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The Difference Between Complaining and Grumbling

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Heartache and pain can lead to complaining or grumbling. Let’s explore the difference between the two with insights from the book of Joel. Includes tips for Christian parents.

Joel 1:4-12

“What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten.. . A nation has invaded my land, . . . It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white. . . . The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up; the grain is destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the olive oil fails. . . . the harvest of the field is destroyed. The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree- all the trees of the field-are dried up. Surely the people’s joy is withered away.”

This is a hard passage to read. Joel sounds desperate because he is. The nation of Israel has just endured a great natural disaster and we hear his raw grief and despair. I think sometimes we may mistakenly think that “good” Christians have a peaceful smile on their faces even as things around them crumble. A quick read of the book of Joel will tell us otherwise.

These are challenging times in our nation and as Christians we can be tempted to either grumble in our hearts and with each other or to stuff our feelings. Neither is helpful. Let’s figure out how to “complain like a prophet” when things hurt. But first we need to differentiate between grumbling and complaining.


Grumbling is what the Israelites did in the desert. They were starving, thirsty and mad that God had dragged them out into the desert to die. Their eyes were focused solely on their surroundings and their circumstances. They thought only of themselves. They thought nothing of God.


Complaining, on the other hand, has a heaven-ward orientation. We hear complaints all throughout the Bible. David complained to the Lord in the Psalms. Jeremiah and Habakkuk complained too. But these people didn’t focus on themselves. They took their complaints to the Lord. It was a sort of pouring out of their inward  groanings. In Joel 1:19, amidst all the pain and sorrow, we see that he knows that God is still there and can be called upon. Joel is complaining but he is not grumbling. He knows the source of His help and his hope.

Complaining involves a spirit of submission. Grumbling is tainted with pride and self-centeredness.

So how do we complain like a prophet?

1) Get it all out. Be specific and honest about what hurts (Joel 1:2-12 and Joel 2:1-11)

2) Come clean about any darkness in your heart related to the issue (Joel 2:12-13)

3) Punctuate your complaints with hope because restoration is coming (Joel 2:25). You can say something like, “Lord, I am so upset about _________. But I know that you are good and you are a God who restores. I choose to have hope.” Almost all of the lament-type psalms end in this fashion.

Help your kids complain like a prophet

The questions below are to help you walk your children through the process of turning grumbling into complaining.

1) Tell me more about it. What happened? What did you feel when it happened?

2) What is left inside your heart about him/her/the event? Are you angry? jealous? resentful? Are those feelings helping or hurting you?

3) Have you talked to God about it yet? Would you like to? Should we talk to Him about it now or later?

4) If God doesn’t choose to make this better right now, how will you cope? What will you choose to do about it? What will you choose to hope in?

5) Does God’s word have anything to say about this? Let’s find out together.

When things are hard and painful, take them to the Lord. He knows what you are going through.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16

Image by _Marion from Pixabay
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and parents. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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