When God’s work in and around me seems slow or nonexistent, I’m prone to grumbling. But there are many other times too, I’m noticing, when I’m quick to grumble or complain: when I’m under stress or experiencing suffering, when I can’t be sure of guaranteed outcomes in the future, or when I’m focused on myself and want my own way.
What is the antidote to grumbling? How can I become not only a non-complainer but rather a wholehearted rejoicer? Paul’s words to the Philippians have washed me afresh with the salient, transforming truth needed:
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 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, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16a).
This seems a strange segue from Paul’s previous reminder that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (vs 13). However, by using very specific words—”grumbling” and the phrase “a crooked and twisted generation”—Paul references an Old Testament story in which the Israelites, having escaped slavery in Egypt were, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron, making their way toward the land God had promised them.
The Israelites had forgotten how God provided for them, and so they’d become worried about their future and their children’s future. Because they’d forgotten God’s promises and neither trusted Him nor the leaders God had given them, they wept, grumbled, and searched for an escape from their circumstances. Just before he died, Moses referred back to this scene, calling the grumbling Israelites a “crooked and twisted generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5).
We may think of murmuring in discontent or disputing as a relatively small thing. The Israelites were simply sharing their hearts, right? What did it hurt that they grumbled against their spiritual leaders in a whispered aside?
Paul uses the language of Moses (“crooked and twisted generation”) in order to teach the Philippians—and us—that grumbling and disputing is ultimately a grumbling and disputing against God. Therefore, Paul’s command is that the Philippians must respond to their own uncertain times and difficult persecutions differently than the Israelites did theirs.
Responding differently—becoming a rejoicer rather than a complainer—means first recognizing the truth of Philippians 2:13: “…for it is God who is at work in you.” Philippians, Paul says, God is at work! God is in charge! God is willing and empowering you to live and serve in a way that pleases him. You are secure and provided for by your Abba Father, even if you can’t see it. This leaves no wiggle room for grumbling or disputing.
And so it is for us, too. God is at work, even if we can’t see his work unfolding quite yet. With this truth in mind, we can read verse 14 as “do all things then without grumbling or disputing,” because the command follows Paul’s description of the continual work of God in our lives. Grumbling and disputing are antithetical to the idea that God is at work in all things, for these actions convey that God has abandoned us, will not provide, or does not have our good in mind when he sets leaders over us.
Emphasis in the command Paul gives is on the words “all things”: do all things without grumbling or disputing. Should we not then have matters we disagree on in the church? Should we not ever disagree with our leaders? No, rather he exhorts us to handle our disagreements the way modeled to us by Christ in 2:1-10: with humility, with an attitude of obedience to the Father, and with a focus on understanding and showing the value of the other. We are to handle our disagreements with humility, not with even an ounce of grumbling or quarreling.
Paul then tells us the purpose or the outcome of our obedience to this command: “..so 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.”
Paul tells the Philippian church that they have a witness to the world. He describes this witness using light imagery, not saying “you need to shine” or “I command you to shine,” but rather that they already shine because they have the Light of the World in them. In other words, Paul tells them that they naturally stand out in the world because of their hope in Jesus.
What is the command for us then? It is that we must do everything without grumbling or disputing so that the Light of Jesus in us will shine unhindered by our own attitudes and actions. We must not tarnish or blot out the light of Jesus in us through our faithless grumbling and disputing. Our lack of grumbling displays our trust and peace in God, and these certainly shine bright in a cynical, despairing world.
When we trust God’s sovereign hand, Paul says we “hold forth” or “hold fast” the word of life. We hold forth to what we hold fast: Jesus, called the Word, called the Life. When we refrain from grumbling and disputing because we trust that Jesus is Lord and the Holy Spirit is at work, we commend Jesus to others. We show people in the world where life is truly found.
This, then, is the work of the Christian: to know God is at work. When this truth is embraced by faith, grumbling and disputing wither, and in their place grows a heart overflowing with joy.