Grumbling and complaining cast shade on the brightness of the gospel in our lives. Such an attitude discloses a lack of humility and trust in the sovereign grace and goodness of God. Moreover, grumbling and complaining hinder us from living into our identity as children of God and from executing effectively our ability to shine as lights in the world (Mt. 6:14-16; Jn.8:12). Thus, Paul writes to the church, “Do all things without grumbling and arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure children of God who are faultless in a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world” (Phil. 2:14-15). Disciples of Jesus showcase God’s trustworthiness to the watching world by following His ways all the days of our lives. By God’s grace, we blaze a straight path for others to follow. Grumbling and complaining should not accompany us on the journey.
We tend to grumble and complain for three reasons.
1. We grumble and complain when others in the church do not share our preferences and opinions.
Maturing disciples learn to discern the difference between truth and preference. As a result, they can lovingly navigate diversity in relationships. For example, some disciples may choose to eat meat while others refrain. Neither party should allow choices based on personal preferences rather than clear-cut biblical principles to cause quarrels. In Romans 14:1-4, we read, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
The phrase “weak in faith” refers to one who is new to the faith. Nonetheless, all disciples work out their own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in them to will and to work according to His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13-14). In the process, different disciples may draw different conclusions on personal matters of conscience, but “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rm. 14:5b). When Scripture does not definitively prohibit a certain life style preference, then we must give one another space to live according to conscience.
Dietary preference is an easy example. But, this principle also applies to more complicated matters such as a parent’s selected method for disciplining kids—i.e. timeouts, spankings, or misdirection. The clear-cut biblical principle is that parents should discipline their kids. The preferred methods for doing so, however, should not be grounds for one set of parents to judge or quarrel with another. Parents should be fully convinced in their minds on the wisest way to discipline their own kids while trusting God’s mastery over all parents in His kingdom.
Rupertus Meldenius’ maxim is helpful: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” We should maintain unity on essentials matters—that is, the core truth of our union with Christ and His gospel. In non-essentials—that is, those things that if lacking do not prevent our union with Christ or revoke our identity as the children of God—we have liberty. Disciples may follow their consciences under the interdependent guidance of the Word and Spirit. Still, in all things, charity should prevail for love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14)
2. We grumble and complain when our sense of justice is offended by God’s grace.
In Matthew 20:1-20, Jesus tells a parable comparing the kingdom of God with an employer who hires laborers to work in his vineyard. Some workers start first thing in the morning; while other workers join the crew at different times throughout the day. One group of laborers only worked the final hour before sunset. In the end, however, the owner of the vineyard paid each employee the same wage. “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” The master replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. . . . I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity.” The master’s grace offended the workers’ sense of justice. As a result, they grumbled and complained.
We often grumble when we see God treating others better than we think they deserve. Although God shows us grace in Christ, we do not quickly celebrate His grace towards others, choosing rather to hold it in contempt. Every good and perfect gift–ranging from our salvation to a good night’s sleep—is an undeserved expression of God’s affections for us. One of the more difficult realities to wrap our sin-sullied mind’s around is the thought that if or when our lives seem to lack such gifts then God is not just. So we shake our fist at God and complain about not receiving what we deserve. However, grace is what it is in the universe because no person deserves anything good from God. We should be grateful whenever we receive anything other than condemnation for our sin. Such a realization should cause us to celebrate rather than to complain when others experience expressions of God’s undeserved affections as well. After all, both Peter the Apostle and the dying thief on the cross will enjoy eternity with Christ by grace!
Moreover, in the kingdom of God, God calls us to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Yet, so often when offended, we demand justice rather than dispense grace. Believing the offender should feel the weight of their offense, we divvy out consequences until our sense of justice is satisfied. We protest any suggestion that we should forgive them beforehand: “They don’t deserve my friendship or my kindness! Who are you to say otherwise!” Although it may be true that they do not deserve to be treated well by us, it is certainly true that we do not deserve to be treated well by God. Yet, we are. It is unjust to gladly receive grace from God while begrudgingly withholding grace from others.
3. We grumble and complain when our sense of entitlement is offended by God’s providence.
Paul’s language in Philippians 2:12-18 echoes the Exodus narrative. Immediately after God redeemed Israel from Egypt, He led them into the wilderness. Three days into the journey, they grumbled about God’s providence: “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” They did not trust God to provide what they needed as they needed it. God planned to take Israel through the wilderness in route to the Promised Land. It has been said by many that after God got Israel out of Egypt, He then needed to get Egypt out of Israel, so to speak. Meaning, God led them through the wilderness to refine His newly redeemed children. There, they would learn to trust God above anyone or anything else. The more refined they become the brighter light they would be to the surrounding nations. Later, Paul writes about Israel’s wilderness wanderings, “Now these took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:1).
The doctrine of God’s providence refers to the way He governs and guides our lives to accomplish His purposes. At times, we are tempted to grumble and complain in response to His providence because we think we deserve to have more than we have, to be somewhere other than where we are, or to be doing things other than what we are doing. When we compare our journey with other people, we exasperate our situations by entertaining the lie that God is good to them but not to us.
Mystery surrounds the particulars of God’s providence. There is much that we do not understand about how life unfolds in various ways for various people. Why does a single person’s desire to marry remain unsatisfied? Why is one couple able to have kids while another is not? Why does one person’s cancer treatment succeed while another’s fails? We may never know the answers to such questions. Nevertheless, the cross of Christ remains the most profound manifestation of God’s providence in the world. It assures us that no matter what happens or doesn’t happen God most certainly loves us. His providence always intends our ultimate good. God orchestrated the death of His Son to accomplish our redemption. He then orchestrates all events and circumstances in our lives to serve our spiritual refinement (Rm. 8:28-29).
Since the cross of Christ is the centerpiece of God’s good purposes, then we can certainly trust God to use our bouts with dissatisfaction in the wilderness to further His good purpose in our lives. Patience and child-like faith in the sovereign goodness of God, then, reduces the amount of grumbling and complaining in our lives.
If you find yourself tempted by one of the aforementioned reasons for grumbling, take a moment to consider William Cowper’s meditation on God’s truth, grace, and providence in the poem God Moves in Mysterious Ways:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
For a sermon on Philippians 2:12-18 click here.