What The Bible Has to Say about Grumbling and How to Overcome It

The pressures we face and how we react to them determines our character.

The bible seems to have a something to say about “grumbling”. Have you ever noticed that? What’s the deal with grumbling? What IS grumbling, anyway? I was curious, so I spent a little time digging into it. My writing today is inspired by James:

Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

James 5:9-11 NIV

From this passage out of James, it seems clear that grumbling is something we do against others. It involves judging others. (While our Judge is at the door!) Grumbling also seems to be something the opposite of patience and perseverance.

If anyone had a legitimate opportunity to grumble it was Job, who was afflicted though he was a man who was considered blameless, full of integrity and pure in his desire to worship God. When he was afflicted, his wife urged him to grumble against the Lord. His wife said to him,

“Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

Job 2:9-10 NIV

Thus, grumbling is something we do against God also. Grumbling is something we encourage each other to do at times, perhaps, because “misery loves company”. Job was goaded by his wife to grumble against God, but he refused. Job is held up by James as one who persevered patiently in difficult circumstances, without grumbling.

The word translated “grumbling” (in the NIV) in James 5:9 is the Greek word, στενάζω (stenazó), which means literally “to groan (within oneself)”. It can be used as an expression of grief, or of anger, or even of desire.

The Greek word, stenázō, comes from the root word, stenós, which means “compressed, constricted”. The idea is that one who groans is doing so “because of pressure being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth)”. Figuratively[, it means “to feel pressure from what is coming on – which can be intensely pleasant or anguishing (depending on the context)”. (See Biblehub)

Stenós, then, seems to be the internal pressure that causes us to groan inwardly, and stenázō seems to be an outward negative response to that inward pressure – to grumble. The word is also translated complain, murmur and grudge.

As I think about these things, I realize that we do not control the pressures that bear down on us from within (and without), but we do control how we react to those pressures. Grumbling, complaining, and murmuring against others and against God is a negative reaction to the pressures we face.

James calls us to react differently to the pressures we face – with patience and perseverance. If we give in to grumbling and complaining against each other, we become judges of each other, forgetting that we have a Judge who stands at our door!

This passage also suggests that, while we may groan inwardly, we do not have to groan (grumble and complain) outwardly – though we may strongly desire to! We have a choice in the matter, and the better choice is to be patient and persevere.

That observation, perhaps, begs the question: why is it better to persevere with patience rather than grumble?

I am reminded of thought experiment I did a while back. I spent some time thinking about diamonds and coal. Both of those elements come from the exact same substance – carbon. The difference in their character is determined by the degree of heat and pressure to which they are subjected. (You can read my thought experiment at Diamonds and Coal and the Pressures of Life.)

Hard pressure and great heat turns carbon to diamonds. Whereas, light pressure and light heat only produces coal. Diamonds are one of the hardest substances on earth, and coal is very soft and good only for burning up.

The pressures we face and how we react to them determines our character. Unlike diamonds and coal, which find themselves in different environments in which they are formed by outside forces, we can choose whether 1) to bear up patiently and persevere in times of difficulty creating godly character in us or 2) to succumb to grumbling and complaining and letting those difficulties shape us.

Job was determined to maintain his integrity and refused to curse God, though his calamitous circumstances were allowed by God. He refused to give in to negative thinking and oppose God (though he press God for an explanation). Consequently, Job is held up as a great example for us to follow.

The English word, grumbling, shows up in the Old Testament, also. It shows up in relation to the people wandering in the wilderness after escaping Egypt. We read that “the whole community” grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness and complained, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt …. for you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex. 16:2-3)

In grumbling against Moses and Aaron, they were ultimately grumbling against God (Ex. 16: 7-8) who put Moses in charge (and who, therefore, cre+-ated the circumstance they grumbled about). (Think about the connection between loving God and loving neighbor – people created in the image of God.)

The Hebrew word translated to English as grumbling is תְּלוּנָה (tluwnah). It literally means “exalted, lofty”. It comes from the root word luwn, which literally means lodge, pass the night and, figuratively, to abide. To abide/dwell exaltingly or loftily is to set oneself in judgment over – to murmur or grumble with obstinance.

To grumble against others, then, is to exalt ourselves over them (to judge them) and, ultimately, to oppose God who created them. Coming from the root word that means lodging (dwelling), it conveys the idea of living in judgment, dwelling on negative thoughts toward people and God.

Don’t we all know people like that? Haven’t we all found ourselves at various times in our lives thinking like that?! The pressure to think like that and to dwell on the negative is strong! We must not give into it though!

The Book of Numbers also reports on the grumbling by the people in the wilderness:

“Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!’”

Numbers 14:1-2

This grumbling and complaining reached a climax when the Korah and his clan of Levites became disgruntled and organized 250 men to challenge the authority of Moses. (Numbers 16:6-33) Moses sought God to demonstrate who was in the right, and the challenge was settled when “the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions”. (Numbers 16:31-32)

If we can take anything away from this story, we get a sense for how God views grumbling and complaining. The ground swallowed them up!

In a sense, people who dwell on the negatives of and oppose other people (and God) get swallowed up by it. They are destroyed by it if they remain (abide) in that attitude. In a sense, their judgment comes back on themselves.

Elsewhere, in Psalms, we read that the people who “grumbled in their tents” and “did not listen to the voice of the Lord”.  (Ps. 106:25) Grumbling, therefore, seems to get in the way of our hearing from the Lord.

Jesus carried the admonition forward not to succumb to this way of thinking and acting when he said, “Do not grumble among yourselves….” (John 6:43) Paul also admonishes us not to grumble like the people did who were “destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10); and Peter says, “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9)

Grumbling and complaining destroys us. It can swallow us up if we let ourselves dwell on the negative and sit in judgment and opposition to others.

The pressures of life can push us to the point of wanting to grumble and complain, but we need to withstand that temptation. Withstanding that heat and pressure produces character in us like diamonds (and failing to do us produces in us soft character like coal).

God knows the pressures we face, within and without. He experienced them also in the person of Jesus. Paul recognizes the pressures we face when he said,

[T]he whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Romans 8:22-23


For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling…. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened….Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

2 Corinthians 5:1-5

We can persevere patiently, like Job, having faith, trust and confidence that “our redeemer lives”! (Job 25:25) Paul speaks of the “firstfruits” and “deposit” of the Spirit. This is what sustains us and gives us hope and allows us to withstand the pressures that bear down on us, tempting us to grumble and complain.

Because Jesus lives and has given us the Holy Spirit, we are able to withstand the pressures that cause us to groan inwardly. We are able to bear outward fruit that is fed by God and His Spirit. Thus, Paul is able to point us toward a better way:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

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