DOING ALL THINGS WITHOUT COMPLAINING
One of the first biblical passages we examined on anxiety was Paul’s straightforward command in Philippians 4:6: “Be anxious for nothing.” In the last two parts of this series, we will probe two other passages from Philippians. One comes before the command, and the other comes afterward. They bracket our understanding of how to attack anxiety by specifying a habit to avoid and an attitude to cultivate. Follow through with what you learn and you will see for yourself that Paul wasn’t issuing an impossible command. Our first text is: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Phil. 2:14–16).
Discontent in Society
We live in a society that loves to complain. Ironically, the most indulged society the world has known thus far is also the most discontent. The more people have, the more discontent they are apt to be with what they have—and these types don’t believe in silent suffering. We seem to be breeding a generation of complainers.
Most families in the Western World nowadays have either one or two children, if any. These small families in a materialistic society are apt to breed selfish, self-indulgent children. Picture this scene at the breakfast table: The mother asks her one or two children, “What would you like me to fix you to take to school for lunch?” One says peanut butter, the other says tuna. She says okay and starts preparing customized lunches. Before they leave for school, Mom asks, “What time will you be home? What time should I plan dinner?” The kids collaborate and say, “Let’s see, we’ll probably be home somewhere between four and five. Better make it five thirty.” At the dinner table of the modern family, after taking one bite, at least one of the kids will probably say, “I don’t like it. I want something else.”
If you were raised before the 1980’s or even the 1990’s, a different reality prevailed. When you got up in the morning and made it down to the kitchen, you got handed a bag. And when you left the house, your mother said to you, “Dinner is at five thirty. You’re here, you eat.”
The difference is that in most modern families, authority defers to the child. Before the 1990’s —in most instances, the child had to defer to authority. So what you have, is a generation growing up in an environment where authority defers to them. It is the unfortunate product of child-centered parenting.
When I was a child, I looked forward to growing up because I wanted my freedom. I was expected to conform to my surroundings, and I did. I ate what my parents gave me and wore whatever my mother brought home. I was eager to assume the responsibilities of adulthood so I could be free to make my own choices.
The reverse is now true. Children who grow up controlling the family environment don’t want to become adults because that means conformity for them. They don’t want to get a job because nobody at work is going to say, “How would you like your office decorated? And what time would you like to break for lunch?” Rather, they put you on an assembly line or in some other place, and you are expected to conform to their rules. No wonder we have a generation of young people who don’t want to grow up and leave home!
Ask the average high school or college student what he or she wants to do after graduation, and you’ll receive the usual response: So many of them feel this way because they’re postponing responsibility. The freedom of their childhood seems so much more attractive than conformity to a system. Their parents, although usually well meaning, are unwittingly training them to be irresponsible.
When reality hits, when children raised this way are finally forced to get a job, count on them to look for whatever offers the most amount of money for the least amount of work. They have no work ethic or sense of excellence for excellence’s sake. The objective of these adult children is to finance themselves so they can indulge in the things they enjoy. They try making the most out of the necessary evil of adulthood by collecting gadgets, boats, cars, vacation trips, and whatever else might reignite the flame of their lost childhood.
That is a hollow pursuit, however, because “not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions,” said Jesus (Luke 12:15). These adult children will feel empty inside and know that something is missing. Rather than seeing it’s because they’re emphasizing the physical at the expense of the spiritual, most will assume it’s because they don’t have enough—and whatever they have is never enough to these individuals! Moreover, their attitude is infectious, and that’s why our society tends to be critical.
The complaints have become more and more petty over time. Think about the things most people complain about, get anxious over, and even become enraged over. You may feel convicted. I know I’ve been guilty of letting some of these things bother me more than they should. Something as commonplace as a traffic jam can bring on incredible anger. Slow drivers in front of us and people who cut us off can be enough to make us fall back into sin! Talkative people irritate us. Long lines, short lines—any lines—drive us crazy. We want it our way, and we want it now!
Think how distressed people become over crying babies. Rather than accepting them as part of life, a terrible brooding discontent has led to a frightening increase in child abuse. Phone calls at inconvenient times, misplaced keys, non-housebroken puppies, stuck zippers, tight clothes, unsuccessful diets, being rushed or interrupted by someone—we get distressed by the biggies, don’t we?
Now if we’re in Hiroshima and it’s 1945, we have a problem worthy of considerable concern. But just because we lost out on a promotion, a business deal, or something else we wanted doesn’t mean we’re to complain about it and become anxious. We can surely find a way to survive, calm down, and review the situation. Our concerns are productive when they lead to a sensible course of action, but not when they lead to anxiety. Be aware that our concerns are far more apt to follow the path to anxiety and misery if accompanied by complaints.
It is a sin to complain against God, and we must see our complaints as such. “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” asked Paul rhetorically. “The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” (Rom. 9:20). Complaining against God is out of place and completely inappropriate. Don’t be fooled into thinking only the worst blasphemers commit that sin. Isn’t it God we are really complaining against when we gripe about our circumstances? After all, He is the one who put us where we are. A lack of thankfulness and contentment is ultimately an attack on God.
Complainers have a devastating effect on the church. Some are apostates, whom Jude described as “grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts” (Jude v. 16). Their sin is so defiling because it is highly contagious. We find abundant proof of that in the Old Testament. Let’s consider it carefully so we can protect ourselves and our churches from descending into a morass of complaints, discontentment, anxiety, and misery.
Discontent in the Old Testament
This is the scene: The Israelites are in the wilderness, heading toward the Promised Land after God miraculously delivered them from centuries of bondage in Egypt. God tells them to occupy the land. Joshua, Caleb, and ten others spy out the land and give their report:
Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we will surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.” So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size.… We became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
Then all the congregation … grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and … said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly.… Joshua … and Caleb … spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, “… Do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land.… Their protection has been removed from them, and the LORD is with us.…” But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. (Num. 13:30—14:7, 9–10)
Those ten spies, those prophets of doom, kicked off nationwide discontent by complaining against what God had commanded them to do. What does Scripture say happened to them? “As for the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land and who returned and made all the congregation grumble … even those men who brought out the very bad report of the land died by a plague before the LORD” (Num. 14:36–37). Does that give you an idea of what God thinks about grumblers? They spread a noxious poison that quickly infects other people. They have the capability of setting into motion a group panic attack.
That happened many times in Israel’s history. Poor Moses had to suffer complaints regularly about his leadership and the food God provided for the people. According to Psalm 106, the complaints of the Israelites “tempted God in the desert.… They despised the pleasant land; they did not believe in His word, but grumbled in their tents.… Therefore He swore to them that He would cast them down in the wilderness, and that He would cast their seed among the nations” (vv. 14, 24–27). That divine judgment has dogged their nation throughout its history.
The New Testament makes it clear that the church is to learn from Israel’s mistake. After describing the incredible blessings Israel enjoyed from God’s hand, Paul stated, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things [are] examples for us, so that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved … nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed” (1 Cor. 10:5–6, 10).
Complaining is the symptom of a deep-seated spiritual problem—a failure to trust God and submit to His will. It is not a trivial matter: “The one who does not believe God has made Him a liar” (1 John 5:10). Here’s a better text to adhere to: “Why should any living mortal … offer complaint in view of his sins?” (Lam. 3:39). God has forgiven our sins, and the only proper way to say thank you is to be grateful. As we learned previously, a spirit of thanksgiving drives away anxiety—and also makes it hard to complain.
Contentment as a Command
We now have the background for understanding Paul’s command in Philippians 2:14: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” The “all things” refers to what Paul had said previously: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you” (vv. 12–13). In other words, while God is working in your life, be sure you never complain.
Life isn’t always going to serve us what we’d like. God will allow trials in our lives to help us pray, trust, and be grateful for what we have. Through it all, the Bible commands us to be content:
- Luke 3:14: “Be content with your wages.”
- 1 Timothy 6:6, 8: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.… If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (NIV).
- Hebrews 13:5: “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have.”
Two roadblocks to contentment are grumbling and disputing. The Greek word translated “grumbling” in Philippians 2:14 is gongusmos. It’s a grouchy, grumbly, onomatopoeic word. It sounds as grumpy as its meaning. It refers to murmuring, an expression of discontent and muttering in a low voice. It’s the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe the grumblings of Israel. It’s a complaint expressed with a negative attitude, an emotional rejection of God’s will.
The Greek word translated “disputing” (dialogismos) is more intellectual in nature. It refers to questioning and criticism.
This is when emotional bellyaching turns into a debate with God (as it did with Job). We start arguing with God about why things are the way they are or why we have to do what we’re supposed to do. We think we have a better idea than God about the job, marriage, church, home, or any other situation we’re in.
Paul said there’s a better way to live—working out our Christian life without complaining. It’s an attitude more in tune with life as it is. We are living in a fallen world. It isn’t always going to be the way we like it, and the people around us aren’t always going to be the way we’d like them to be. When we complain about them, we offend God and position ourselves for His judgment. James warned, “Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:9). Imagine a little kid in his room complaining to his sister, “Boy, I sure hate the way Dad treats us.” But what he doesn’t know is that Dad is standing right outside the door! God, likewise, is always in earshot of our complaints.
The Reasons behind the Command
It would be wrong to conclude, however, that God is always waiting to get us. In His Word He not only tells us that He hates complaining, but He also makes it very clear why. He wants us to see that the reasons are as dear to our own hearts as to His and are clearly in our best interests.
Stop Complaining for Your Own Sake
A literal translation of the Greek text in Philippians 2:14–15 is: “Stop complaining in order that you may become blameless, innocent children of God.” There is a process here. Salvation has past, present, and future aspects to it. These verses refer to the present aspect. As God does His work in us, our part is not to complain.
Ask yourself a couple of questions: Whom do I belong to? Whose name do I bear? As Christians, we are to live consistently with who we are. Don’t you know who your heavenly Father is? How can you act like that? Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to become anxious or complain. Hold your head up high and realize that God has destined you for something better. You have been created to reflect His nature.
Stop Complaining for the Sake of Non-Christians
Paul explained that we reflect God’s nature to “prove [ourselves] to be … children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom [we] appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Phil. 2:15–16). How we live has a dramatic effect not only on whether we’re consistent with who we are as children of God, but also on how we affect the world around us.
This statement addresses our evangelistic mandate and is the heart of Paul’s appeal. A simple definition of evangelism is God’s children shining as lights in a dark world. Doing that effectively involves two things: content and character. It’s not just what we say but what we are.
If you are a godly, obedient Christian, you will have an almost startling effect on most people. They will feel the light, and some may even shy away from it because it is so obvious that you possess something they don’t possess. Others will be attracted to it because they have a yearning to be something better than what they are. Their fate is inextricably intertwined with how we live our lives. As John Donne wrote hauntingly, “No man is an island, entire of itself” (“Meditation 17”). That is especially true of the Christian. A few sentences later Donne affirmed, “I am involved in mankind.” For the Christian, that is more than a resolve; it is a statement of fact.
The quality of your life is the platform of your personal testimony. A murmuring, discontent, grumbling, griping, and complaining Christian is never going to have a positive influence on others. It’s incongruous to be talking about the gospel of forgiveness, joy, peace, and comfort, yet be moaning and complaining much of the time. Give people more credit than that: They aren’t going to believe the gospel until they see it do what you say it will do. “Show me your redeemed lives, and I might be inclined to believe in your Redeemer” is a valid challenge for any non-Christian to make.
As said earlier, the equation for evangelism is character plus content. While appearing as lights in the world, we simultaneously are to be “holding fast the word of life” (Phil. 2:16). It is the Word of God that gives life. Since the people of the world are spiritually dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1), there is nothing they need more.
Stop grumbling, said Paul. Stop arguing with God. Obey Him joyfully. In the process of shining as lights in the world, you will find there will be a ready reception, because a transformed life is the greatest advertisement for the gospel. A negative, griping, complaining spirit is the worst.
Try your best to make it through today without complaining about something. Make a note every time you do complain. You may be surprised to discover it has become a way of life. In addition to being highly contagious to others, a complaining spirit has an anesthetic effect on whoever possesses it. It quickly becomes so habitual that most people infected by it don’t even realize what a dominant characteristic it has become.
Put a check on the complaints you utter, and you will succeed in attacking anxiety at its source. You will be affirming that God knows what He is doing in your life. To hear yourself complain is to hear yourself affirm the contrary. The more you hear yourself talk like that, the more you’ll believe it. For peace of mind, stop it now.