The Power of Choice: Complaining, Comfort and Contentment
Challenges like serving abroad can stretch our comfort zones and teach us things about ourselves and true contentment. It’s all about choices.
As we sat around the Bedouin campsite, it felt like we had traveled back in time. Smiling faces rapidly conversed in Arabic as the potatoes roasted in the ashes of the small fire that warmed our host family’s goat-hair tent. The oldest brother, Suleman, passed around hot cups of sage tea as he explained the process of herding goats and caring for his family’s livestock—these were the tasks that make up his daily life.
While Suleman’s nomadic lifestyle seemed rather simple and rustic to my Western mind-set, I couldn’t help but appreciate the peace and contentment in his voice as he talked about his day. It would be easy to become critical of the lack of indoor plumbing or to miss 24-7 Wi-Fi access living so far out in the desert, yet how important are these “first world” conveniences really?
As we sat around the fire, I began analyzing my assumptions about what I “needed” to be happy and content. Living abroad and volunteering in Jordan for the past 10 months had certainly opened my mind to new worldviews and had challenged my preferred ways of living. Even in our modern Amman apartment, sometimes our indoor plumbing fails or the Wi-Fi signal shuts off for hours or days at a time.
Each of these inconveniences provides the opportunity to make a choice about how to respond to less-than-ideal circumstances.
Ultimately, it comes down to answering one pivotal question: Is my desire for comfort stronger than my choice for contentment?
Living God’s way is all about choice. God gives us the power to learn His way of life and respond accordingly (Deuteronomy 30:19). So, what will we choose?
Reflecting on this later, I was reminded of some biblical examples of the power of choice.
Stop complaining for one day—just one day—and see how it impacts your mood and those around you.The cycle of complaining: the Israelites’ legacy
One of the most memorable journeys recorded in the Bible is the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. What would it have been like to leave your home and everything you knew to walk hundreds of miles in a foreign land where food and water were scarce?
Even after witnessing miraculous signs in the form of plagues and escaping a life of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites chose to criticize God instead of praising Him for His deliverance (Exodus 14:11-12).
In the face of these complaints and the looming Red Sea ahead, Moses demonstrated true godly leadership and faith. He said, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13).
After safely crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites praised and thanked God. But soon the cycle of complaining began again (Exodus 16:3; 17:2-3). The Israelites’ recurring worries weren’t simply tied to their circumstances; rather, they reflected their lack of faith in God Himself (Exodus 16:8).
The Israelites’ example shows us that our complaints aren’t merely physical; they are also spiritual in nature, which carries a much heavier consequence.
Choosing contentment over comfort: the apostle Paul’s example
On the other hand, I was also reminded of the apostle Paul, who chose to focus on following God despite the costs and consequences. He was even willing to be imprisoned for his faith and testimony of the gospel!
During one such imprisonment, Paul wrote a letter to the church at Philippi in which he honestly expressed what he had learned about responding to circumstances:
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
Paul’s wisdom here shows that we always have a choice: No matter our circumstances, we can choose to honor God through our attitudes and actions.
24-hour complaint-free challenge
Recently I was coaching an executive leader who was tired of being negative around his team. “I just can’t seem to stop complaining,” he told me. After digging a little deeper into the source of the negativity in his life, he was ready to take action to embrace a more positive perspective.
I suggested one simple challenge: Stop complaining for one day—just one day—and see how it impacts your mood and those around you. Now this challenge is much harder than it sounds. Borrowing a strategy I read about in Will Bowen’s book A Complaint Free World, I suggested he wear a watch and intentionally switch the wrist he wore it on every time he uttered a complaint. He agreed and his challenge began!
At the end of the day, I received an email from my client. He said that even though the challenge appeared impossible and indeed was hard, his day had been smoother and more positive that he could have imagined! From his experience, he took the challenge to the next level and chose to focus on the positive things in his life, instead of always complaining about the negative.
We can all reframe how we think and speak to reflect a godly way of life (Philippians 4:8).
Take the 24-hour complaint-free challenge! Choose a watch, ring, bracelet, rubber band or even something in your pocket like a coin or wallet to help you remember your challenge. Every time you complain, switch the object to the other side and reset your 24 hours.
When we have lived a complaint-free day, we have successfully completed this challenge!
But this challenge is just one part of a much larger question we should ask ourselves: Do I want to be comfortable or be truly converted? Conversion is a continual process of character growth that requires us to change our perspective so it’s in alignment with God’s way of life. Unlike this challenge, conversion doesn’t end once we’ve lasted 24 hours. It’s a lifelong commitment.
Serving abroad in Jordan is teaching us how to recognize our “first world” problems, examine our assumptions and realign our perspectives. By choosing to focus on contentment over comfort, we have been able to devote more time and energy to serving others, instead of focusing on what isn’t working. While this experience has certainly challenged us, more importantly, it’s allowed us to learn how essential choosing our perspective and attitude really is in order to serve with the right mind-set.