Grateful Eyes

Even the Pagans Saw Complaining as Harmful

It is a truth generally acknowledged that young people in possession of an affluent upbringing must be in the habit of complaining. Complaining marks a people gone soft, who have become unused to suffering. For most, there is a nagging sense that they shouldn’t complain—but it doesn’t stop them from raising their laments when they meet with the most commonplace hiccups.

For Christians, it goes without saying that the Bible condemns grumbling and complaining. But in a society that rewards grievance-mongering and exalts grumbling—cue the victimhood contests on social media—how can we avoid it?

Consider what a complaint actually is. When we meet with an ordinarily hard situation (getting sick, missing our flight, locking our keys in the car, waiting at the DMV), we freely express our discontent. We complain when we judge things to be unsatisfactory. The complaint reveals a thought about how bad things are. It makes a judgment about the world.

But anyone who has lived a year or two in this world knows we can’t always trust our initial assessment about things. The deeper question, therefore, is an epistemological one: how do we know our assessment of a given situation is unassailable? What kind of judgment are we pronouncing?

Hasty Judgments

Understood properly, a complaint represents a lack of wisdom, a hasty judgment before we have the whole picture. Recall what Job said to his wife after hearing her counsel to curse God and die: “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). The Preacher declared, “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Eccl. 7:8). It should be enough to move us that grumbling and complaining is always paired with divine judgment in Holy Scripture. But even the virtuous pagans understood complaining as a serious vice and a danger to one’s own perfection.

 “Don’t be overheard complaining,” said Marcus Aurelius, “Not even to yourself.” Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who deeply influenced Marcus Aurelius, said, “But He who gave also takes away.  . . . And so, when you have received everything, and your very self, from Another [i.e., God], do you yet complain and blame the Giver, if He take something away from you?” This, of course, echoes the iconic statement of Job, who in reflecting upon the meaning of his own suffering declared, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).

The virtuous pagans knew that life is a thing where misfortune flourishes and bad things happen. They rightly knew that in such a world one could easily complain unceasingly. The Stoics knew they could do nothing about the circumstances of the external world, but only about the ordering of their internal one.

What many are discovering today by way of Jordan Peterson, Epictetus told us long ago. He knew how many things in life are not under our control. We can’t control the movements of the sun or the planets. We can’t control whether a leaky ship makes it to port. We can’t control other people. The one thing only that is possibly under our control is ourselves. Our own will, intentions, desires, thoughts, and actions. And the responsibility to govern these according to the Good is a gift.

The rage and complaints of Achilles did not express divine wisdom, for “he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Prov. 16:32). He who controls his own soul, however, is the apotheosis of wisdom.

Habits of Wellbeing

It is said that thankful people are happier and live longer on this earth. In Gratitude in Life’s Trenches, Robin Phillips writes, “There is a popular misconception that gratitude practices flow out of a prior attitude of thankfulness or gratitude. But usually, it works the other way around: we have grateful attitudes because we have first chosen to engage in gratitude practices.” As the revelations of neuroscience tell us, neurons that “fire together wire together.”

For most, becoming a thankful person has no shortcut; it’s like losing weight or getting in shape. Author and poet Ben Palpant suggests collecting “Joshua Rocks” by writing on small stones the records of God’s providence in one’s life. Taken from the account in Joshua   4, this is an excellent biblical example of a creative practice to cultivate gratitude. Doing such things will doubtless make us healthier and happier people, reducing our cortisol levels and possibly extending our lifespan.

But perhaps the most significant benefit of cultivating habits of thankfulness is not in the physical rewards but in the metaphysical ones. C.  S. Lewis warned that if we aren’t critical of our own complaints, we’ll become a complaint ourselves, moving from existentially feeling discontented to ontologically being a malcontent. The wisdom of gratitude (and its practices), however, changes our perception of the world. It augments and filters our imagination, moral and social. And it supplements our ability to know things.

How do we know, for instance, that finding a leak in the roof of one’s house might not be gift? How does a person know that a minor inconvenience is not a critical yet hidden step in another’s salvation? How does a person know that the sickness he contracted was not God’s grace? These are hard things. Hard things require wisdom, a depth of vision to see past the difficulty. Complaints, however, are shallow and myopic; they see only what is immediately present to the eye. They have no imagination.

The wise man doesn’t complain. He has a more capacious vision of the world. As Shakespeare’s Henry  V says: “There is some soul of goodness in things evil,  / Would men observingly distil it out.” Such an observation demands the use not just of the physical eye but also of the inner eye of imagination.

For Eyes That See

In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, Orual’s “complaint against the gods” eclipses her vision of the truth. She is sure of her complaint until a series of apocalyptic visions reveals to her (violently in some cases) that her knowledge of herself, the gods, and the world was imperfect. All her life she had wanted a trial with the gods, Job-like, longing for the justification of her pain and a reason why the gods do not show themselves or speak to mortals. But the most striking revelation was that it was her complaint that kept her from seeing the truth.

The argument that she had, “idiot-like, been saying over and over” had darkened the clear sight of Reality. She was, to borrow a phrase from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “beam-blind.” “The eye is the lamp of the body,” said Jesus, “and if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness” (Matt. 6:23).

If complaining darkens our picture of reality, then giving thanks does the opposite. It is like the aperture of a camera; the more gratitude, the more light is let into the frame, and the picture of reality becomes ever more perceivable. In an essay called “Onward Christian Spaceman,” C.  S. Lewis responds to those who seek to leave earth in order to find God. “If you do not at all know God, of course, you will not recognize Him, either in Jesus or in outer space.”

We could go searching for God throughout the universe and not find him. But the fault would be in our own eyes. Perhaps this is why Paul exhorts us to “give thanks in all circumstances,” that we might have eyes to see.

Devin O'Donnell is the Vice President of Membership and Publishing at the Association of Classical Christian Schools. He is author of The Age of Martha: A Call to Contemplative Learning in a Frenzied Culture (2019). He was the Research Editor of Bibliotheca in 2015 and has worked in classical Christian education for 20 years. He and his family live in the Northwest, where he writes, fly fishes, and remains a classical hack.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #62, Fall 2022 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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