by Annette Bridges. © 2006. All rights reserved.

Maybe you know the fellow. The one for whom nothing is ever right. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, his boss is a jerk, the food is lousy … he has a gripe for every situation. He’s never happy, content or satisfied. He looks for fault and finds it. He points fingers and blames everyone and everything — except himself, of course. He offers no solutions because he can’t see any. He’s the friend or family member you would most like to avoid because his ill temper can quickly turn a joy-filled room into a negative and pessimistic atmosphere.

If you’re on the receiving end of his many complaints, consider this: The complainer in your life really doesn’t want to argue. However, ignoring him will only make him grumble and growl louder and longer. Your complainer actually yearns to be understood. He has a need to have his concerns and frustrations acknowledged. And there’s only one thing that may begin to quiet his clamoring — an empathetic response.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy that is sorrowful for the complainer. And empathy is not apathy that doesn’t care how the grumbler feels. Empathy is also not agreeing with the complainer’s outcries. Empathy is putting yourself in the grumbler’s shoes and understanding his feelings.

How in the world, you might ask, is it possible to put yourself in his shoes when you’re struggling to understand his point of view and why he feels the way he does?

In order to do this, I think we must look beyond or beneath our complainer’s complaints. I suspect we will find a boatload of worry, fear, depression, discouragement. And these emotions frequently result in a barrage of grievances that actually mask the basis for his woes. Perhaps the protests are an unconscious way of getting our attention. Or perhaps it’s the complainer’s attempt to do something — anything — because he doesn’t know what else to do to improve his situation, since he is so consumed with his worries and discouragement.

I’m reminded of a story that I’ve read and heard in various forms many times. But certain elements are consistently told. Whether titled “The Devil’s Auction” or “The Devil’s Yard Sale” or “The Devil Is Going Out of Business,” apparently the Devil had an array of tools attractively displayed and priced — envy, jealousy, hatred and pride, among many others. Then, off in a corner by itself was a harmless-looking, wedge-shaped, well-worn tool that had a higher price than any of the others.

Someone asked the Devil what this tool was, and he answered, “That’s discouragement.” When he was asked why it cost more than all the others, he boasted, “With this tool I can get into a man’s heart and mind and do just about anything I want.”

The Devil knew that nothing could paralyze, stop or control us more than discouragement. Discouragement can keep the unemployed unemployed; the homeless homeless; the sick sick; and the complainer complaining. Discouragement drains us of courage, vision, faith and expectation.

In one version of this story that I heard, someone asked the Devil if the tool worked on everyone. And the Devil quietly and reluctantly answered, “No, it doesn’t work on a person with a grateful heart.”

I first heard this version at a time in my own experience when I found myself complaining about this and then that. The idea of feeling grateful was difficult when it seemed that nothing was going my way. It eventually became clear to me that no end was in sight for my bitterness and discontentment, and my discouragement was more than I could bear. Still, I longed for solutions.

How could I cultivate a grateful heart?

One day during my Bible study time, I came across three verses in the first epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians that appeared to hold the secret to cultivating a grateful heart: “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances”
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

I began thanking God with all my heart for any and all good in my life, whether seen in small or big ways. Moment by moment prayer was indeed required, but my prayers were not petitions to God. Instead, they were affirmations of His presence and power. These affirmations also became declarations and promises to not allow any circumstance to take my joy from me. My discouraged heart was soon replaced with a grateful heart filled with encouragement. And my reasons for complaining diminished till they disappeared.

As we acknowledge God’s goodness in our lives, we begin to believe He has a perfect plan and purpose for us. Our eyes are opened to the good that is always at hand, and gratitude keeps us expectant of more good.

So, for the complainer in your life, try a little empathy. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed with complaints to voice, take it from an experienced complainer — cultivating a grateful heart is your best bet for an improved outlook and better future.