Chinese Water Torture – The Nature of the Nag

”A continual dripping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike." Proverbs 27:15
Graphic by Jennifer Shipman / Photo by Luis Tosta

Did you hear the one about the nagging wife? Wait, which one? There are so many! Society may love to joke that “wife” is synonymous with “nag”, but nagging is no laughing matter. Webster defines nag as “to annoy (someone) by often complaining about his or her behavior, appearance, etc.”, “to annoy (someone) with repeated questions, requests, or orders”, “to cause (someone) to feel annoyed or worried for a long period of time”, “to find fault incessantly: complain”, “to irritate by constant scolding or urging.”

Wow. Often. Repeated. Incessant. Annoy. Irritate. Complain.

You’ve heard of Chinese Water Torture? A process in which water is slowly dripped onto a person’s forehead, allegedly driving the restrained victim insane.” (Wikipedia) Even just the sound of constant dripping can drive some people up a wall. Nags do that, too. At least twice Proverbs likens a contentious woman to the continual dripping of water (Proverbs 19;13, 27:15-16), and often laments that it is better to live in some uncomfortable place (like the desert!) than with a nag. (Proverbs 21:9, 21:19, 25:24). Anyone can nag, but let’s face it: we of the fairer sex generally tend to be more prone to it.

How many of us fear being a nag? How many of us are? Wives, roommates, friends, mothers, daughters. James 1:26 says “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.” II Timothy 3:2-5 says “For men will be lovers of themselves… unthankful… unloving, unforgiving… without self-control….” It may seem like nothing more than an annoying habit, but we must understand: nagging is contentiousness. It is a sin. When we nag, we are: 1) trying to control the other person; 2) complaining, 3) placing conditions on our love, and 4) causing the other person stress and probably pain.

Control

The Bible often stresses self-control (1 Peter 1:6; Galatians 5:23). It is one of the Fruits of the Spirit. Just a few verses before this, Paul warns us against the works of the flesh: they include contentions (aha!), outbursts of wrath (ouch), selfish ambitions and dissensions. I believe that at the heart of these sins lies our human desire to control everything and everyone around us. We should only be concerned with controlling ourselves and our actions toward others, not their actions (even those toward us!). Nagging someone else to do or be something – no matter how justified – is trying to control them.

Complaining

“Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless” (Philippians 2:14-15a) (emphasis mine). It doesn’t get much clearer than this, dear hearts. Complaining leads to bitterness and discontent. Any of us who are or have been complainers, or know a complainer, know this to be true. I would even go so far as to say that complaining=discontent while thanksgiving=contentment. Polar opposites. And God tells us over and over and over again to to give thanks in all things! (Colossians 3:17, I Thessalonians 5:18 are just two examples.) God desires contentment for us, not a bitter and dying spirit. 

Conditions

Unconditional love: that elusive, beautiful dream. We all want it, and we all want to give it. Learning to live out 1 Corinthians 13 requires prayer and study and a daily renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Nagging is absolutely conditional, and it certainly is not love. Nagging is about self; love is about selflessness. We nag because we want a thing our own way. To choose to love is to put aside “our way” and go God’s way.

Hurting

Nagging harms the nag-ee, but it harms the nagger too. Nobody wins. Proverbs is full of verses about the strife caused by the contentious person. Being nagged is so stressful, it’s better to live on the roof than in the same house as a nag! When we nag and pick we are saying, “You are not good enough! I will only be happy, and therefore love you more, if you do this or that.” What pain this causes! Over time, the one nagged becomes angry, depressed and hopeless. (So does the nagger, I know from experience!) How may relationships have ended because of contentiousness and strife? 

We nag for so many reasons. The need for control. Fear of failure. Selfishness. Misplaced anger. If we can heal the root we can heal the tree. But what is the cure? How can we possibly break the ugly cycle? Next week, we’ll look at three Biblical principles to stop the nagging.

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