Grumbling is a second nature. We do it all the time, but it is like going to the cheap Chinese buffet. It feels good at the beginning, but we finish, we feel gross and disgusted! Worse, we continue to grumble even if we know it makes us feel terrible after. So why are we grumbling?
After thinking for a while, I wondered why we complained so much. What I realized is that grumbling expresses our feeling of entitlement. We complain because we believe we deserve to be treated in a certain way. It is not just an occasional reaction. It is not just something that happens when we deal with a negative situation.
Let us think about what we try to accomplish when we complain. When we complain:
- we want people to listen to us,
- we want to show how annoyed we are,
- we want to blame others,
- we want people to realize we are the victims, not the wrongdoers,
- we want to be acknowledged,
- we want to elevate ourselves.
Grumbling happens because, in our hearts, we already believe we are entitled to some rights. Of course, there is room for some of it. We indeed should be treated with respect. Etc. But the reason is that we have been created in the image of God, not because of our skills.
Grumbling comes from our oversized ego that demands to be fed even to the detriment of others. Grumbling is a form of practical atheism: though we believe in Jesus, we live like atheists. We live as if we were still worshipping the old idols. We seek fulfillment and wonder through others instead of God. Grumbling cannot be the mark of Christians. That is why Paul says “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil 2:14).
Moreover, grumbling is about impacting people. When we grumble, we try to influence people in a direction. We want people to blame others, not us. We want people to acknowledge how right we are. We want people to do what we want. In short, we want people to feed our ego. That is why grumbling will never allow God’s glory to shine through. When we complain, what we do is what Israel did in the wilderness. In Phil 2:15, Paul is calling the church of Philippi to be what Israel failed to be: “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” This verse is a quote from Deut 32:5:
“They [Israel] have dealt corruptly with [God];
they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
they are a crooked and twisted generation.”
Israel grumbled in the desert against God and Moses. They were even blaspheming telling Moses they had everything they wanted to eat in Egypt. It would have been better for them to stay there. So Paul quoted this passage to tell the church of Philippi not to be that crooked and twisted generation, but instead be the blameless generation that Israel failed to be. Paul adds “among whom you shine as lights in the world” (v15). How can we, Christians, shine if we are like the world? If we fight, if we have resentment against each other, if we blame, if we are “crooked and twisted?” Complaining feeds on negativity and creates negativity. It is a vicious circle. It increases how ungrateful, condescending and blaming we are. It increases darkness not light.
So the question is: how do we do stop grumbling?
I believe Paul gives the solution in Phil 2:16: by holding fast to the Word of life. This phrase “word of life” is not frequently used in the Bible. So he probably wants us to pay attention to it. This expression points to the life giving capacity of the Word. It is not a reference to Jesus as the Word, but to the Gospel that gives life. So why it is the solution?Because it’s only in Christ that we can let go of our entitlement. This Gospel life leads to look at Christ and to what He has done for us. Christ gave up his rights – his equality with God – to die on a cross like the worse of the criminals so that we receive what we don’t deserve: A life filled with hope and satisfaction. That’s why we can say no to grumbling and our feeling of entitlement. We have more than what we truly deserve. We deserved God’s righteous punishment, but we have received His mercy. So if we hold fast to the Gospel, then we will come to stop grumbling and start praising.
Joy – not grumbling – is the mark of the Christian. Let’s look at the example of Paul. When he writes the epistle to the Philippians, Paul is in prison waiting for a judgment that can lead him to death. But he says in Phil 2:17 “even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” The imagery of sacrifice points to suffering, but he says “I rejoice and you, rejoice with me!” Paul does not complain about his tough situation, but rejoices because of the Good News of Christ.
He did not only write that, but he had already demonstrated it to the Philippians. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in Philippi, and they are thrown in prison and beaten. As Roman citizen, he was entitled to defend himself in front of a justice court, but instead he got beaten without judgment. Still, what happened next is that Paul and Silas filled the prison with praise! What Paul shows us is that this life in Christ brings joy despite circumstances.
“Joy has nothing to do with circumstances, but everything to do with one’s place in Christ” – Gordon Fee (1)
The Church has so much potential to shine if only we learn to die to ourselves and to rejoice. We have been given much more in Christ than we can find in this world. The sacrifice of Jesus frees us from our past life filled with frustration, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, meaninglessness to give us an abundant life for which we can be thankful for. If we follow Christ’s example who denied himself, praises will be multiplied.
(1) Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 257