Are Blaming and Complaining Ever Helpful?
Seems like a weird question.
If you search for articles and content about blaming and complaining, particularly for Christians, you’ll find plenty of reasons why these two actions are not helpful. I even wrote an article for Crosswalk called 8 Reasons Why Blaming and Complaining Are Not Fruitful.
In general, these negative traits cause problems for us. Especially when blaming and complaining create an unhelpful position of living stuck. For a broader list with depictions of the issues we experience due to blaming and complaining, please see the article on Crosswalk.
Could we also consider nuances to the acts of blaming and complaining? Some of us experience feeling stuck. We aren’t allowed space for helpful blaming and complaining. We have pain that needs processing and get shut down by those who believe we’re sinning.
Scriptures of judgment come to mind (like Matthew 7:3-5 and Romans 2:1), which remind us to remember we all have our concerns to deal with. But we twist these words too. We assume any assignment of responsibility is judging another the way God talks about in these verses.
Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:3-5 CSB
Therefore, every one of you who judges is without excuse. For when you judge another, you condemn yourself since you, the judge, do the same things. – Romans 2:1 CSB
These scriptures do not tell us blaming and complaining are all bad. Instead, they remind us we all have the responsibility to manage our lives. Focusing on others causes us to miss out on areas of personal growth. In the growth community, Cultivate Together, I discuss these principles through the lens of Soul-Stewardship and Self-Stewardship.
I’ve heard several believers use these verses as a way of shutting others down. God’s word becomes weaponized because someone who is harmed or struggling is told they should not judge others. Their attempts at processing negative realities are squashed. Instead of getting what they need, they’re viewed as a source of problems.
Could Blaming and Complaining Serve A Helpful Purpose?
Is there a way these actions are helpful, and not about judging others?
Blaming and complaining are not entirely bad concepts for the Christian who wants to grow in their faith.
To dive into this topic further, let’s start by understanding core concepts of blaming and complaining. Word meaning matters. How we understand these words will make a difference in our understanding of them as actions that are helpful or problematic. Gaining perspective about the words and how these actions play out helps. Blaming and complaining do not automatically equal the kind of judging referenced in Matthew.
What is Blaming?
Blaming at it’s core is an assignment of responsibility. To blame is to assign responsibility, or fault, with someone or some thing.
If a building has faulty pipes and bursts, it is appropriate to blame the faulty component for not doing the job it was designed for. It may or may not be appropriate to blame the person who oversaw what parts to use, or proper maintenance of the parts.
Proper assignment of responsibility plays a valuable role. Without understanding and acknowledging what belongs to us and not others, or to others and not us, we take responsibility for what is not ours and do not live responsibly for what is ours.
As Christians who want to please God and live right, we have a tendency to take on more than we should in some areas of life. For example, denying our needs to accomodate another who demands their needs be met. If we take responsibilty for what is not ours, we engage in unhealthy forms of blaming and complaining. If we notice where blame resides (who is responsible for what)
What is Complaining?
Scripture shows us several incidents of people who loved God and poured out their complaints to him.
I cry aloud to the LORD;
I plead aloud to the LORD for mercy.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I reveal my trouble to him. – Psalm 142:1-2 CSB
David poured out his complaint many times, particularly in the Psalms. Job complained to God and others after losing his home, his wife, his children, and his health.
When Blaming is Helpful
When someone is harmful, they are responsible for the harm they inflict. When someone misuses their authority, they are responsible for the damage they cause. There are times when it is important that we put blame where blame belongs. In those instances, we clearly identify the person responsible for the problem. Without clarity on where responsibility lies, we have a tendency to put blame on the wrong place. We also lack the assertiveness needed to hold destructive people accountable for their actions.
For example, if a spouse or church leader refuses to take personal responsibility for their harmful and dismissive actions, they transfer responsibility to someone else. When the other person (spouse, church member, etc) tries telling others about the harm they’ve experienced, they’re told they should not blame. Because saying who harmed them is seen as judging. Or unloving. Or unkind. Or disrespectful. Can you see how this distortion becomes problematic? The one truly responsible passes responsibility to the one they’re harming. If an observer focuses on something like the verse in Matthew, they put responsibility on the injured party instead of the source of the problem.
It is helpful and appropriate to identify who is actually responsible.
When Complaining is Helpful
At it’s core, complaining is an act of expression about pain, suffering, annoyance, or dissatisfaction. When we are honest about what our experience is, a complaint helps us process the bad we’ve experienced. Dr. Henry Cloud refers to this kind of processing as metabolizing negative realities. When we metabolize a big meal, we use what we need (the good) and discard of what we don’t need (the bad). Complaining in the sense that we express what we feel and how we struggle helps us metabolize the bad.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the book, The Body Keeps the Score? Dr. Bessel van der Kolk helps us see how much our body remembers painful events in our lives, even if we do not acknowledge them. We may choose to deny the bad realities we face, but it comes at a price. That price affects our mental and physical well-being, our relationships, and other people we engage with. It is essential that we have a way to process pain honestly.
Unleash: Heart & Soul Care Sheets are a tool I created to help people process life’s challenges – honestly. It facilitates a process between you and God to notice what’s happening, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, and what God has for you in all of it. In order for complaining to be helpful, it requires honest connection to what’s happening in you and reflection on how life events effect you.
Complaining is helpful when it is connected to our core-level experience, with honesty and readiness to receive. Helpful complaining occurs when processing bad (difficult) realities (including grief, confusion, doubts). Beyond an outlet for stating our problems we need a way to move through them. When we receive caring presence, acceptance of who we are, validation for the experience, etc., then we have greater capacity to process pain and move into new ways of living.
Denying Christians Any Outlet for Blaming and Complaining Causes Problems
At some level we know blaming and complaining lead to unhealthy patterns and more pain, for ourselves and others. Since we are also prone to auto-correct what feels bad or wrong, we may have a knee-jerk tendency to stop others when they share their pain or talk through their difficult circumstances. This happens when we tell others to pray, because we want them to stop talking to us about their problem. It also happens when we try to point out the bright side, or start a response with the words “at least…”.
Course correction blocks relational connection.
Words and body language may attempt to stop a person from expressing their pain or difficulty. Through this, we inadvertently foster a pattern of denial that keeps the individual from healing and growing.
How can you connect to the reality of another person’s experience? What would it be like to notice how difficult it is to face what they’re facing? Could you feel some of what they’re feeling?
If we operate from a position that all blaming and complaining is bad, we are more likely to miss opportunities for connection.
Example of How We Deny Helpful Blaming and Complaining:
Your friend meets with you for coffee or a meal and you ask how they’re doing. They respond honestly by telling you it’s been a hard week. As they share, they include details about what happened, who did what, and they express thoughts and opinions about the challenges they faced. Your friend may need someone to simply hear their story and express some understanding about how that situation would feel challenging. Or, they may need someone who expresses a similar emotion because the situation would be scary, sad, or frustrating.
Presence provides a way for others to feel seen and heard, which may be enough to help them metabolize what feels bad.
However, if your response to their sharing is to tell them to stop complaining and focus on the good, or you change the focus of the conversation to avoid the distress you feel when they share their story, they are denied an outlet for honest emotional expression and relational connection.
Appropriate assignment of responsibility and honest reflections of what we’re responsible for (and what we’re not) serve a helpful purpose. These forms of blaming and complaining help us know where responsibility belongs and makes way for connection.
Honesty and ownership help us connect to ourselves, God, and others.