Grumbling and Complaining
About the Guest
When life is difficult what do you do? Most of us, if we’re honest, tend to complain. Pastor William Barcley, author of The Secret of Contentment, reminds us how God is offended by our grumbling, just as He was when the Israelites, who were without food or water, complained in the desert. Instead of just resigning ourselves to our circumstances or refusing to acknowledge them, Barcley encourages us to focus on God and His calling.
William BarcleyDr. William Barcley is Senior Pastor of Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Charlotte, NC and Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary. Prior to his move to Charlotte, Dr. Barcley was Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. While at RTS Jackson, he also served as pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Learned, Mississippi. Dr. Barcley was Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Gordon C...more
When life is difficult what do you do?
Grumbling and Complaining
Bob: They’re predisposed.
Bill: —we are disposed. They’re born with that sinful nature.
Dennis: We are, but they came from us.
Bill: Right. Right. Well, some—depending on what you’re failing might be more disposed to that than others.
Dennis: I think that may be the case.
Bill: Well, our kids have taught us much about contentment, and about grumbling, and complaining. Of course, when you’re parents, you struggle to raise your kids right. You struggle with sleepless nights. So, parents, we show our own discontent and grumbling. Our kids sanctify us.
Dennis: We actually had a jar filled with quarters, and we told them at the end of a week or some time period—I forget the exact number of days—that they could spend whatever was left in the jar. It would be enough to be able to go out and get ice cream cones or something like that. We took a quarter out of the jar every time someone griped, complained, disputed, grumbled, whatever you want to call it; alright? They would grumble about taking the quarter out of the jar.
Bob: Have to take a second one? (Laughter)
Dennis: Have to take a second one and then, a third one. Then, they learned, “This is costing me cash money!”
You actually made a list for yourself. You wanted to do something kind of similar. You wanted to see what you were griping and complaining about. What was on that list?
Bill: Yes, that’s a good question. Actually, I’ll give you the context for that because I was studying for this book; and I was studying that passage, Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling and complaining,” and thinking about the Israelites in the wilderness. That’s the language that Paul uses—the same language that’s used, actually, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament—for the Israelites’ complaining.
They were without food. They were without water, and God took their complaining in the wilderness as rebellion. Right after they came out of Egypt, right after they went through the Red Sea, they had seen the power of God, the provision of God for them—they immediately began to grumble and complain. Right after the great song of Moses in Exodus 15, at the end of that chapter, we see complaining. Three incidents in a row, they are complaining.
So, when I began to reflect on the Israelites complaining in the wilderness without water to drink, without food to eat—I began to think through, “Okay, what are the things that cause me to complain?”
It’s, typically, trivial things—things like sitting in traffic, which is a very common occurrence in the city of Charlotte—terrible traffic city—not having the nutrition bars that I eat for snacks sometimes during the day. My wife hadn’t bought it. It wasn’t on the shopping list, or she had forgotten to get them one time. I grumbled about that.
Grumbling when the kids are making too much noise—they weren’t being particularly disobedient or rebellious. They were just having a good time, and I was maybe in my office at home, trying to study—getting irritated, and grumbling, and complaining about that. A variety of things are far less significant and less serious than what the Israelites were facing—I was grumbling about those things.
Bob: Let me ask you. There’s legitimate disappointment. You think, “I’m going to get one of those bars that I like.” You go in, and the cupboard’s bare. You go, “Man, I really wanted one of those bars, and it’s not here.” When does that morph from the legitimate moment of disappointment that your bars are not there to grumbling, or complaining, or to sinful discontentedness. Where—is there a line there that you cross? I’m thinking I’d go in, and I’d go, “I’m disappointed that it is not there.”
When does that turn to sin?
Dennis: For me, it’s when I go in the direction of my emotions. Instead of bouncing off the truth about who God is and coming back to give thanks in all things and to accept this as God’s will for me in Christ Jesus, I keep going with my emotions. I explode it on out.
Bob: There’s a dwelling on it—
Bob: —that can occur—that takes it past the line; don’t you think?
Dennis: For me; for me.
Dennis: For you, Bob, what is it that gets you griping and complaining?
Bob: I was thinking about traffic this morning because I was in a hurry to get somewhere, and I had pulled up behind this guy. We were at a stop light. I was going to turn right; and if he had pulled forward just a little bit, and he had the margin to do it, I could have turned. (Laughter) I’m sitting there going, “I wish the guy would just—he’s got it. If you pull forward, I can make my turn.” He was oblivious to my need. He was not paying attention to me, and he’s just sitting there.
I remember, in the car, I was thinking—
Dennis: Can you imagine someone—
Bob: I was thinking—
Dennis: —not conscious of what Bob needs?
Bob: —“Why doesn’t this guy move forward?” Then, I remember thinking, “I’m sitting here a little concerned because I’ll be a minute later to where I’m going—a minute.” Then, I thought, “How pathetic is that, that I’m starting to feel grumbling about a minute?” So, I just settled. I was listening to somebody preach, here, while I was doing this. (Laughter) I kind of smiled and just went, “Okay, I got the message,” and just sat there with patience and waited for the light to turn green. It did, and I got to where I was going.
I do think part of what you are saying is right. It’s that—when we let our emotions take control or when we dwell on what it is that we’re disappointed about—that’s when it becomes sinful discontentedness; don’t you think?
Bill: Also, I would say when we become inward-focused. For instance, I get upset because my wife hasn’t bought the bars that I eat and it turns toward her. Basically, what I’m focused on—I haven’t gotten what I want, in particular.
Dennis: With that illustration being on the table, let’s put one a little more difficult out here. Let’s say you’re speaking right now to a woman who is in a marriage, whose husband won’t talk to her, who doesn’t include her in his life. Now, there’s some discontentment there. There are some missed expectations, losses. She got married for intimacy—it’s not happening. How would you coach her in that circumstance to be content?
Bill: Well, first of all, I do think that there are certain things that happen to us in life—certain struggles, where we do have—what we might call righteous anger. I mean, in that particular situation with a husband who won’t speak to her, it is right to be upset about that because intimacy, communication—those are important aspects of marriage together. There is, in that particular case, a certain righteous anger that comes with that.
At the same time, she does need to learn to go through that with her husband and live with this for the time being—not to be resigned to it and not to say, “Well, I just have to live with that my whole life.”
Bill: There are many situations in life where it is right to actually get out of a bad situation when certain things are going on in life. I don’t think in this particular case—personally, I would say this isn’t an instance where you seek to get out of that relationship—I don’t think that’s biblical grounds for divorce, but there are a number of questions that she needs to wrestle with.
One: How can she continue to serve and love her husband through that—seeing that this is where God has put her, at least for the time being? In this particular circumstance with these conditions, how can she serve her husband, be a joyful wife, and seek to serve God?
Bob: I think part of what you are saying is when you are in a hard place—whatever the hard place is—instead of saying, “How can I get happier?” which is not wrong to ask that question or, “How can things get better?” It’s not wrong to ask that question, but we rarely go to the question, “How can I show grace here?” “How can I love and serve here?”
Bob: “How can I honor God in where I am?”
Bob: We just think, “How can I get out of this?”
Bob: You touched on a couple of things that I think are important because sometimes we think the secret of contentment is, “Keep a stiff upper lip.” There’s a difference between being stoic and being contented; isn’t there?
Bill: Yes. I mean, the ancient stoics used a great illustration of a dog who is tied to the back of a cart. The cart would move forward; and stoicism said, “Well, the dog has a choice—he can either be dragged along by the cart, or he can fight it. Either way, he is going to go where the cart goes.” That is different from Christian contentment.
Bob: There is also a difference—I mean, some people look at their circumstances and go, “Oh, well. I guess this is just the way it is, and I just have to learn how to be happy in the midst of it.” There is a resignation or a passivity that some people mistake for contentedness. Just because you are resigned to something, doesn’t mean you’re contented.
When you are talking about contentment, you’re talking about finding joy, even in difficult circumstances. Back to Dennis’ situation with the wife whose husband isn’t talking to her, she’s not content in that situation until she is finding some kind of joy in the midst of it; right?
Bill: Correct. I think joy and contentment go hand in hand. Absolutely. They certainly do in Philippians; but I think there are two ways that we find contentment in the midst of our difficult situations—in the midst of hardship, in this affliction, whatever it is.
One is we simply do the work that God has called us to do. I mean, I think that’s one. We carry on with the work that God has called us to do there until God moves us elsewhere. That’s exactly what Paul did. In Philippians, Chapter 1, Paul talks about his imprisonment; and he says, “My imprisonment has become known to the palace guard that I am here for Christ.”
Well, how has it become known to the palace guard? It is because Paul continued to preach the Gospel in that circumstance. A lot of times, we think, when we go through difficulty, that we need to wait for a better circumstance before we carry on with the work that God has called us to do. No—
Bob: Before we find contentment.
Bill: Before we find contentment.
Bill: No one, for instance, probably would have blamed Paul for saying, “Well, I’m just going to sit back here and wait in this time of imprisonment; and then, I’ll go on with my ministry and go on preaching the Gospel.” No, what did Paul do? He wrote letters to encourage his churches, and he continued to preach the Gospel.
Several years ago, there was a study done. People were asked, “What do you live for?” Ninety-four percent of the people who responded to that survey answered that they were waiting for something.
Either, they were single, and they were waiting to get married. They were married; they were waiting to have kids. There were people with children; they were waiting for the kids to grow up and leave the home—waiting for a new job. The answers in some ways were different, but 94 percent answered in terms of waiting for something to happen instead of doing the work that God had called them to do.
Dennis: All of us know friends or acquaintances who are in tough marriages, are in a tough family situation, perhaps, with a prodigal child that’s not doing well. I don’t think we realize, when we’re the person that others are looking at, how powerful our model can be to another person to bring hope.
I mean, I know some people that I just think of the marriage that they’ve suffered well in and where they’ve attempted to do good to someone who has repeatedly hurt them. How their commitment—not throwing the towel in, not quitting but hanging in there, doing good—and I’m not talking about empowering evil—I’m not talking about that kind of thing, but where they are really doing their best to love the other person. It’s a powerful witness for Jesus Christ; rather than just caving in.
Bob: You’re not saying that contentment is easy. I hope nobody hears us saying that it’s easy to be content. Paul doesn’t say it’s easy to be content. He says that there’s a secret to it. It’s not like it’s a switch you flip in the middle of a bad circumstance; it’s a grace we grow in, but we can get better at being contented, even in hard circumstances. In that process, we represent Jesus Christ more effectively than when we’re grumbling.
Dennis: Bill, to that very point, there’s a passage in the New Testament where Paul was instructing Timothy about contentment. He made the statement where he said, “For godliness is actually a means of great gain, when accompanied with contentment.”
Since you’ve been a student of contentment, I’ve always wanted to ask someone who has been a student. Help me unpack that because you would think you could make the statement, “Look, Timothy, godliness is actually a means of great gain. Period,” but Paul didn’t say, “Period.” He said, “Godliness is a means of great gain, when it’s accompanied with contentment.” What’s Paul saying there?
Bill: Well, first of all, Paul is—in that context—wrestling with the issue of greed. He goes on to make the statement, “We brought nothing into the world. We can take nothing out of it.” What I think he means by that statement is more than—you know, we sometimes say, “You can’t take it with you,” or whatever.
I think what Paul is saying there is, “What we have, in terms of material wealth, is ultimately of no spiritual value.” The wealth itself, the things of this world—of course, how we use it and our view toward it means everything; but it has no ultimate spiritual value.
So, godliness with contentment is crucial—both—because it is of ultimate spiritual value. I do believe contentment is an essential, biblical virtue. Not only is discontent a sin, but discontentment is also at the root of much sin. In fact, if you think about sin entering the world in Genesis, Chapter 3, what do we read? We see that Eve saw the fruit and had a desire for it. She saw that it was pleasing and that it would lead to wisdom; so, she took—ultimately, there was discontent there that brought sin into the world.
So, discontent is—contentment, excuse me, is essential to biblical godliness.
Dennis: What you’re talking about in terms of greed is, I believe, one of the great challenges for anyone in America, but especially young couples starting out their marriage. It’s called affluenza—affluence becoming an idol—wanting more, being greedy. What you’re saying is the lure of having more, wanting more, possessing more, designing your life around getting more—that’s leaning your ladder against the wrong wall.
Paul is calling Timothy to lean his ladder against a different wall and say, “You know what? You did bring nothing into the world, and you’re not going to take anything out of it either. You need to make sure your priorities are right.”
Bill, I want to thank you for writing this book and for calling all of us to practice true, biblical contentment. Thanks for being on the broadcast.
Bill: You’re welcome. Thank you very much.
Bob: Let me just say how much I appreciate the fact that you have updated Jeremiah Burroughs, and Thomas Watson, and some of the Puritans who wrote on this. The book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, is a classic. What you’ve given us here is kind of a modern version of those same principles—easy to read, easy to understand. In fact, this is a book that could be read aloud as a family as all of us work on cultivating this grace of contentment in our lives.
The book is called The Secret of Contentment. Of course, we have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to request your copy, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—either online at FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
You might also want to get a copy of the book that Barbara Rainey has written called Growing Together in Gratitude. It’s a devotional book for families that helps, again, cultivate the grace of gratitude in our lives. Gratitude and contentment go hand-in-hand; don’t they? Again, there’s more information on the website, FamilyLifeToday.com, or call for more information at 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
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