November 4, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. . . .
They seem like awfully trifling things to chide—like Paul was just looking for something to call out in the Philippian church. “Grumbling and questioning” don’t exactly repulse us like lust, envy, or avarice. Are these not the most pedestrian of sins? Paul doesn’t think so. So, perhaps we should ask why he considers them dangerous and how we displace them?
If you’ve been following along in Philippians with us you know Paul sought to root out a growing divisiveness within the church in Philippi. “Rivalry and conceit” (2:3) found a foothold in the fledgling community and risked tearing it apart. Only with a deepened sense of the humility of Christ would that community set aside its unprofitable response to its differences, and preserve the harmony necessary to fulfilling its ministry.
Paul doesn’t specify in the letter the substance of their dispute (though later, in 4:2, he names names). But he does identify the primary manifestation of rivalry and conceit: grumbling and questioning.
The modern ear hears Paul’s admonition like some voice of oppression. Haven’t we learned the value of questioning authority? Wasn’t our country forged in the crucible of complaint against tyranny? What’s wrong with voicing disenchantment with the status quo? While those are valid questions, they miss Paul’s point. Paul had no quarrel with argument—his tireless defense of the gospel was soaked in disputation and opposition to falsehood. In the background of Paul’s choice of words is an allusion to Israelite history that explains his vehemence.
The Red Sea behind them, its roar practically still echoing in their ears, Israel responded to its new challenges, not with faith, but with grumbling— first, toward Moses, and then ultimately toward the God who’d liberated them. Moses didn’t downplay their distress; he didn’t pretend they weren’t in need. He pleaded with God for food, for water, for protection from enemies. But in Israel’s grumbling, there was more than distress—there was denial. To grumble was to do more than desire relief; it was to deny much about God: that He was present to them; that He was for them and their good; that He was powerful enough to rescue them; and that He had His reasons for allowing the distress—reasons He would sometimes disclose, but other times not. Grumbling and questioning weren’t innocuous calls for change; they were outright refusals to trust God in the face of difficulty. And in Israel’s case, grumbling only paved the way toward idolatry (Ex. 32).
The Philippian church may not have been on the verge of forging a golden calf, but distressing circumstances tempted them to forget what was true. Thinking themselves the master of their fate, they began to kick and scratch against one another. In that posture they risked their credibility with the world by becoming indistinguishable from the world. So Paul’s one simple instruction to them is to set aside the temptation to grumble by applying faith to their situation—in his words to, “…work out their own salvation.”
Distress comes to us all and entices us to find relief in grumbling and questioning. We grumble when we criticize without being constructive. We question when we conclude God has nothing good for us in this moment—a faith statement in itself.
So how shall we avoid the tendency to grumble, in all its God-denying, community-destroying, heart-consuming power? We find our way out of the pit of grumbling onto the broad plain of faith like the Psalmist did. We acknowledge our circumstances and their effect on our heart’s condition. We voice the character of God and His promises, remembering His work on the behalf of others and ourselves. We ask that He would change, if not our circumstances (though certainly we may ask), at least our heart’s disposition toward those circumstances. And then, at last, we ask for strength to take Him at His word.
Yes, the way out of grumbling (or the hedge against it) is significantly a matter of praying. But it’s praying with the gospel in our minds and on our lips. We consider the humility of Jesus, the outcome of His faith—both for Him and for us. We remember what we have in Him that cannot be taken from us. And then, by His grace, He replaces our passive-aggressive impulse to backbite with a calmer pursuit of clarity and peace.
What’s eating you that’s tempting you to devour another? What’s preoccupying you that’s leading you to be preoccupied only with yourself? What circumstance is He calling you to apply faith to in this moment? It’s no trifling matter.