A few weeks ago I attended daily Mass, and the first reading was from the epistle of St. James. The very first sentence was: “Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another, that you may not be judged.”
“Do not complain?” Is that what St. James actually wrote? He obviously doesn’t realize complaining is now America’s National Pastime, having eclipsed the game of baseball decades ago. We love to complain. Nine out of ten Americans are convinced the right to complain is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, listed right after the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of religion, and the right to have free wifi service wherever we go.
After the lector read that first sentence from St. James, I didn’t hear anything else. I was too busy thinking instead about how much I complain all the time, and how I do it with such self-righteous gusto. The things I complain about are wide-ranging: the weather, taxes, politicians, distracted drivers on the highway, and all the customers I have to deal with at work. I also complain quite a bit about other people who complain too much.
Sometimes, I even complain about people who complain too little. Maybe you know folks like this. They have such gentle and serene personalities, they always give other people the benefit of the doubt. Whenever a situation arises, which in my view would be the perfect opportunity to launch into a major complaint, these folks say things like, “Well, maybe he’s under a lot of stress,” or, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way,” or, “We should pray for them.”
That drives me nuts. They’ve wasted a golden opportunity to spend the next 20 minutes whining and moaning about people who (again, in my view) totally deserve it. Sometimes when these uncomplaining souls leave the room, I’m compelled to complain about them.
The words from St. James do not simply offer a general instruction to avoid complaining. He wrote his epistles to believers, and he clearly said we are not to complain “about one another.” This means we should not complain about other people in the Church, especially our fellow parishioners.
At first, someone may be tempted to think, “Since Christians are close to Jesus and His very serene and forgiving Spirit, they surely are less likely to complain than are secular people.”
Well, I hate to say it, but if my experience is typical, being a member of various parishes over the years, then believers in Christ are just as likely to complain as are non-believers, maybe even more so.
Without getting into any details or naming any names (mostly because I’d have to repeatedly name myself), some of the most mean-spirited and nasty complaints I’ve ever heard have occurred in a church setting. When you think about it, there are just so many different things a professional complainer can target: the Mass is too long; the Mass is too short; the homilies are boring; the music is awful; the flowers on the altar are ugly; the parking lot is a pain; someone sat in MY pew; the priest is always talking about money; there’s another typo in the bulletin; and when I called the rectory at 2 a.m. because my uncle was taken to the hospital, they did not call me back right away!
The final part of St. James’ sentence explains why we should not complain about our fellow believers: “….that you may not be judged.”
In the gospels, Jesus made it clear that the way we judge others will be the same way God judges us. If we’re quick to find fault with others, just think of the field day God will have uncovering our faults. Hmm, that doesn’t sound so good.
I think it might be time for a New Year’s Resolution, even though it’s the middle of July: let’s stop complaining, especially about people in the Church. If we start giving other people the benefit of the doubt and avoid complaints, it not only will make us feel a lot better, it will cause God to give us the benefit of the doubt. And speaking personally, I really need that.