Tuesday, 16 December 2008

"The grumbling Christian" - an oxymoron?

I’ve been spending more time today in Philippians, and I’m thoroughly enjoying seeing Paul’s gospel-heartedness. He glorifies Christ and he values Christ and his gospel above everything else – and calls other believers to do the same.

Today I’ve been thinking about Philippians 2:14-15: “Do everything without grumbling and arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” Last time I taught Philippians, on a summer team in Moldova, this was one of the verses that jumped out at us. Grumbling and arguing is even easier than normal when under pressure in a different culture without creature comforts. Even, in everyday life, it's hard not to grumble or argue. So why is it so important not to grumble? And why does Paul put this prohibition against grumbling right here? He just done telling the Philippians that God is at work in them, he’s about to call them to shine as lights in this twisted, dark world... but first he has to warn them to do all things without grumbling and complaining.

Perhaps this reflects on the pervasiveness of grumbling and complaining. We all find it so easy to grumble and complain! But a grumbling Christian is, for Paul, an oxymoron. A grumbling Christian spreads darkness and bad mouths God. So, says Paul, God is working in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose. And that means that if you want to please God and glorify him in our dark world, you’ve got to get a handle on grumbling. Grumbling is not a ‘minor sin’. It is an indication that all is not well in the spiritual life of a believer.

Of course, the vice of grumbling doesn’t turn up for the first time in Philippians. (Bible Gateway gives 25 other places where the word ‘grumble’ or ‘grumbling’ is used in the NIV). In fact the same word – ‘grumbling’ – is used plenty of times to describe the redeemed people of Israel in the wilderness. I think Paul is alluding the the people of Israel here in Philippians. God saves them with outstretched arm then has to listen to their grumbling just about every step of the way to Canaan! Now, Paul teaches the Philippians, God is powerfully at work in you to will and to act... so learn from the bad example of Israel.God has brought you out of the world, and now it’s time to shine his glory into the darkness of our world.

Israel, of course, had hardly got across the Red Sea when their grumbling began! (In fact, they were grumbling even before they got to the Red Sea: Exodus 15:24). They grumbled about water. They grumbled about food. They grumbled about Moses and Aaron, God’s appointed leaders. They grumbled about the spies. And, of course, their grumbling was ultimately directed against the Lord and his provision. (In this sense, all grumbling is ultimately against the Lord).

The people hit an all-time low in Numbers 16. Firstly they grumble against Moses and Aaron’s leadership... and then following God’s judgement, instead of seeing their own sin, they grumble again (Numbers 16:41), blaming Moses for God’s judgement. And this grumbling is serious. By the end of the chapter, nearly 15000 people have died in judgement. Grumbling is a serious sin against God.

If grumbling is so pervasive, where does it come from? Surely it’s when we lose sight of God’s grace and sovereignty. We grumble because we are self-centred and proud, and that we think we’re not getting what we deserve. Grumblers develop the mindset “I deserve better than this”, and think that life (or God) should have given them a better deal. In that respect, grumbling an symptom of arrogance. It is saying that I know how to run my life better than God, that I doubt his sovereignty and wisdom and goodness.

How, then, does a person fight a grumbling spirit? What is the antidote? Well, this is surely answered by the rest of the letter to the Philippians. It’s letting the wonderful truths of the gospel hit home and placing one's cicumstances in God's hands in this light. It’s cultivating joy that isn’t dependent on one’s present circumstances, but from the eternal realities of an everlasting and wonderful relationship with Christ. It’s learning to know and experience the very great value of the gospel that puts everything else in its correct perspective. It’s through seeing death as gain. It’s working towards a prayer life in which thanksgiving plays an important part. It’s rejoicing in the Lord always. It’s keeping our eyes on the citizenship we have in heaven. It’s learning to be content whatever the circumstances. Above all, it’s knowing Christ, who didn’t demand what he deserved, but gave it all up and made himself a nobody in order to serve others in humility.

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