part in learning how to handle complaining is recognizing it in yourself. If someone were to record your speech for one solid week, would you like what you would hear? How much time do you spend griping, grumbling, complaining, arguing, and criticizing others?

Complaining isn't just a bad habit, it's a sin. Twentieth century American Christians obviously don't realize this because we all seem to do it. Let's look at the Old Testament and see just what God thinks about murmuring. As we look at these Old Testament references, let's remember Malachi 3:16, "I am the Lord, I change not." We now live under the New Covenant which is radically different than the old, but God's moral principles have not changed.

In Numbers 16, we see the rebellion of Korah, he doesn't like Moses' leadership.

Numbers 16:3 (NKJV) They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?"

Korah didn't like Moses' leadership. Who was it that appointed Moses as the leader of the children of Israel? It was God! All leadership is ordained by God. Paul teaches this principle in -

Romans 13:1-2 (NKJV) Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

Notice Moses' reply to Korah:

Numbers 16:28-35 (NKJV) And Moses said: "By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. 29 "If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. 30 "But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD." 31 Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. 33 So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly. 34 Then all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, "Lest the earth swallow us up also!" 35 And a fire came out from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense.

Israel's response to this judgment is fascinating; rather than fear, they murmur and complain.

Numbers 16:41 (NKJV) On the next day all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, saying, "You have killed the people of the LORD."

They are blaming Moses for their judgment. If they really believed that Moses did that, they sure shouldn't have murmured against him. God responds to their murmuring:

Numbers 16:45-49 (NKJV) "Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment." And they fell on their faces. 46 So Moses said to Aaron, "Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone out from the LORD. The plague has begun." 47 Then Aaron took it as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and already the plague had begun among the people. So he put in the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 And he stood between the dead and the living; so the plague was stopped. 49 Now those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, besides those who died in the Korah incident.

Complaining is a serious sin. 14,700 people died, think about that! They weren't being judged for adultery or Idolatry or murder, all they did was complain.

We are told in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 to learn from Israel's history.

1 Corinthians 10:10-11 (NKJV) nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

Israel's history is an example that we too are to learn from. This is how God feels about murmuring and complaining. God controls our circumstances, so all complaints about our circumstances are directed against God. I hope you see how serious a sin complaining is.

Complaining is a symptom of a deep seated spiritual problem-- a failure to trust God and a failure to be submissive to His providential provision in your life. God hates murmuring and complaining. Let's look at our text:

Philippians 2:14 (NKJV) Do all things without complaining and disputing,

The word used here for "complaining" is "goggusmos", it means: "sullen discontent, murmuring, criticism." It is an onomatopoetic word, a word that sounds like its meaning, such as hiss, buzz, hum, or murmur. It describes the low, threatening, discontented muttering of a mob who distrust their leaders and are on the verge of an uprising. It is always associated with rebellion. I'm sure that you've seen this in your children when you tell them to do something that they do not want to, such as: take out the trash, go to bed, or clean up their room. As they do what you have told them to, they grumble all the way. This is rebellion, and it is sin.

The Greek word used here for "disputing" is dialogismos, it means: "questioning, criticisms, intellectual debate." It refers to inward reasoning of the mind, we get our English word dialogue from this Greek word. Dialogue has become a popular word in our day, and we think well of it between men, but it is not a virtue between men and God. God does not want to argue with men. He wants men to listen to Him and to do what he says.

Goggusmos is emotional rejection of God's will, and dialogismos is intellectual debate with God. You want to argue with God about why things are the way they are. You want to argue with God about why you have to do this or that, or you want to argue with God about the circumstances you're in. Whether it be your job, marriage, children, singleness, divorce, death, sickness. You debate with God because you have a better idea, a better plan for your life-- this is pride!

Our text says, "Do all things without complaining and disputing." Now, most Christians do some things without complaining or disputing. The problem is to do all things without complaining or disputing. The word "do" is in the present tense, which signifies that we should be without complaining or disputing at all times and in all circumstances. Calvin said, "To do all things without complaining is the fruit of humility to which he had exhorted them in 2:3-4."

Complaining is a serious sin - we tend to take it very lightly, evidenced by the fact that we do it so often. But God hates complaining. I think that one of the main reasons God hates complaining is because it disrupts Christian unity. Notice what happened when the people murmured:

Numbers 13:30-33 (NKJV) Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, "Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it." 31 But the men who had gone up with him said, "We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we." 32 And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. 33 "There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight."

They were in effect saying, "We can't do what God has told us to do, it's too hard, the people are too big." Would you say that verse 33 is an exaggeration? That is about a 300 to 1 ratio. Have you ever done that, exaggerated your problems?

Numbers 14:36 (NKJV) Now the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation complain against him by bringing a bad report of the land,

The spies started the complaining and the whole congregation picked it up. This sin is so contagious that it spreads like wildfire. You get one disgruntled complainer and it won't be long before it spreads to many. Whenever a person murmurs, he is finding fault, and when you find fault, you must blame someone (never yourself). When this happens, some will agree with the complainer and some won't, and now you have a faction which leads to disunity. The theme of Philippians 2 is unity, and complaining and disputing leads to disunity. When people grumble, pay attention to the pronouns they use, "Why did 'they' do that?" Who are "they"? It's someone other than me. So, it's us and them, and that is disunity.

God is very concerned with the unity of His church. The subject of unity is brought up in every letter that Paul wrote to a church. Disunity is always a lurking potential for disaster. Probably, there is no single thing so much insisted on in the New Testament as the importance of unity.

Ephesians 4:1-6 (NKJV) I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, 3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul teaches that it was the murmuring of the children of Israel against Moses that led to their eventual death in the desert. Seven times in that chapter, Paul writes, "they murmured." The reason the children of Israel never got into the promised-land was because they were complainers. That's how serious God regards what we say.

A pastor asked one consistently unhappy man in his church if he knew what his talents were. The man said he had only one, "criticism." The pastor was thoughtful for a moment, then told the man that if he only had one talent, he recommended that he do what the man in the Bible did with his one talent - bury it!

So, the first point in learning to deal with criticism and complaints is to be honest with God and yourself - you also criticize and complain, and it is a sin. Secondly -

2. Stop Blaming God and Others for Your Unhappiness.

Most of the unfortunate things of my life were caused by one person, me. And some of the toughest times I have faced were simply the results of living in a broken down world. But most of them were no one's fault but my own. We reap what we sow. When I reap what I sow, I have no legitimate right to complain about the results. You are free to choose what you want to do in life. God has given you the freedom of choice. But once you have made the choice, you are no longer free. You're free to make the choice, but you're never free from the consequences of choice. It has been said that there are three kinds of people in life: accusers, excusers, and choosers. Accusers always say "It's your fault." When Adam sinned, he took it like a man--he blamed his wife, "Eve did it," and then he blamed God, "You gave me that woman." It is still a popular past time to complain against God. Remember--all complaining is against God and his providential will for your life. To murmur, to grumble, to complain against God is a sin, and we must see it as such. Romans 9:20 says, "But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?" -- to answer back to God or to question God. Excusers say, "I'm a product of my environment. It's not really my fault." The people that are really successful in life are neither accusers nor excusers. They are choosers. They accept responsibility for their decisions. When they reap what they sow, they take it and move ahead.

A very pious woman approached Daniel Webster when his unabridged dictionary was published. She said to him, "I am shocked that you printed the definitions of so many nasty words!" His classic reply was, "Madam, I am shocked that you took the time to look [them] up!"

3. Focus On What You Have, Not What You Don't Have.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NKJV) in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Notice that Paul does not instruct us to be thankful "for all circumstances". But, he does remind us that we can be thankful that he works IN all of our circumstances to bring something good out of the worst of times. You can't always be thankful for circumstances, but you can be thankful in the midst of the situation. Develop an attitude of gratitude. Learn to be grateful for what you have. It's a tremendous antidote for complaining. Whenever we complain, it's usually because we are ungrateful.

A pastor was speaking to a women's group and after his speech they presented him with a modest honorarium. He graciously returned it and asked that they utilize it where it was needed the most. His host replied with a wide grin, "Oh, thank you. We'll put it in our fund for better speakers!"

A married couple was sitting in the living room one evening. The husband looked over to his wife and said, "Do you mind if I point out a few of your more obvious faults?" She replied, "Certainly not. I am sure it was those same faults which prevented me from marrying better".

It is important to remember that when Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison. He didn't know if he would live or be executed. People were taking advantage of his imprisonment and saying all kinds of things behind his back. He could have been angry and critical. How did he avoid falling into that trap? He explains his philosophy of life by writing:

Philippians 4:11 (NKJV) Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:

4. Respond Correctly when You Are Criticized.

All criticism hurts but some sting worse than others. Our critics know how to slice and dice professionally.

One small community decided to form an orchestra. The whole town was present for the first performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The local newspaper critic was there, and the brief review in the paper the next morning simply read, "Last evening, the local symphony played Beethoven. Beethoven lost".

Here is some practical advice I have learned after more than seventeen years of service in the local church. In that time, I have dealt with my own fair share of criticism.

  • If you are a leader, expect to be criticized.

Someone has said, "If you want to lead the orchestra, you have to turn your back to the audience." You must learn to stay focused on your work in spite of what is being said behind your back.

A Division I, NCAA college basketball referee who called some of the Final Four basketball games, was asked what makes the difference between the good and great officials. He said, "It is the ability to stay focused on the game while tuning out the constant criticism of the crowd".

  • Don't respond to every criticism.

Abraham Lincoln is remembered today as one of our nation's finest Presidents. However, during his tenure, he may have been the most criticized. On one occasion, he stated that, "If I stopped to read, much less, answer, every letter of criticism I receive, this office would have to be closed for nothing else but that of dealing with critics and complainers".

Let your accomplishments answer your critics. After one of Lincoln's speeches, the newspaper in Chicago wrote a scathing editorial. A portion of those comments stated, "The cheeks of every American should be red with shame at that silly, washed-out, utterance of the man who has to be introduced to foreigners as the President of the United States". That "washed-out" speech would come to be known as The Gettysburg Address.

  • Stay focused on the task at hand.

Refuse to alter the agenda either to retaliate or please "unpleasable" people.

When the New York Times informed the builder of the Panama Canal of critics back home, the reporter wondered out loud how the general intended to answer his skeptics. He simply said, "I will answer them by building the Panama Canal".

Paul completes his thoughts on complaining by reminding them that their lives are to be a witness:

Philippians 2:15-16 (NKJV) that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

"Children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe." Our culture is so negative. When you find a person who is genuinely positive, they stick out like a sore thumb. The contrast is obvious. They shine like a star in the middle of a dark night. It is so different to be positive in this world, to not be a complainer, not be critical, not be a put-down person, that when you become that in your own life, you will shine like a star.

Finally, if you are tempted to criticize, complain or gossip, carefully consider Paul's words to the Ephesians.

Ephesians 4:29 (NKJV) Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.

Here is a four-way test that can save you the regret of a misspoken word. Before you speak, ask yourself:

  1. Is It True?
  2. Is It Necessary?
  3. Is It Helpful?
  4. Is It Edifying?

Following this four-fold test can save us from much regret and help us to not be negative, complaining people.

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