by Jeremiah Johnson
What would you say is the defining characteristic of our society?
Maybe pride, selfishness, lust, vengeance, materialism—all dominant features of twenty-first century life. But here’s one you might not have guessed—discontentment.
So much of modern life is bound up in obtaining what we don’t have, and then upgrading it as soon as we have it. It’s as if people are fundamentally incapable of being satisfied with what they have. They always want more money, more prestigious jobs, better homes, and newer cars. It shows up in relationships too, as people routinely abandon their marriages for younger, more attractive spouses, while others abandon their families and friends to upgrade their social circle.
Moreover, we’re encouraged to be discontent. Virtually every marketing campaign plays on that ingrained sense of dissatisfaction—whatever they’re selling works better, faster, easier, and cheaper than what you have already. The same is true in entertainment. Fictional characters lead luxurious lives the rest of us can only aspire to, while countless TV programs show you how to renovate and restore your car, your house, and even your own body.
Even politics is dominated by discontentment. Every political campaign revolves around promises to fix what’s broken in this country so you can have a better, happier, and easier life.
This pervasive discontentment colors virtually every area of modern life. Man’s rebellious default setting is to grumble, complain, argue, and whine about anything and everything he doesn’t like.
But what about the church? Are God’s people immune from such pervasive dissatisfaction?
Unfortunately, we are not. Christians are just as prone to discontentment as the world, and just as apt to complain about what they don’t like or how their needs aren’t being met.
But as Christians, we know that all those complaints ultimately go back to God. All matters are overseen by our sovereign Lord Himself, so we’re really complaining that He didn’t orchestrate and design things in our churches to our taste and satisfaction.
The same goes for all areas of life—when we’re discontent in anything, we’re really questioning God’s wisdom, will, provision, goodness, and blessing. In short, we’re actually dissatisfied with God.
Sadly, from the moment Adam fell into sin, God’s people have shown a tendency toward dissatisfaction and an aptitude for discontentment. Perhaps the best example is Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. In Exodus 15, just three days after the Lord had delivered His people by parting the Red Sea, they were already complaining that they couldn’t find any water fit to drink. Rather than relying on God’s abundant provision and power—which they had just witnessed with their own eyes—they grumbled and focused on how their needs weren’t being met.
It’s easy to look at the Israelites’ constant dissatisfaction and think that they were an extreme case—that we never would react like that after living through such vivid displays of God’s power. But the fact is we have witnessed God’s gracious blessing, His rich mercy, and His transforming power at work in each of our own lives, and yet we still find plenty to complain about. In that sense we’re no better than the Israelites—in fact, we’re worse.
The apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Philippian church makes it clear there is no excuse for us to complain about our discontentment and dissatisfaction.
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, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. (Philippians 2:14-16)
Paul puts emphasis on a key area of discipline for our lives—one that can either reveal God’s transforming work, or tarnish the testimony of His Word and His church. Unlike the perpetually unsatisfied world, Paul is challenging us to cultivate an attitude of contented submission in every aspect of our lives.
He puts it bluntly: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” Other translations might substitute the words “complaining” and “arguing,” but it doesn’t change the meaning or the emphasis of Paul’s point. As John MacArthur explains,
Grumbling is an onomatopoetic word that sounds like the guttural, muttering sounds people often make when they are disgruntled. It is a negative response to something unpleasant, inconvenient, or disappointing, arising from the self-centered notion that it is undeserved.  John MacArthur The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians (Chicago: Moody, 2001), 179.
We often grumble without even realizing what we’re doing—it can simply be a sigh or grunt of disappointment. However you express it, grumbling is the emotional expression of dissatisfaction.
The other side of the coin is disputing. In his commentary on this passage, James Montgomery Boice describes it this way:
This word [for disputing or] “arguing” refers to the inward reasoning of the mind and is based on the Greek word from which we get our English word “dialogue.” Dialogue has become a popular word in our day, and we think well of it, but it is not such a virtue in the Bible, at least not between people and God. God does not want us to argue with Him; He wants us to listen to Him and to do what He says. In this context the word points to that reasoning that goes on in the human heart in rebellion against God’s will.  James Montgomery Boice Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971), 148-149.
As believers, we know we are not supposed to engage in outward, overt rebellion against God. But we must take just as seriously any inward rebellion in the form of grumbling or disputing. We don’t have the right or the authority to argue against God, His Word, or His plans—we must submit unequivocally and immediately at every turn.
And as Sinclair Ferguson explains, grumbling and disputing are just expressions of other sins corrupting our hearts.
Why was this such unacceptable behavior? Because it was deep ingratitude in the face of the saving grace and continuing activity of God. A grumbling or questioning spirit is an expression of ingratitude to God’s providence and of lovelessness and pride towards others. It is a denial of grace; it is working against salvation rather than working salvation out in every aspect of our lives. In the face of the self-humbling of Jesus and the servant-spirit which was His, murmuring and argument are ugly monsters.  Sinclair Ferguson Let’s Study Philippians (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 57.
Grumbling and arguing aren’t just any old sins—they’re fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the grace and provision of God in our lives. As such, they are utterly contradictory to our new nature in Christ. John MacArthur makes that point in his commentary:
Believers’ failure to willingly, even joyfully, submit to God’s providential will is a deep-seated and serious sin. Discontentment and complaining are attitudes that can become so habitual that they are hardly noticed. But those twin sins demonstrate a lack of trust in His providential will, boundless grace, and infinite wisdom and love. Consequently, those sins are especially odious in His sight and merit His discipline. As Paul explained to the Corinthians, the numerous Old Testament accounts of God’s severe dealing with Israel’s complaints in the wilderness were given “as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). Jeremiah asked, “Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins?” (Lam. 3:39). If that is true of everyone, how much more does it apply to believers, whose sins have been graciously forgiven by the Lord?  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians, 179.
Nothing that disappoints or dissatisfies you and me could ever compare to the incalculable disappointment and offense our sin is to God. We are the worst offenders, so we have no room to complain about anything or anyone. And the instant we’re inclined to gripe or grumble, we need to remember just how offensive our sin is to God, and the boundless grace and mercy He’s shown us in spite of how unlovely we are to Him.
John MacArthur sums up Paul’s prohibition against grumbling and disputing this way:
Every circumstance of life is to be accepted willingly and joyfully, without murmuring, complaint, or disappointment, much less resentment. There is no exception. There should never be either emotional grumbling or intellectual disputing. It is always sinful for believers to complain about anything the Lord calls them to do or about any circumstance which He sovereignly allows. Whether the task is difficult or easy, whether the situation involves a blessing or a trial, negative attitudes are forbidden.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians, 180.
But Paul doesn’t simply give us that command and move on to the next issue. This isn’t a drive-by exhortation. In the subsequent verses, he gives us three reasons that we should stop complaining.
And that’s where we’ll pick it up next time.
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