Your Life Depends on Little Words
It is of utmost importance to realize that Scripture argues. It doesn’t just give pearls on a string that we can take away individually and reflect upon. It reasons with us, argues a point, tries to persuade us of particular realities and toward certain ways of living. And it is of great benefit for us to grasp those arguments, see how they work, trace them from beginning to end, and discover the deep power in them for life-change.
Consider the value of and difference between runners’ energy-gel packets and five-course meals. An eating illustration seems particularly appropriate given the command to the prophets to “eat” the book of God’s word in Ezekiel 3:1 and Revelation 10:9 (also Deuteronomy 8:3; Jeremiah 15:16).
One way to “ingest” and benefit from Scripture is like eating the energy-gel packets that give a jolt of carbs when a runner is flagging in energy. Sometimes at a specific and immediate moment, we need a pointed and direct word from God to convict us, or encourage us, or inspire us, or pick us up from the ground. When I find a complaint welling up in my heart and arising to my lips, it does me good to recall Paul’s word, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14). This is one of the reasons Scripture memory is so important — the commands and promises of God won’t jump out at us in the moment of need and crisis if they’re not there already, committed to our minds and hearts.
The Balanced Meal of the Bible
So sometimes we need energy packets. But energy packets are not meals. And if we are to be healthy over time, if we are to know true fullness of life, we need full meals that combine a variety of nutrients and vitamins in an ordered manner (two or three courses — or even better, five courses). Scripture provides that as well, through its arguments.
Scripture is not just a collection of energy packets; it’s a five-course meal. It’s not just a bunch of pearls on a string; it’s a chain strong enough to pull you out of any trial. So it’s helpful to know and draw on Philippians 2:14 as an individual verse, but it’s also crucial to know that this verse is followed by Philippians 2:15, which provides a purpose: “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.” “Not grumbling” has the intended result of “shining as lights” in a dark world.
Paul is not only commanding here, but arguing. And his argument reveals several things:
it indicates the purpose of not complaining (being “lights” in a dark world);
it challenges us to consider how not complaining results in “light-shining”;
which then causes us to realize that our attitudes and words always have to do with God — how can we be “lights” in a dark world that finds God unsatisfying when by our complaining we indicate that we share exactly the same view of God, that he and his way and provision are unsatisfying?
All of this comes to light by recognizing that Paul is making an argument and what the shape and logic of the argument is. And this particular argument in Philippians 2:14–15 is embedded in a still larger argument in the letter as a whole.
Argument and reasoning is simply how Scripture “works” and how it communicates. By looking carefully at the way Scripture thinks and reasons, we move beyond the dangers of mere proof-texting and find that the parts fit together in a compelling and ordered whole. We also open ourselves up to a deeper shaping of our own thinking and reasoning. If we want to think Christianly in this world, we need to see (and “ingest,” make our own) the specific ways in which Scripture thinks and reasons.
The Bible’s “Little” Words
But how do we do this? What might be involved in such an endeavor? One of the first things to consider is also one of the most inconspicuous and unobtrusive — namely, the little words of Scripture. It is the conjunctions (like “and” and “but”), the prepositions (like “in” and “on”), and the adverbs (like “well” and “fully”) that tip us off to an author’s train of thought, to how one clause relates to another, to how one paragraph builds on that which precedes and prepares for that which follows. Paying attention to these little words opens up for us big worlds of thought and theology and practice and living.
In Philippians 2:14–15, the command to not grumble is connected to what follows by the conjunction “that” (or in some translations, “so that”). Not grumbling because of our contentedness and confidence in God is for the purpose (or has the intended result) of our shining like lights in a dark world. We are clued in on this divine purpose for our living in the world by the commonplace and unremarkable word “that.”
There is big significance in the little words of Scripture. They are God’s gift to help all of us “eat this book” for our health and life. You need not be a world-class theologian, and know all the big words and technical terms, to read your Bible and understand it. In fact, it’s actually the simplest little words — the ones we’re all familiar with — that most often change everything.