Is Venting the Same as Complaining?
Happy Friday, everyone. On the podcast, we’ve looked at grumbling, and we’ve looked at complaining — several times, actually. But what about venting? Or is venting just a nice word for complaining?
This question has been asked by several listeners recently. Here are two examples. One is from Allison: “Pastor John, hello! My friend and I have long discussed if there’s a difference between complaining and venting. Our desire is to be mindful of our heart’s reaction to tough situations. How do we as believers express frustrations to those closest to us, to bear one another’s burdens, without falling into ‘misery loves company’? Is there a difference between complaining and venting? Or are we kidding ourselves?”
And another listener, named Sina, writes this: “Dear Pastor John, thank you, and thank you Tony, for this podcast. It’s an incredible blessing in my life. My question is this. Is venting the same thing as grumbling? Philippians 2:14 commands us to ‘do all things without grumbling or disputing.’ Does this apply to venting as well? I’m in a stressful graduate school environment, and complaining is the norm among students. Over the years, I have distinguished between complaining versus venting. Complaining is sinful. Venting is sinless.
“Here’s the distinction I use, using a hypothetical scenario of a teacher who continually assigns overwhelming amounts of schoolwork. Complaining says, ‘I can’t believe this teacher is doing this to us. Doesn’t he (or she) understand we have lives outside of school? Anyone with a brain would know that.’ Venting, however, says, ‘This class is truly difficult. I knew graduate school would be difficult. But this amount of schoolwork makes it feel like I’m drowning. I don’t know if everyone feels like this, or if it’s just me.’ Can you validate or correct this distinction? I don’t want to encourage venting if it is in fact sinful. Thank you!”
A question like this cannot be answered without definitions. You can’t defend or condemn a word like complaining or venting until you know what the reality is that the word is referring to. When that’s clear, then you’re in a position to say, “That reality is good” or “That reality is bad, sinful.” Usually, what happens when you insist on definitions before you jump into a discussion or debate is that the very effort to define the terms turns out to settle the debate, because the definitions often contain the unspoken differences that were causing the debate in the first place. When you see the different realities clearly that the words were expressing, then you can make judgments about whether those realities are good or bad according to the Bible.
Now, Sina comes close to giving me a definition of complaining and venting. She does it with two illustrations rather than two definitions. But if we work backward from her illustrations, we can arrive at definitions, at least partial definitions. So let’s try that.
What’s clear from her illustration of complaining is that it involves a put-down of someone else. It ends with “anyone with a brain would know that.” Okay. Got that. So complaining, in her definition, involves pointing the finger at a person with intent to blame, and probably in a demeaning way.
Venting, on the other hand, she illustrates with a lament about how hard things feel to her. She’s not sure how they may feel to others, so there’s no finger-pointing in her illustration of venting, no absolutizing of her feelings as though they were representative of everybody’s feelings. Venting, it seems she would say, is expressing your frustrations about a situation without necessarily accusing or blaming anybody else.
Now, she would like me to validate that distinction or not and give my opinion about whether such venting is sinful. My answer is, well, you can define your terms any way you wish as long as you make clear they are your definitions rather than claiming that they are Bible definitions or anybody else’s definitions. So given your definitions, Sina, yes, there is a real distinction: expressing heartfelt dissatisfaction with circumstances with blaming, or expressing heartfelt dissatisfaction with circumstances without blaming.
Holy Complaining, Sinful Venting
Now, is one of those sinful? The answer is that both might be sinful, and both might not be sinful. That’s the answer. It is possible for Christians to feel and express great dissatisfaction with harmful circumstances and, at the same time, draw attention to the guilty person who’s causing them, and not be sinning when they do that.
For example, Paul said to Titus, “There are . . . empty talkers and deceivers. . . . They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. . . . Rebuke them sharply” (Titus 1:10–11, 13). Clearly, Paul is not happy. He is not happy with these circumstances in Crete. He speaks negatively about it (call it what you will), expresses his dissatisfaction, and he identifies the guilty. And he tells Titus what to do about it. “Silence them. Rebuke them.” Now, Paul was not sinning when he spoke like that. He expressed dissatisfaction and he expressed blame, and it wasn’t sin.
On the other hand, it is possible to so-called “vent” and express dissatisfaction with your circumstances without pointing the finger at anybody and yet be sinning, because there are more ways to sin than by blaming other people for your problems. Paul said,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
“There are more ways to sin than by blaming other people for your problems.”
It may be sin to simmer with frustration over your circumstances without pointing any finger, because it’s a sign of underlying lack of faith in the goodness and wisdom of God, a sign that we have not yet learned the secret of contentment in the strength and fellowship of Christ, in spite of difficulty.
Deep, Settled Peace
Let me step back and see if I can say something more broadly and biblically that I hope will help us sort out how we should respond to hard circumstances — whatever you call it, complaining or venting. How should we respond to hard circumstances?
I think the most fundamental thing to say is that God is absolutely sovereign over all our circumstances. Ephesians 1:11: “[He] works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Therefore, our deepest response to our circumstances should be, “God, my good and loving and wise and strong Father, has dealt me this hand, this hard hand. These painful, difficult circumstances are ultimately from my Father’s wise, strong, sovereign providence — his hand. He has my best interests at heart. I bow my heart before him and say with Mary, ‘I am your servant. Do with me as you think best’” (see Luke 1:38). In that posture of faith, we should have a deep, settled peace beneath whatever else we may feel.
“These painful, difficult circumstances are ultimately from my Father’s wise, strong, sovereign providence — his hand.”
Now, with that foundation of unwavering faith in God’s sovereign care, so that we enjoy a profound, unshakable contentment of soul in God, we will be in a position to express a kind of holy dissatisfaction with different kinds of circumstances.
Now, I know that may sound paradoxical. “Whoa — you just said ‘deep, unshakable contentment,’ and now you’re saying ‘express dissatisfaction’?” Yes, I am. I would call it something like “dissatisfied contentment.” (I said to Noël last night when I was thinking about this, “That takes me back to 1977, when I was thinking about Christian Hedonism at the horizontal level, and I wrote an article for His magazine called ‘Dissatisfied Contentment.’” Wow. Such memories.)
For example, if we encounter sin, we should feel dissatisfied with it, both in ourselves and in other people. This may involve in others a quiet correction, like it says in Galatians 6:1: “Restore [a brother] in a spirit of gentleness.” Or it may involve a public rebuke, as in 1 Timothy 5:20, where you are to rebuke an elder openly for his continuing in sin.
Or if we encounter grief in ourselves or in others, we should feel sympathy, and our heart should go out of ourselves and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Weeping is a kind of dissatisfaction; weeping is a kind of dissatisfaction with this pain. I defined compassion once as the weeping of joy impeded in the extension of itself to another. Compassion is the weeping of joy — by that, I mean that deep, settled contentment — impeded in the extension of itself to another. I was trying to come to terms with holy contentment in God’s sovereignty and holy dissatisfaction with the world the way it is. It is not inconsistent to have a deep, settled contentment of soul in the sovereign goodness of God, and at the same time be weeping because of circumstances that are painful.
One more illustration. What if we encounter injustice? We are to feel dissatisfaction with injustice, and even indignation, perhaps. We should express our disapproval and our desire to set things right as much as possible. Proverbs 31:9 says, “Open your mouth, judge righteously [that is, justly], defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”
The upshot is this from those illustrations: both complaining and venting, as Sina defined them, may or may not be sinful — both of them. The decisive question is this (maybe two questions): Is there a deep, settled faith in the all-wise, all-good providence of God that gives you an unshakable contentment in him beneath all dissatisfactions? Second, in expressing our dissatisfactions, are we speaking our dissatisfactions because of a hatred of sin (which is good), and a zeal for God’s glory, and a love for people? Or are we just wrapped up in ourselves?