Complain and Grow Old

A study (conducted before inflation drove prices skyward) claimed that American women spend an average of $65 per month on anti-aging creams and treatments. American men spend just under $50 a month taking care of their own faces. These numbers seem wildly improbable but, either way, the Bible provides advice on how to look younger and the monthly cost is zero. As a bonus, following this advice not only prevents wrinkles, it leads to a happier life altogether.

Each of the patriarchs was granted 180 years on earth. God took Abraham five years early so that he would avoid the heartbreak of seeing his eldest grandson, Esau, leaving the path of the righteous. Isaac lived out his life in full. Jacob, however, passed away at the relatively young age of 147. The great Jewish transmitters explain that Jacob lost thirty-three years of his allotted span as a punishment for complaining about his difficult life.

When Jacob came down to Egypt to be reunited with his son Joseph he was brought before Pharaoh. After blessing Pharaoh, the following exchange takes place:

And Pharaoh said unto Jacob: ‘How many are the days of the years of your life?’ And Jacob said unto Pharaoh: “… few and evil have been the days of the years of my life…” (Genesis 47:8-9)

It is for this complaint that Jacob’s life is shortened—one year for every word of his answer claims ancient Jewish wisdom. However, if you look in the Hebrew you will be shocked to discover that Jacob’s response uses only twenty-five words! So why does he lose thirty-three years?

This mystery deepens when we discover that Pharaoh’s question to Jacob in Hebrew happens to be those missing eight words long! It turns out that Jacob is being punished, not only for his twenty-five words of complaint, but also for the eight words in Pharaoh’s question!

If you’re reading the Bible with a critical eye, Pharaoh’s question itself should seem rather strange. Pharaoh is finally meeting the father of his royal viceroy and rather than saying, “Did you have a nice trip?” or, “Some son you’ve got here!” he asks “How old are you?” Something must have prompted this rude and abrupt question.

In our book Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language, we relate a story about Abraham Lincoln. One day, a presidential advisor brought a man to the White House whom he thought Lincoln should appoint as a Cabinet Secretary. The president interviewed him, but when the prospective Cabinet member left Lincoln did not give the expected response. Calling his adviser into the Oval Office, Lincoln said,

“No, this man won’t do for the job.”


“I don’t like his face.”

“But”, stammered the adviser, “That’s unfair. A man can’t help what his face looks like.”

“You’re right”, the President replied, “up to age 40, he can’t. After age 40, his face is him.”

Pharaoh asked how old Jacob was because Jacob truly looked far older than his years. And Jacob was punished for having a face that would prompt such a question. You see, his personality, which was prone to complaining (as we see by his response), is what caused his face to age prematurely. I’m sure that we can all think of elderly people we know whose faces radiate youth and a joy for life and whose personalities match that; there are far too many cases where the reverse is just as true.

The Hebrew word for ‘to complain’, MiTLONeN, captures this fundamental truth. Verbs tend to convey meaning with great precision in the Lord’s language. Some verbs are what we call reflexive – the actions are things you do to yourself. These verbs usually start off with the prefix ‘MiT’ in the present tense. For instance, I dress myself—ani (I) MiTLaBeiSH. (Interestingly enough ‘to pray’ falls into this category as we explore in depth in our above-mentioned book.) Now why on earth would the verb meaning ‘I complain’ exist in the reflexive form, as if to say that complaining is something I do to myself? I had assumed complaining was something I do to other people.

As we learn from Jacob, you may be complaining to other people, but the one who suffers the most is you. If you have a penchant for whining or the habit of complaining, you are causing yourself serious harm. Wouldn’t it be better to have a bright, optimistic attitude, which benefits you more than anyone else?

Most of us are looking to cut back on our expenses as our failing government damages our monetary worth. Surely, if we tend to be negative, refraining from complaining won’t be an easy change to make. Think of the money you can save on anti-aging cream! However, learning to be upbeat and joyous will be one habit that we will want to keep even as financial times improve.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Thought Tools post.
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