Conquering Complaining: From Whining to Shining, part 1 (Philippians 2:14)

Grumbling and complaining, isn’t that the order of the day?  We, who live in one of the greatest nations in history, gripe and complain at the slightest inconvenience.

Someone has said…

“Some people are always grumbling; if they had been born in the Garden of Eden, they would have found much to complain of.”

In fact, someone has said:

God created the world in six days.

On the seventh day, He rested.

On the eighth day, He started getting complaints.

There is a poem that starts like this…

I knew a man whose name was Horner
Who used to live in grumble corner;
Grumble corner in crosspatch town
And he never was seen without a frown.

He grumbled at this, and he grumbled at that,
He growled at the dog. He growled at the cat. [sounds like Dr. Seuss wrote this]
He grumbled at morning. He grumbled at night,
And to grumble and growl was his chief delight.

He grumbled so much at his wife that she
Began to grumble as well as he.
And all the children, wherever they went,
Reflected their parents’ discontent.

That’s one thing about grumbling, it spreads.  People have a ready ear for griping and love to pass it on.

Mary Bachelor was that kind of chronic complainer.  She was a minister’s daughter, and a housekeeper and helper to her brother, who also was a clergyman.  Day after day she unloaded her troubles on him.  One evening, as they were talking together, she finally realized what she was doing to him.  Turning to the window in remorse, she saw some tall poplar trees framing the setting sun and casting their shadows across the lawn.  I’m like those trees to my brother, she thought.  I’m always casting shadows.  Why don’t I bury my sorrows by leaving them with Jesus?  She went to her room and found relief in tears, after which she wrote these lines:

Go bury your sorrow, the world has its share;

Go bury it deeply, go hide it with care;

Go think of it calmly, when curtained by night;

Go tell it to Jesus, and all will be right.

That’s what we ought to do…give it to Jesus.

Grumbling is a common problem.  We all do it at times.  Some people do it incessantly.  Sometimes I think it is one of our favorite pastimes.  In fact, in some churches it is the most loved thing to do after the worship services.  There’s always something to complain about.

One of the passages I often read to my hospice patients is Psalm 103.  The first two verses state:

“Bless the Lord O my soul, let all that is within me bless His holy name.  Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all his benefits.”  Then the last verse of that Psalm also says, “Bless the Lord O my soul.”

You will notice there that David is talking to himself.  He’s talking to his own soul and directing his soul what to do—to bless the Lord, to remember what good things God has done and thank Him.

Griping and complaining, they come quite naturally.  We don’t have to remind ourselves to do that.  But we do have to commonly challenge our souls to give thanks to God.

Well, Paul speaks to that issue in our study of the book of Philippians chapter 2.

14 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, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 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. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

First of all, in v. 14, Paul directs us to work on our speech.  Our speech reflects our heart.

Paul has just told them to “work out your salvation” and that is a corporate command.  He ended the previous section by saying that God works for “good pleasure,” both His and ours.  When God is continually working for our good, what logic is it to complain?

Paul commands us to “do all things without grumbling or questioning.” Which will be stated positively in verse 18, “rejoice and be glad.”

Now Paul’s mention of murmuring and questioning conjures up the pathetic grousing and whining of ancient Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:12).  And his words are intentionally vivid.

The word “grumbling” is goggusmos, which is an onomatopoeic word that sounds like what it means.  This is a word that expresses displeasure either internally through murmuring or externally through whisperings to someone.

Although the word doesn’t occur regularly in the New Testament, it did occur very frequently in the Greek translation of the Hebrew narratives about Israel’s years of wandering in the desert.

This word was used in Acts 6:1, where it is translated with the word “complaint.”

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

Even the idyllic early church had its share of grumblings.

Of course, in that context, the complaints led to something positive being done.  I don’t think Paul is saying that any voice of dissent should be silenced.  There are times (and ways) to disagree and dialogue and ask questions.

I don’t think Paul is trying to stop the free exchange of ideas in love and a spirit of unity. He’s not so much against disagreement as disagreeableness.

It would seem to me that grumbling often begins with one (or just a few) malcontents, who gain a hearing, and whose grumbling multiplies.  This takes place until sufficient “support” has been generated, and then leadership is confronted.

An illustration of this may be seen in the New Testament when Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume.  In Mark’s Gospel (14:1-9), we are simply told that “they” murmured against her.  But in John 12:4-6, we are told that it was Judas who first raised the objection.

Putting all the details of the Gospel accounts together, we can see that Judas was the first grumbler, and that he soon had stirred up the others, so that they joined with him in his grumbling.  Grumbling is indeed contagious.

Again, what Paul is speaking to is the attitudes of the Philippians which are leading to disunity.  Jesus was an example of someone to subdued his selfish desires and gave himself for others, without a complaint.

Grumbling is not denying pain or difficulty or suffering or even disagreement, but grumbling is a mindset that focuses almost entirely on the negative.

Two characters in literature that seem to have a problem with grumbling are A. A. Milne’s Eeyore—who thought everything could go wrong and he could count on it.  He could cover the sun with clouds.  Remember his “it’s my birthday, but nobody noticed”?

Then there is C. S. Lewis’ Marshwiggle in his story, The Silver Chair.  When he sets out with the two children to rescue the lost prince, he says, “We can count on it.  We will get lost.  We will start to attack each other.  We will probably end up killing each other.  There is no way we can succeed in this venture anyway.”

Grumbling stays focused on the negative and isn’t willing to look at the positive.  It believes the bad news even when others are trying to open their eyes to good news.

When we look back at ancient Israel, we find that grumbling not only sabotaged their future (they died in the wilderness), but it tends to falsify the past.  Israel actually told themselves that they had had better days in Egypt!

The other word here, translated “questioning” in the English Standard Version, is dialogismos.  While we get the word “dialogue” from this word, in this context it means “disputings” or “arguings.”

The first of these words (“grumbling”) looks at the initial activity, and the second (“disputing”), what results from the first (cf. 1 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 2:2; 4:2).

While grumbling can be kept internal (to ourselves), disputations are definitely between two people.

Arguing happens when grumbling spills over into our conversations.  We first look at things negatively, then we want to argue about it with others.  In our misery we want others to comply to our complaints.

Max Lucado tells of a man who came home one day and immediately his wife started complaining which led to an intense argument.  Arriving at 6:30 in the evening, he spent an hour trying to make things right.  Nothing worked.  Finally, he said, “Let’s start over and pretend I’m just getting home.”  He stepped outside and when he opened the door, she said, “It’s 7:30 and you’re just now getting home!”

She found something new to gripe about.

When you have a heart that is focused on the negative, then it is easy to go on the attack.  Grumbling can often be detected by the pronouns we choose to use.  If you are saying, “he” or “she” or “they” more than “we” and us” you are probably a grumbler.

If you are using “you” statements more than “I” statements, then you are arguing.

Throughout this epistle Paul has been emphasizing humility, which puts others needs ahead of our own.  Notice in these passages how pride leads to arguing.

Proverbs 13:10 says “By insolence [pride] comes nothing but strife…

Galatians 5:26 warns us, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another…”

If grumbling is discontent over not getting what we want; arguing is the attempt to get what we want.

Both are poison to community—to any relationship, the marriage relationship, churches.

Whenever two people get close enough, there will be friction, there will be conflict.  It is a given.  But if we operate from a position of believing the best in others, like 1 Corinthians 13:7 says) and a position of humility—putting others first, then we can deal with our needs and our differences in a more positive way.

Now the first word of verse 14 is “do all things” or “do everything.”  First, notice that the word “do” means that this is work; it will take effort.

Like I said earlier, we don’t have to work at grumbling and arguing, they come quite naturally.  We do have to make a conscious effort to live a life of trust and gratitude that produces better responses than grumbling and arguing.

And secondly, notice the word “all.”  The word order is literally, “all things do without” these two attitudes.  This inclusive word means there really is no place for grumbling and arguing in Christian community.  There are no situations in which grumblings and arguings are commendable.

So how do we stop griping and complaining?  How do we stop arguing with one another?

First, admit that complaining and arguing are sins.  They are not just “bad habits,” but a sin that needs to be put to death.  Oftentimes the most difficult part in learning how to change our complaining is to recognize it and admit it within ourselves.  It’s easy to see in others, but we are often blind to it in ourselves.

Second, accept personal responsibility for your tendency to complain and argue.

Third, work on the attitude of gratitude (1 Thess. 5:18).  Make it a habit of thanking God and others for what they have done and are doing for you.  Look for the positives.

Fourth, identity God’s hand of providence in your negative circumstances.  He is working all things for your good.  When you gripe and complain, you are saying challenging God’s wisdom, doubting God’s grace and forgetting God’s goodness to you.

Fifth, develop a habit of speaking positively, staying focused on the positive.  Just like complaining can be a bad habit, speaking positive, encouraging words can be a new habit.  Be kind and positive, even if you have to force yourself at first.

But what do we do in a circumstance where we have been truly wronged?  Here is where Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15 apply:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

This passage assumes that someone has wronged you or hurt you in some way.

First, we are to keep it to ourselves.  We are not to murmur to others.

Second, we should approach the offender with an attitude of trying to find a positive solution.  We are not aiming to win, but to find a mutually agreeable solution, just like the early church did in Acts 6.

Galatians 6:2 tells us we should go with a meek and humble spirit.

Also, fourth, we should give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe we misinterpreted his or her words or actions.

Fifth, make sure you are quick to hear, meaning that you are willing to listen to their side as well.

Sixth, the next two verses in Matthew tell us not to give up on the other person.  If they don’t respond to your initial confrontation, then bring a witness and try again.

Paul’s prohibition against “complaining or arguing” should be interpreted primarily in light of the interpersonal conflicts that were going on at Philippi.  Paul knew that the unity of the church was a precious and fragile thing and we all have to work at it to keep it.  Christ prayed for it and the Spirit provides it, but we have to maintain it.

Unfortunately, the Philippians, like you and me, were doing those things that generated unfriendliness towards each other.  They were focusing on the negative in their situation and each other and they were more than willing to argue with each other.  These attitudes were stoking the flames of the tensions they already felt towards one another.

Critical, complaining spirits are the historic bane of the church from Philippi to Peoria, Illinois to Philadelphia.  They are found in every culture, like the nineteenth-century Scots who went to church to see if the gospel was preached.  Or today’s McChurch worshippers who leave their church to go down the street to find a church more to their liking.

If we are reading Paul correctly, “do[ing] all things without grumbling or disputing” is a watershed state of the soul.  Those who persist in such murmuring are not obedient to Christ and his gospel and are rejecting the divine call to “work out your own salvation” (v. 12).  They impede their own souls and the souls of their brothers and sisters in this matter.  They are undertows to the Body of Christ.  So if you are one of these people, understand that when you finally stand before your Savior, you will answer with shame.

Our unity is what makes the world sit up and take notice.  When they can see us loving one another despite our differences and forgiving sins committed against one another, it is by far the best example, the shining example, as Paul will say in verse 15, of Christ living in us.

Unfortunately, what the world usually takes notice of is our fighting.  And that grieves the heart of our Lord who prayed for, and died for, our unity.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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