Bright Lights in an Age of Complaint

Some centuries have cooler names than others. Historian Will Durant labeled the Reformation period “the age of faith” and called the 18th century “the age of reason.” Lately, I have been wondering what historians will want to call this century, and I think a good candidate might be “the age of complaint.” 

The thought came to me the other day when I read Philippians 2:14, saying that we are to do all things “without grumbling or arguing.” I am not sure that I could find a directive in Scripture that is more out of step with the spirit of the current era. As proof, I submit the ubiquitous and generally disingenuous phrase, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but. . .” It is one that often shows up in Christian posts on social media. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but most of the time, the person who uses this phrase knows exactly who they think needs to hear what they are about to say. 

On the surface, Paul’s admonition that Christians should distance themselves from grumbling seems a bit trivial, coming on the heels of his stirring description of Christ’s descent into humility in verses 5–11 of the same chapter. It is as if, after urging us to make the effort climb to a great height because of the vista it affords, the apostle uses the occasion to draw our attention to some relatively insignificant blemish on the horizon, say a gas station or fast-food restaurant. What he points out is ugly, but is it really so serious as all that?

Given the magnitude of Christ’s example, we might have expected Paul to set our sights higher by urging us to a greater level of sacrifice. He might have asked us to meditate on the possibility of martyrdom or spoken of some great act of surrender or sacrifice. Give up your kidney. Sell yourself into slavery to preach the gospel to the heathen. Something like that. Instead, the admonition Paul leaves us with is the rough equivalent of a warning nearly every parent has had to give when taking the family on a long trip in the car: “Stop arguing with your brother. Don’t make me come back there.”

Not only are grumbling and arguing commonplace occurrences in everyday life. They are now a source of popular amusement, thanks to social media. As long as they do not direct it at us, we find the expressed contempt of friends and strangers immensely entertaining, second only to the articulation of our own dismay at the stupidity and wrong-headedness of others.

Censoriousness is no longer a character flaw. It is treated as a virtue, especially on social media, where our observations compete with one another for the audience’s attention. We do not feel that we have done our job until we have driven a stake through the heart of our opponent’s argument. The sharper the comment, the greater its sticking power. It is even better if we can express the sentiment with the cynic’s half-smile.

There is, however, an unsettling subtext to the apostle’s command in Philippians 2:14 that deconstructs our utopian fantasy of what we should expect from church life. When Paul tells us that we must do everything without grumbling or arguing, he implies that others in the church will provide many opportunities to do those very things. Tertullian, the second-century church father from Carthage, wrote that observers of the early Christians marveled at what they saw. “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us,” Tertullian wrote. “‘See how they love one another,’ they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death.”

See how they irritate one another.

Paul’s directive to stop grumbling provides a necessary counterpoint that helps us understand the true nature of the love Tertullian’s quote describes. Those early pagans made their observations from the outside. They saw the behavior of Christians after grace and the gospel had done their work. Beyond their vision was the underworking of the flesh that created the occasion for those remarkable acts of love. If they had looked at the same deeds from that perspective, they might just as truthfully have declared, “See how they irritate one another.”

Another clue that the experience of mutual irritation is the field in which the Spirit sows the seeds of Christian love is found in those New Testament commands, which tell believers that they are to “bear with” each other (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13; cf. Rom. 15:1). The elegance of this phrase does not do justice to the experience it describes, and it would perhaps be more honest to translate the command “put up with” one another. Such language signals that Christian fellowship is as liable to be an act of endurance as it is a love feast. Indeed, the frequency with which Paul speaks about the church’s relational difficulties in his letters gives one the impression that Christian fellowship is primarily the practice of enduring the company of those who would otherwise be unlikely companions. In his poem The Death of the Hired Hand, Robert Frost defines a home as “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” In the same poem, he also proposes an alternate definition when he says that home is,  “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” It strikes me that we could say the same about the church.

Throughout its history, the church has struggled with two related problems where community standards are concerned. On the one hand, it has often veered in the direction of perfectionism. Perfectionism, in turn, inevitably leads to hyperbole. When I say that the church has veered in the direction of perfectionism, I do not mean that it reaches a state of perfection on this side of eternity or even necessarily makes a serious attempt to do so. Rather, it is a habit of one-sided expectation. We make demands of others that we do not require for ourselves. When the church slips into perfectionism, it falls into a state of mutual disappointment.

We used to call this Pharisaism–the hypocritical practice of expecting more from others than ourselves. According to Jesus, the chief problem with this moral affliction is not merely its failure to meet the standard it sets but its lack of self-awareness (Matt. 23:25). Pharisaism turns us into blind guides who make demands of others but cannot see how we fail to apply the same standards in our own lives.

This lack of self-awareness, in turn, affects the church’s view of its practice of holiness in much the same way that over-realized eschatology does one’s view of the kingdom. That is to say, the church tends to claim too much for itself too soon. The result is a false perception of our own experience supported by exaggerated claims about our performance. “We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own,” John Stott observed. “We seem to find it impossible, when comparing ourselves with others, to be strictly objective and impartial. On the contrary, we have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others.”

It is easy to see how such a view would lead to grumbling and criticism. The inevitable result is a toxic mixture of self-satisfaction mixed with disappointment. We are pleased with ourselves while being irritated with others, and we fail to understand why they can’t be more like us. The irony, of course, is that they are like us. Or rather, we are like them, and we can’t see it. But is Paul’s message in Philippians 2:14 essentially that Christians are irritating and that we need to just suck it up and put up with the unpleasantness that comes with such an unfortunate condition? Far from it.

The church is not a community that has already arrived at perfection but one in the process of becoming. The apostle’s command implies not only the power of the Spirit to control our innate tendency to grumble and criticize, but it rests on a promise of transformation through the gospel. We are to do everything without grumbling or arguing so that we “may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’” (Phil. 2:14–15). Self-help gurus tell us not to sweat the small things. But it turns out that that it is precisely in the small things where grace is most needed. It is in our small speech and everyday actions, where the reality of our salvation shows up most vividly.