Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky…—Philippians 2:14,15
As a follower of Jesus, from time to time you come across a command in Scripture and, if you’re honest, you have to admit to yourself, “I’m not doing that at all. In fact, I’m doing the exact opposite.” That’s definitely the case with me and Philippians 2:14: “Do everything with grumbling.” Some translations say “complaining” instead of “grumbling.” The Bible actually seems to be saying that it’s possible, with God’s help, to go through life without being a complainer.
This week I’m complaining about shoveling snow. Like a lot of us in Susanville this week, I’ve shoveled a lot of snow, and I’m tired of it. My arms are sore and my back is stiff, and when I get up in the morning and see that still more of the white stuff has fallen, I’m immediately grumpy. Ugh. More snow.
This past summer, of course, I was singing a different tune. I complained about how hot it was. I longed for the air to turn crisp, and dreamed of the cool days of autumn, and of our lovely little valley covered in a blanket of snow when winter came. When other people said they weren’t looking forward to the snow, I rebuked them. “Think how much we need the moisture!” I would say. “We want the mountains to fill up with snow so we have a better fire season.” And I was right. Snow is a blessing, a gift from God that keeps our forests green. It protects and it beautifies. It’s something to be thankful for.
But now I’m tired of snow. I don’t care about all that other stuff anymore; I just want to stop shoveling. I have found something negative about God’s gift, and that’s what I’m focusing on.
Isn’t that always the way it goes? Our family lived on the Oregon coast for 15 years, where temperatures are moderate. It rained a ton, and everything was green all year round. It was beautiful, and we loved it, and we found ways to make the most of it. But of course we also complained. We complained that it never snowed (ha!). We complained that it didn’t get warm enough in the summer. We complained that it was too wet, and that in the fall the air didn’t turn crisp like it does in the mountains. There was much to appreciate, and we did, but we also found that it was easy, if we weren’t careful, to focus on what was negative.
And now we are here, in Susanville, where we have snow in the winter and heat in the summer. Much of the time we enjoy those things, but we also find things to complain about. We miss the rain (ha!). We can easily slip into a mentality that remembers the best of the way things were, and focuses on the worst of what is now.
It’s clearer and clearer to me that gratitude is a choice. Every once in a while, something happens that is so overwhelmingly good that we’re thankful without even trying to be, and gratitude and praise just pour out of us. But most of the time, we are in this neutral place where we could go either way: we could focus on what is good, or we could focus on what is not so good. And in our sinful flesh, we find it easier to lean toward the negative, to grumble and complain.
Carey and I once had the privilege of receiving a day of training from one of the top short-term missions organizations in the country. They have sent people from all sorts of churches all over the world to do missions work, and they have figured out how to do it in the most efficient, fruitful, and God-honoring ways possible. We sat down to begin the training, and were expecting to hear all sorts of deeply spiritual insights from these experts. So we were caught a little off-guard by how the training began. The leader started straight in with a list of rules, and the first rule was this: No Complaining.
No Complaining. Period. If you don’t like the food, keep it to yourself. If your bed is uncomfortable, suck it up. If you don’t like the task you’re assigned to, do it anyway. Wear a smile, and tell your hosts “thank you” a lot. The trainer then explained that there is actually a deeply spiritual reason for this rule, which is found in Philippians 2: Complaining and grumbling are effortless. They happen automatically. Anyone can complain. But when we go somewhere and our goal is to represent Jesus, we want to stand out as different, and nothing causes us to stand out like being humble, positive, grateful people who don’t complain. Paul says we will “shine like stars in the sky” if we do everything without grumbling.
In short, when the Bible calls us to reject complaining and choose gratitude, it’s calling us to do something that is the exact opposite of what comes naturally to our sinful flesh. We’re doing something with the help of God’s Holy Spirit that causes people to notice, and what they’re noticing is Him, alive in our hearts. It’s no small thing. The world needs more people who are choosing to ignore what is negative, and choosing to be grateful for what is good.
So thank you, God. Thank you for the snow. Thank you that I’m healthy enough to shovel it. Thank you that I have a car, and a driveway. Thank you for a ridiculously full December calendar, because it means my life is full of things worth doing. Thank you for my needy children and my busy church. Thank you that there are more people I love than I can afford to buy Christmas gifts for. Thank you for work, and for rest. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit, living within me and making me new. And thank you for Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.