If you were giving an exhortation to an obedient people, what temptations would you urge them to guard against? Most of us would likely highlight the danger of pride and self-righteousness. And we’d be right to do so.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is addressing an obedient people. Unlike the Galatians or Corinthians, Paul does not write to them in order to rebuke and correct substantial failures and errors. Outside exhorting a few quarreling women, there isn’t a hint of “You foolish Galatians!” (Galatians 3:1) or “Are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:3). Instead, to the Philippians, Paul says, “As you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence” (Philippians 2:12). The Philippians are an obedient people.
So how does Paul exhort them? What does he see as a key danger for this obedient people?
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, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Philippians 2:14–16)
Grumbling and Disputing
A major temptation for the obedient is to murmur and grumble in our obedience. That’s why Paul says to do everything without grumbling or disputing, without murmuring or complaining, without sulking or arguing, without whining or backtalk. A temptation for an obedient people is to offer frustrated, grumbling obedience.
“A major temptation for the obedient is to murmur and grumble in our obedience.”
In other words, Paul is clear that how we obey matters. The spirit beneath our actions matters. God’s standard and expectation for us isn’t merely to obey. It’s to obey all the way, right away, cheerfully. All the way, right away, with a happy heart.
This means that partial obedience is disobedience. Delayed obedience is disobedience. And grumbling obedience, irritated obedience, frustrated obedience is disobedience. And it’s crucial for us to press this truth into the corners of our lives.
We each have various sources of hardship and frustration in our lives. It might be a boss or a co-worker. It might be a tone of voice or an annoying habit from your spouse or child or parent or sibling or friend. It might be a deep unmet desire, like the desire to be married.
Whatever the frustration, how often do you find yourself attempting to obey God while muttering and murmuring about the hardship? How often is there a hitch in your obedience, or an edge to your obedience, or self-pity in your obedience? It’s like we say to ourselves, I will do the right thing, but there will be enough reluctance and grumbling accompanying my obedience that everyone will know what it’s costing me.
Now some of us grumble directly about God. “Why is he doing this to me?” Or we grumble about our circumstances, conveniently “forgetting” the truth that nothing comes into our lives except by his hand. Others of us grumble about people. We disguise our complaints against God by focusing them on the people around us. And we have all sorts of rationalizations for this. “I’m not grumbling about God; I’m just being honest about the failures and sins of other people.”
This is precisely where we must press. It is important to distinguish faithful groaning from ungodly grumbling, lamenting from sulking. Groaning and lamenting can be good and right. They can be faithful responses to real pain. So what distinguishes them from grumbling and sinful complaining? Often, it’s honesty. Do we take the pain to God directly, or does it come out sideways, as complaints about God’s wisdom disguised as observations about other people?
The key question here is: where does the pain go? Do you bring it to God, as part of offering yourself totally to him? Or does it simmer on a low-boil in your soul, and come out in a frustrated service and sulky obedience?
Murmuring in Marriage
We can press this truth into our marriages. Simply put, grumbling obedience is a marriage killer. Mumbling exposes that you’re in the comparison trap and that you’re keeping score. Which of us has the tougher job? Who has sacrificed more? Grumbling and complaining is an outworking of self-pity, that subtle and sneaky form of selfishness.
And we sometimes wield such self-pity as a tool of manipulation. We wield our sacrifices as a weapon to get our way. We try to steer others by our complaining. We recognize this when we’re the target of the manipulation. We know that someone is seeking to steer us by throwing a pity party. And we should ask ourselves hard questions about it. Has such manipulation ever brought us deeper into joyful fellowship with the grumbler? Did it ever call forth the gratitude and joy that it supposedly sought? Of course not.
But seeing such manipulative grumbling in our spouse is the easy part. The hard part is recognizing it in ourselves, removing the log from our own eye, and treating others the way that we want to be treated.
So ask yourself, “How am I doing with my marital obedience? How am I doing with those marital vows? Having and holding, in sickness and in health?” Husbands, how is your leading and loving? Wives, how is your honoring and obeying? What’s the spirit beneath your obedience? Grumbling and disputing? Or glad-hearted and grateful?
Is there a hitch in your efforts to love and give yourself to your spouse? Do you find yourself muttering under your breath while doing the dishes or complaining to friends about your husband or your wife? Are you keeping score? Or are you keeping short accounts? Will the record of wrongs from last week follow you and your spouse into next week?
Frustrated in Families
We can widen and press this into family and parenting. If you’re a father, try this scenario. You’re in one room working on something. Could be your job, could be the honey-do list. From the other room, you hear the quarreling break out. Or you hear your kids talk back to your wife. And you listen for a minute to see if it will resolve itself. And it doesn’t.
And so now you must interrupt your work to go deal with it. You’re the head of the home, and it’s your responsibility to reprove, correct, and discipline. You’ve resolved to obey God. But will your obedience shine? Are you going to walk into a big mess of sin and bring more sin? Because grumbling obedience, frustrated obedience, exasperated obedience is disobedience.
As parents, we’re called to bring up our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, in the teaching and admonition of Christ. Do we pursue that task with joyfulness and gladness of heart? Do we do it heartily, as unto our Lord? Or are we regularly asking irritably, “How many times do I have to remind you to pick up your room or take out the trash?” Well, how many times does God have to remind us to shepherd our children with joy, to be his smile to them?
The same standard applies to our children. Children, do you honor and obey your parents all the way, right away, with a happy heart? Or do you wait to obey until your parents have answered all your questions first? Does your obedience come with a side of back-talk?
Gladness in All Things
We could go on. Do we show hospitality without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9)? Most of us have enough social tact to avoid grumbling at guests, but do you harbor resentment and bitterness toward your husband (or wife) or your kids because of all of your labor? Do you have an edge about you? Do you find yourself thinking, Nobody appreciates all that I do. Nobody appreciates how many details I manage, how much time I spend trying to make everything special?
“We must remember a simple truth: God loves a cheerful giver, not a grumbling one.”
Of course, this isn’t to excuse ingratitude and selfishness in others. But we may not use the failures of others to justify our own disobedience. A difference exists between addressing sin and grumbling about unaddressed sin. And a difference exists between addressing sin directly and passive-aggressively murmuring about sin. Do we do all things without grumbling and complaining?
In the end, we remember a simple truth: God loves a cheerful giver, not a grumbler. He loves cheerful obedience, not murmuring and complaining obedience. Such obedience, especially when things are hard, signals God’s grace to us, a sign that he is at work within us to produce an obedience that shines, an obedience that makes apostles proud and God happy. So as you obey, do so all the way, right away, with a happy heart.