Pause for a moment and consider the very last words you spoke. What were they? Specifically, were they some sort of complaint?
Chances are they may have been. Whether concerning work, the weather, or home life, we all complain more often than we’d care to admit—as many as 30 times per day, according to the author of A Complaint Free World. Even the secular world admits that constant complaint clouds our capacity for contentment. But for the Christian believer, far more is at stake than even our own mental health. When we give way to a murmuring spirit, our very mission on this earth hangs in the balance.
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” the chained missionary Paul warmly reminds his readers in Philippians 2:14. Even the Greek word for “grumbling” itself, gongysmōn (an onomatopoeic word imitating the sound of murmuring), is meant to evoke the distaste Paul wants us to feel. The sound of a blood-bought child of God given over to complaint and dissention should grate on us like the incessant cooing of birds or nails on a chalkboard.
In this warning, Paul likely has in mind the generation of Israelites who were destroyed for their grumbling in the wilderness (Exodus 15:24, 16:7-9; 1 Corinthians 10:10)—an awful fate indeed for those who had witnessed the miracles of the exodus. Instead, he would have the Philippians be “blameless and innocent” and “without blemish” (v. 15)—marked by the purity of character and attitude befitting believers. God cares not only about the brute fact of our obedience but also the spirit of it. Israel was to serve the Lord “with joyfulness and gladness of heart” (see Deuteronomy 28:47). So too the Philippians, armed with the example of Christ the suffering servant, and we ourselves, have every reason to discharge each duty with joy.
Paul, aware of the sea of wicked influences surrounding his readers, calls them to swim against the current. Their generation, he warns, is “crooked and twisted” (v. 15)—the charge laid down by Peter on Pentecost regarding the unbelieving Jews (Acts 2:40) and a descriptor also harkening back again to Israel’s spotted history (cf. Psalm 78:57). The “children of God” (v. 15) do not have the luxury of monastically cloistering themselves away, nor of simply biding their time until the last day. Rather, they are called to exist in the midst of such a hell-bound society, yet not assimilated into it.
We too know what it is to live amid a crooked, twisted generation. The moral and sexual revolutions of the West have borne their fruit, and it is rotten. All manner of degeneracy and rebellion strut about in proud public display, even before children. As Carl Trueman diagnoses in his Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, the “intuitive commonplaces of our culture” entail that “to be free is to be sexually liberated; to be happy is to be affirmed in that liberation.” Compounding the moral crisis, we see various hustlers stoking tensions between identity groups (be they formed along sexual, racial, or socio-economic lines—it makes no difference), amplifying the “grumbling and disputing” of the disaffected masses and profiteering off the culture of perpetual grievance. Ours is a twisted generation indeed.
Yet in that same volume, Trueman, channeling Paul in our passage, reflects: “The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.” Paul agrees: Christians are to mortify their murmuring and live blamelessly among their contemporaries. They “shine as lights in the world”—both by their very nature as believers, being the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16), and all the more so by heeding Paul’s instructions, shining brighter still.
Throughout our study of this epistle, we have been considering Paul’s aim: that the Philippian church would strive together on mission to advance the gospel. Yet this does not mean every Christian is called to missionary service, though some are. Rather, Paul describes a gloriously straightforward way in which any Christian can stand out dramatically as a witness in their ordinary callings: simply by avoiding grumbling and disputing. The explanation contained in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary is so fitting that it is worth reproducing in its entirety:
Strong appeals are made in our day to members of the Christian Church to engage actively in all kinds of Christian work. They are summoned to go forth aggressively upon the world’s misery and sin. This has become a characteristic note of our time. Such appeals were needed. It is a shame that so many Christians have absolved themselves from the obligation to place at their Lord’s service the aptitudes and the energies with which He has endowed them. Yet in this wholesale administration diversities are apt to be overlooked. Christians may be undervalued who do not possess qualities fitting them for the special activities; or, attempting these without much aptitude, and finding little success, they may be unduly cast down. It is important to lay stress on this. There are some, perhaps we should say many, who must come to the conclusion, if they judge aright, that their gifts and opportunities indicate for them, as their sphere, a somewhat narrow round of duties, mostly of that ordinary type which the common experience of human life supplies. But if they bring into these a Christian heart; if they use the opportunities they have; if they are watchful to please their Lord in the life of the family, the workshop, the market; if the purifying influence of the faith by which they live comes to light in the steady excellence of their character and course, then they need have no sense of exclusion from the work of Christ and of His Church. They, too, do missionary work. Blameless, harmless, unrebuked, they are seen as lights in the world. They contribute, in the manner that is most essential of all to the Church’s office in the world. And their place of honour and reward shall be far above that of many a Christian busybody, who is too much occupied abroad to keep the light clear and bright at home.
The temptations for the most mature Christian to give way to grumbling are plentiful. My wife and I have occasionally reflected to ourselves that there seem to be only two genres of social media posts today: “look how wonderful my life is; envy me,” and “look how miserable my life is; pity me.” One can build a sizable following in the latter genre. Further, much social commentary, salient as it may be, falls exclusively into this category as well. Yet consider that simply by forsaking our petty gripes we might stand out as much—or more than—even many vocational missionaries.
And for those who are called to missions, how much more will the melody of their witness resound if accompanied by a harmonious temper! G.K. Chesterton (1876-1936) understood the potency of joviality in the context of Christian witness better than most when he wrote, “There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. Men do not quarrel about the meaning of sunsets, they never dispute that the hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the spring” (“A Defence of Heraldry,” The Defendant, 1901). Let us not neglect this easy way to be a “missionary.” Each day, let us glory rather than grumble, and we shall shine as lights indeed.
I confess my constant grumbling in the face of your countless mercies and blessings. I have complained times without number and disputed when called to act in obedience. Forgive my murmurings and renew my heart and mind to walk in joyful obedience, blamelessly representing you in this godless age. Use my godly demeanor in the course of all my duties, worldly and spiritual, to advance the honor of Christ.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray that God would make you aware of any tendency to complain and help you to replace grumbling with glorying in his goodness.
- Pray that God would eliminate a disputing or arguing attitude from your heart in matters of Christian duty. If God is calling you to undertake some duty for him, ask him for the grace to obey joyfully and without delay.
- Ask God for opportunities to bear witness amid this crooked and twisted generation. Pray that your joyful attitude would contrast with the culture and thus open doors for the gospel.
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