“The next time you feel like complaining, remember that your garbage disposal probably eats better than 30% of the world’s population does.” Anonymous
Do everything without complaining 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 — in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. [Phil 2:14-16]
It is so easy to lose our perspective. We have more than any other nation in history or geography and still complain that we are not getting what we deserve. We saw this illustrated on the national stage when a Georgetown coed testified to a Congressional committee how she was victimized because her Catholic institution did not provide her with reproductive health care. She, and her other “victimized” students, had to pay $3000 dollars a year to enable them to engage in sex without the fear of becoming pregnant. I have no doubt that she actually believed what she was saying. She thought she actually “deserved” to be treated better.
I would like to take this young coed on an “enlightenment trip” to the villages of Malawi. There, she would see ladies shouldering most of the burden of labor. From the time a little girl is born, she is considered a valuable commodity; not because of her personhood, but because of the labor she will provide. Soon, she will be carrying water for the household, walking for miles each day. When she is not on that errand, she will have a sibling strapped to her back, for the mother is most likely out in the fields working. She will most likely never make it to a “Georgetown like” university; probably never go beyond a six grade education. There simply is not the money, the time or the opportunity. The immediate needs of the family won’t allow such a luxury. She will probably get married as a teen, have several children, and if she survives the birth problems and the health risks of living without adequate health care, she will spend her days working hard. And, will probably have little time to complain about what life has brought her.
In America, complaining is a national pastime. Go out to lunch and pay attention to what is being said by those who surround you. It will not be unusual to hear fellow workers complaining about the boss or the supervisor or the unfair conditions found on their job site. I may also be so bold to suggest that you will almost never hear them expressing their gratefulness for the job they have and for their employer, who trusted them and hired them. We are hardwired for complaint, not gratitude.
Paul was not addressing unbelievers, he was writing to the church at Philippi. Christians have the same problem with ingratitude. We also lose perspective. We forget where we have come from and what we have received by grace. We look at something that seems to be unfair and react by complaining or arguing with those who we feel are responsible for our lack. So, we live and operate like the world around us.
But, Paul has much greater expectations for followers of Christ. He seems to think that there should be a distinct difference between the redeemed and the depraved. This difference should be so dramatic that we shine like stars in a very dark sky. Something so fundamental, so life-transforming, so perspective-altering has happened inside us, that our normal response should be radically different from our non-believing neighbors. When we respond the same way as our unbelieving friends do, we reveal we lack the biblical essentials of gratitude and contentment and joy.
A lack of gratitude is a clear indication that we have forgotten what God did for us on the cross. When somebody says, “I know that Jesus died for me, but…” it is a clear sign that they have lost sight of the incredible cost that was paid for us to be adopted into the family of God. Although we were sinners, running away from God, and rebels shaking our fists in his face, he died for us. [Romans 5:6-10] It was a heart overflowing with gratitude that caused Paul to exclaim, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” [2 Cor 9:15] The words of that great hymn At Calvary capture this awesome truth: “Oh the love that drew salvation’s plan; Oh, the love that brought it down to man; Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary.” When we think of what God has done for us, we have no room for complaint, even if he would not do another thing for us. But, of course, he does, for an eternity!
And, when we are filled with discontent, it is a sign we have lost sight of what God has given us. He has promised to meet every need we have. [Philippians 4:19] He has a great plan for our lives. [Jeremiah 29:11] He has promised to not only save us but give us life more abundantly. [John 10:10] We not only have the blessings of knowing Him now, but the unspeakable joy of enjoying him forever. [Psalm 16:11] Our problems come when we listen to the advertisers on T. V. who continually tell us that we will never be satisfied or happy until we have fame, beauty, power, wealth, intelligence, a new car and a perfect body. To listen to those lies and then complain and be sad because we do not have those things is evidence of our unbelief. To state it bluntly, we are accusing God, the One who promised to meet all of our needs, of holding out on us.
Paul gives us direction and hope when he writes, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” [Phil 4:12-13] Paul believes in the goodness and greatness of God. He knows that God is watching over him and cares about all of his needs. Anxiety and arguing and complaint is not an option for the one who really trusts the Lord and his promises.
When we are sad, when the joy is gone, when self-pity rules, we are casting a shadow over the glory of Jesus Christ. “The joy of the Lord is our strength,” Nehemiah proclaims. [Nehemiah 8:10] Isaiah adds, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” [Isaiah 61:10] Again Paul gives us further perspective when he commands,
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Phil 4:4-7]
You cannot argue and be gentle at the same time. You cannot be thankful and complain at the same time. You cannot rejoice and engage in self-pity at the same time. You have to make a decision. Either you think like the world or you believe God. Arguing, complaining and sadness have to go when we trust God at all times and in every situation. So, Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” [Rom 15:13]
Do you not see? This is not just about us and our comfort. It is about the name of God and His glory. Isaiah declares that God will “bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” And, then he adds, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.” [Isa 61:3] When we are arguing, complaining and pouting, we are declaring to the world that Jesus Christ is not enough. May the Lord help us to repent of that terrible sin against his all-sufficient and all-satisfying beauty.
The story is told by Corrie Ten Boom, of the time in the concentration camps of Germany. In their morning devotions, she and her sister Betsy were reminded by 1 Thessalonians to rejoice always, pray constantly and give thanks in all situations. Betsy suggested that they give thanks for every detail in their crowded, filthy, flea infested barracks. Corrie flatly refused to thank God for the fleas. Betsy persisted and Corrie finely gave in and joined in with the thanks. During the months they spent at that camp, they were surprised that they could openly hold Bible study and prayer meetings without guard interference. It was not till several months had passed that they discovered the reason the guards would not enter their barracks: the fleas! They, by their trust in God’s meticulous care of them, no matter where they were, were not victims in paradise. They were victors in prison. May God give us the grace to follow their example so that we can join them in displaying the splendor of our God.