Complaining, Grumbling, and The Truth

Today an acquaintance of mine pointed out something that was true in the particular, but very, very wrong in the principle. I love my job. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s fulfilling in ways that I’d never honestly imagined, and it what I’ve always wanted, and still want, to do with my life. I honestly can’t imagine being as happy doing anything else. That being said, this has been a very long summer and I am pretty completely exhausted. I’ve also been teaching the same class over and over for most of the year, and grading the same papers (albeit written by different people) every day for six+ months gets very, very old.

So, today when I left my work to sit down with this acquaintance I mentioned that I was tired of grading papers, which was true. I’d been grading papers for about 5 hours, and I was on my second to last paper for the day, so I was actually quite tired of grading papers at that moment. This acquaintance (I can’t actually remember her name… let’s call her Sally) asked me why I’m always complaining about my job, and pointed out that ‘God says we should do all things without complaining’. I asked her where God says this and her reply was ‘the bible’… when I asked her to be more specific she couldn’t remember where it was found, but promised to get back to me (we’ll see if that happens).

Sally was talking about a verse in Philippians 2 that is a part of the following passage: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. 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. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me” (Philippians 2:12-18, NASB – bold mine).

So, first the practical: I have been very tired lately, and honestly I haven’t really enjoyed my job much. I’m at the point were even grading good papers feels like a chore, and that makes it hard to enjoy. Add to this the fact that I actually read my students sources (at least some of the time) and grading papers really becomes a lot of work. I’m not quite at the point where I really mind doing this, but I can’t say that I’m really enjoying it either. The thing is that I really do love my job, and that should come through to the people who know me. Sally was right that I’ve been less than enthusiastic about teaching for the past few months (she hasn’t known me very long), and I’m glad that she pointed that out. My attitude could use some adjustment, and I’m thankful to have people in my life who aren’t afraid to point that out.

However, the principle: Sally took a simple statement of truth as a complaint, and the assumed that all complaining is always wrong no matter what. So, in principle we must ask a simple question, “Is it better to be honestly grumpy or dishonestly enthusiastic?”

It can be argued that there is a difference between complaining and ‘grumbling and dispute’, but for a moment let’s assume that these are the same thing. Even if this is so, the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32 would imply that it is better to grumble and obey, than to be enthusiastic and disobey. God has much more to say about hypocrites than he does about grumps, and so it is safe to say that it is distinctly better to be an honest grump than a dishonest enthusiast.

Now, to return to the argument that complaining is different from ‘grumbling and dispute’: while the word ‘γογγυσμῶν’ (gognusmon or goggusmon) can be translated as complaining, this isn’t quite the actual meaning of the word. Grumbling is a better translation, as is murmuring. The idea that ‘γογγυσμῶν’ brings across is one of secret or concealed discontent. It is the idea not of a tired desire to be finished, but of a hidden distaste for what one is doing. This then combines well with the idea of disputing. The word ‘διαλογισμῶν’ (dialogismon), commonly translated as disputing, dissension, doubt, or argument, brings with it the idea of human reasoning that solidifies an existing prejudice or errant belief. It can also, biblically, carry the idea of thought that raises in one ideas against God, or (as John might put it) thought that carries within it the spirit of Anti-Christ.

So, when we put these ideas together, to do something without ‘grumbling or disputing’ is not the idea of being always cheerful, but instead the idea of acting without secret desires or contempts that contravene God’s will. The context of this verse, Philippians 2:12-18, is the sanctification of the individual. We have ‘always obeyed’ and are ‘working out our own salvation’ so that we might be ‘blameless and innocent’, ‘above reproach’ to be ‘lights in the world’. In this context and with the above understanding of ‘grumbling and dispute’ it becomes quite clear that the issue here is not one of simple grumpiness or discontent, but of hidden discontent that adds to our human reasoning a desire to contravene the will of God in our sanctification.

Speaking of this, I have another friend (let’s call him Billie Bob) who is flirting with this at the moment. He has good reason to be. This is a man who has dealt with a lot of pain in his life, some of which I can only imagine, and he is immensely frustrated with God. He is, however, honest about this frustration. He does not hide it from himself, and he doesn’t try to hide it from God. At the moment, he doesn’t understand what God is doing in his life, he is in a lot of pain (physical, spiritual, and emotional), and he struggles to believe that a loving God would leave him in the kind of pain that he’s in. I understand pain, though perhaps not his pain in particular, and how easily it can make you question God. However, God has brought me through a lot, to the point of suicide and back, and he’s taught me that I can trust him, even when I don’t understand what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, or how he intends to use it in my life.

Sometimes, God puts us in places that we don’t like, that we don’t understand, and that we can’t deal with, and he does so for a variety of reasons. In my experience, the only answer in these situations is to trust that he knows what he’s doing, and pray that he will bring us peace.