Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life… (Philippians 2:12-16a)
Have you been grumbling about the pandemic? First, it was the toilet paper shortage, then the closures, then the mask mandates, then the lifting of mask mandates, then the vaccine – and always the people who thought differently than you. If you have been grumbling about the pandemic, may I suggest that you’ve got infected by a second pandemic, even more viral than the first and just as catastrophic: the pandemic of grumbling.
We are going through a grumbling surge right now. Grumbling is viral. And it is highly contagious, which means you’d better be careful you are hanging with! Grumbling has the potential to ruin everything.
Because this is serious, I am in favor of compulsory mask-wearing—not for COVID but for people who can’t stop grumbling. In fact, quarantine is probably in order – even if the complainer … is me.
Grumbling is talking to yourself or to anyone who happens to be near about the wrongs you have suffered, the wrongs you must endure, and the injustice that is your lot. Your mind rehearses these things, almost as if it was programmed to do so. It’s not that you intend to grumble; it’s just that these things keep irritating your mind until they come out of your mouth, like a mental sneeze.
When we complain about one bad thing in our lives, we are likely to infect the good things in our lives too. But it’s not so much the things that get infected; it is us. We carry the infection with us. Wherever we go, wherever our minds go, the infection goes with us. Eventually, it contaminates everything. Nothing retains its luster.
It doesn’t stop with you, either. It spreads to the people around you. It infects them, contaminates their pleasures and joys. It leaves families, workplaces, and even churches blighted.
I’ve known families in which a grumbling spirit has been passed down from one generation to another. I’d rather my parents passed on baldness and heart disease (which they did). Baldness and heart disease cannot rob me of joy, but grumbling can and does. I can serve Christ well even when I become the latest family member with cancer, but I cannot serve him well when I grumble.
Grumbling and arguing can ruin a marriage that is otherwise strong. It can ruin a house, though you once thought it was a palace. It can ruin your car, though it is still dependable. It can ruin your paycheck. Grumbling and arguing can ruin anything.
And yet everyone – or nearly everyone – does it. There is an attraction to it, an appeal. Grumbling seems to relieve pressure, but it is the same kind of relief we get when we scratch the poison ivy rash on our leg. It feels good for a moment, then makes the itch even worse.
We can take up other people’s grievances, join their side, feel their anger, and hate their enemy (who has become our enemy). We can even feel righteous because of it. Feeling righteous – especially more righteous than someone else – is highly addictive.
Everyone wants to complain, but have you noticed that hardly anyone wants to be around a complainer? We can’t wait for them to stop complaining so we can start.
Everyone is vulnerable to this infection, but there are steps we can tale that will make us less susceptible. To understand those steps, we need some context. Earlier in this chapter, Paul urged the Philippians church members to look to the interests of others and not just their own. Those who do have a high degree of protection from grumbling and arguing. He speaks in verse 4 of – literal translation – “scoping out the interests of others.” If there is a vaccine against grumbling, this is it. Grumblers are always focused – sometimes continually focused – on their own interests.
Secondly, people who begin a regimen of mind transformation develop long-term immunity to grumbling and arguing. Verse 5 says, “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” or literally, “Think this” – an imperative mood verb – “among yourselves which also [was] in Christ Jesus.” If we don’t change our thinking, we’ll never be able to stop complaining – even if we want to. It is in our thinking – our mindset – that the grumbling virus lodges. We need, to quote Ephesians 4:23, to “be renewed in the spirit of [our] minds.”
No shot from a hypodermic needle will renew your thinking. For that, you need an injection of Scripture – not just a couple of times, with a Sunday sermon booster – but a regular regimen of biblical truth, administered under the oversight of God’s Holy Spirit. If you don’t know how to get that, set up a time to talk to me and I can help you.
One more thing about context: This “scoping out the interests of others,” and the attendant renewal of the mind happen within the life of the church. It happens when people are together in community. Chapter two (especially the first four verses) makes this clear. Renewal of the mind doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens as we live side by side, help each other, pray for each other, get hurt by each other, and forgive each other. As John Wesley put it: “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”
If we try to do everything without grumbling and arguing, we will need each other’s help. I invite your help. This is a command I have broken more times than I can count. But we will have other help – and better – than what our church family can give. We will have God’s help too. Look at verse 13: “…it is God who works in you” – you here is plural and might refer to the church: it is God who works in your church family – “to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
God promises his help. There is nothing quite like this in the sacred texts of the world. Other gods command and even pity, but they do not help humans both to will and to do. But the God and Father of our Lord Jesus does. And not from a distance; he takes up residence in us by his Spirit. He doesn’t set a fire beneath us (the fires of hell) or pull the strings above us (as if we were puppets). He neither causes nor coerces. He enables – enables us to choose the right thing and enables us to do the right thing. But we must learn to trust him.
We are talking about doing everything without grumbling and arguing. This is not a matter of human willpower – mind over matter – but of God’s faithfulness – God over evil. We’ll not succeed at this because we have a strong mind, but because we have a trusting heart.
And we must succeed at this. There is a great deal riding on it. Listen to what St. Paul, who penned this letter, wrote to the Corinthian church: “…do not grumble, as some of them” [he’s talking about Jews in Moses’s time] “did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:10-11.)
The command to do everything without grumbling and arguing is not just important because of what might happen to us, but also because of what might not happen through us. If we are to fulfill our calling in the world, it is critical for us to understand this. And to understand this, we need to understand a truth about God’s people that sometimes has gotten blurred.
If someone were to ask you to describe God’s people – what they are like, what the church is like or, at least, what it is supposed to be like – how would you answer? You might say, “They are gracious. They are honest. They are loving. They are generous.” Those are good answers, every one. God’s people are – or, at least, are supposed to be – like this. Another way of putting it is to say, “God’s people are holy,” or even “God’s people are different.” According to one famous scholar, that is what it means to say someone is holy: he or she is different.
God’s people are different. Or they are supposed to be. They have different values and, because they have different values, they have different morals. And because they have different morals, they act differently. If they are not acting differently, they are not serving their purpose. In fact, they are subverting it.
Here we have one way – there are many others but this one is vitally important right now – that God’s people are to be different from everyone else: they don’t complain and argue. People have always complained and argued, and Christians have always been instructed to do neither. This is one of the places where we are to be different.
There are others. We don’t have sex outside of marriage – at least, we are not supposed to; we are to be different. We don’t spend our money only on ourselves – at least, we are not supposed to; we are to be different. We don’t pay people back for the wrongs they have done us – at least, we are not supposed to; we forgive; we are supposed to be different. We don’t go around putting people down; we “do not judge,” – or, at least, we are not supposed to. We are supposed to be different.
At this moment in world history – in this era of unparalleled complaining and arguing – one of the primary ways God’s people will stand out is by abstaining from complaints and refusing to argue. Some contemporary Christians teachers think we need to lodge our complaints as loudly as possible and do whatever it takes to win the cultural argument—as if that’s our job. But St. Paul says it is our job not to complain. It is our job not to argue. We are to be different. That’s in our job description. The success of our calling is riding on it.
Just think how different we would be if we neither complained nor argued. Not on Facebook, not on social media, not in person. If you went through a string of Job-like catastrophes without complaining, how would that impact the people around you? We are to be different. If we lose our jobs, lose our homes, and lose our reputations, and yet don’t complain, we will be different – and, in our role as Jesus’s people, different is good.
But there is more to it than that. If you lose your job, your spouse, your health and yet never complain, I will say you are a fine person. You are extraordinary. You are one in a million. But it will never enter my mind that I might be like you.
But if neither you nor I complain when we are struggling through difficulties; if you and I and Michael, and Jenny, Mark, Paula, Scott, Chris, Tanya, Emily – our entire group – doesn’t complain or argue, people will believe that such a life is possible, that there is a way to it, and that we know what it is. And if our entire church doesn’t complain or argue, even when things are scary, unfair, and tough, people will believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Let’s look more closely at verse 14. The apostle says, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing…” Everything? Dishes, driving, golfing, board meetings, conversations about the government, the pandemic, the weather – everything? If that doesn’t even sound possible to you, you may be addict. It’s alright to admit it. “Hi, my name is Shayne, and I am a complainaholic.”
But it is possible to stop grumbling and arguing for those who have come over to God’s side, trusted his Son, and received his Spirit. Remember, “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” It is not mind over matter but God over evil.
Verse 15 tells us why this is important – why we as Jesus’s people simply cannot be like everyone else: “so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation…” God wants us to stand out. He wants us to be different. His plan for the world depends on us “shining like stars in the universe.” Paul took that last phrase from the 12th chapter, third verse of the prophet Daniel, where Daniel was talking about people who lead many to righteousness. Both Daniel and Paul are thinking about God’s plan to bring people to himself. That is not primarily done by brilliant apologetic arguments or inspiring sermons. It is done by people who are different, like those who don’t complain. They stand out like a sore thumb or, rather, like a bright star against the dark sky.
To make that clear, Paul continues: “as you hold out the word of life.” Not the word of COVID or the word of politics, or even the word of advice. We hold out the word of life. The word of life is the announcement of the good news and the life it makes possible. It is a new life, not the same old life that never satisfies. It is an eternal life, not a fleeting one – indestructible is how the author of Hebrews described it. It is a free life, not one intertwined with addictions. It is a life of purpose. A life of love. A life we love. And it is possible because God is at work in us both to will and to act according to his good purpose.
There is a negative and a positive here. The negative – what we don’t do – is complain and argue. The positive – what we do – is hold out the word of life. That combination – not doing the one while doing the other – produces results in our lives, family, and community. Any other combination – doing neither, doing both, or worse, getting it exactly backwards and doing what we shouldn’t and not doing what we should – makes our lives unhappy and our efforts to bring other people over to Christ’s side ineffective.
You can’t complain and argue with someone one moment and tell them about Jesus the next and expect them to believe you. You might as well tell them that you’ve gone bankrupt five times and then recommend your financial advisor. Our work as God’s people includes recruiting family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances for Jesus’s side. But for us to be successful at that, we cannot complain and argue. We must be different.
And for that, we need training in the way of Jesus. That training continues throughout life. Jesus’s people are life-long learners. They are always involved in continuing education. But there are also steps we can take now.
I’ve already referred to a couple of them. We can start scoping out the interests of others. One way to do that is to pay attention to the prayer requests we hear on Sunday. We can join the prayer chain during the week. We can be on the lookout for ways to help. Just getting our minds off ourselves and onto the needs of others will help us stop grumbling and arguing.
Another thing we can do is pray for and seek the renewing of our minds so that we start thinking like Jesus. The Bible is a great help in this. The Spirit of God uses the word of God to transform the minds of the people of God. Start reading the Bible regularly. Join a Bible study or just get together with someone each week to talk about the sermon. Spend at least as much time reading or talking about the Bible as you spend on social and news media. Those media also transform minds, not to think the way Jesus does but the way some powerful person – perhaps even an adversary of Jesus – wants you to think.
Finally, don’t underestimate how difficult it will be to do everything without grumbling or arguing. You’ll never succeed unless you make a choice to do so. You can choose to do this or not, but you’re not going to drift into it by chance. To help you make that choice, we have set up a page on our website (www.lockwoodchurch.org) where you can publicly affirm your intention to do all things without grumbling or arguing this week. One week. It is only a start, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start.
I encourage you to tell someone (a spouse, a friend, someone you work with – or all three) that you’ve made a commitment not to complain or argue for the entire week and enlist their help. Ask them to call you out if you should start grumbling or arguing.
This is important. This is our opportunity. Let’s take it to the glory of God.