February 15, 2016

What is grumbling? The seditious sin of grumbling Pt 1

by Clint Archer

complaining chalkboardEarly in 2007 Pastor Will Bowden of Kansas City realized his church had a chronic problem with complaining. (Welcome to the pastorate Will). He felt that the congregation was carping mainly about trivial issues—choice of hymns, informal dress code, and the like. So Bowden challenged his bleating sheep to a pledge: to stop for 21 consecutive days all griping, gossiping, and gainsaying. Those who accepted were issued little purple bracelets so that if they violated the pledge, they’d switch the bracelet to the opposite wrist and reset the count to zero. After months of self-muzzling effort, some folks were victorious and were rewarded with certificates of happiness conferred in church.

Two problems with Bowden’s idea I’d like to voice (irony aside)—are: first, that I didn’t think of it myself. Recognizing the insidious habit is half the battle won. And the second problem with a 21-day challenge is that it’s only 21 days. As insurmountable as three whine-free weeks sound, the challenge falls short of the Apostle Paul’s injunction to stop complaining… forever.

Prison may prove a fertile environment for growing gripes, but for Paul jail fed his praise. So it is without compunction that he curtly instructs the Philippian church to “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil 2:14).

Paul tended to be able to get away with all-compassing, life-altering sagacity by simply pulling back his overcoat to reveal the gleaming sword hilt of apostolic authority. But since I don’t pack that kinda heat, I need to draw the whole length and breadth of conviction out of the scabbard. So this week let’s examine the edges of sinful complaining, and next week we’ll ponder what makes it so heinous a sin.


Phil 2:14 “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.”

The scope of the command is breathtakingly panoramic: all things.

And no, the Greek affords no wiggle room. All things means all things. It is literally just as sinful to kvetch about trivial problems (like the weather, or traffic, or volume of the church music, or your spouse’s snoring, or the paucity of serious presidential candidates) as it is to vent about serious issues like the threat of terrorism, or the diagnosis of a terminal illness.

Does this mean that any and every observation about a negative situation is a sin? No, that’s not what Paul said to the Philippians…


Paul mentions two species of complaint: grumbling and disputing. In Greek grumbling is the word γογγυσμwv / gongousmōn. It’s an onomatopoeic term that refers to indistinct sounds of muttering or murmuring. So forbidden grumbling is not lodging a respectful, reasoned argument of constructive criticism or appealing to authority. Rather gongousmōn contains the idea of spewing discontent and malcontent from a fomenting heart of dissatisfaction.

yuckIt’s the sound your kid makes when you say, “Clear the dishes and have a bath before you can watch TV.” He doesn’t have a reasoned argument as to why he shouldn’t do his chores; he just mutters and groans and in other ways communicates an unjustified attitude of discontent. If he had a real reason to object he’d make an argument: “Mom, I already had a bath and yesterday you said that it would be Suzie’s turn to clear the dishes.”

But we never have a legitimate reason to complain against God, because we have way more than we deserve!

The other species of complaint Paul forbids is disputing, or the Greek word διαλογισμός / dialogismos. This carries the connotation of evil motives in the sense of dispute, debate, and contention. It is not the word for civil dialogue, it’s the word for arguing, or what we call ‘back-chatting.’ This type of disputing falls short of an honest appeal for consideration, but connotes rather a wicked intention that challenges God’s authority. A finger in the face of God as you quarrel with providence.

Notice Paul’s standard response to this type of whining: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom 9:20).

Thus, grumbling and disputing is always wrong. But there is a word for good complaining: it’s the word δέησις which means to make known your particular need. It is found in Phil 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication / δέησις with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

This is Paul’s instruction to tell God what’s bugging you; it’s in the same letter where he says don’t grumble and dispute. So obviously it must be possible to express our feelings and needs and wants about a dissatisfying, irksome situation… without sinning.

Next week we will consider why grumbling is so seditious. Feel free to leave a response in the comments section (It’s not often that I feel comfortable inviting feedback to a blogpost!)

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • GinaRD

    Thank you for inviting feedback, Clint. I have a question.

    In recent years, many of us have seen a certain pattern playing out in various churches. (As a Christian writer who writes on current affairs that affect Christians, it’s been hard NOT to see these stories.) People start talking about church leaders refusing to report abuse (usually sexual abuse of children or teenagers by adult church members) to authorities, discouraging the victims’ families from reporting, siding with the abusers, and generally handling the situation badly. Leaders in those churches tend to call the victims’ families “grumblers and complainers,” as well as “gossips,” when they talk about what’s going on.

    Then, typically, a lawsuit hits and suddenly it looks very much as if the “grumblers, complainers, and gossips” were simply telling the truth about great evil that was allowed to go unpunished in God’s church.

    How would you respond to those who misuse the words “grumblers” and “complainers” in this way?

    Thanks for giving this question your thoughtful consideration!

    • I hope you noticed the “Part 1” in the title 🙂
      Grumbling and disputing are both sinful activities that show seditious rebellion against God and his providence. BUT, there are godly and right ways of expressing concern, making valid accusations, and confronting sin. That is not sin (assuming it is done in a godly way, i.e. directly, out of love of truth and desire for justice, etc. rather than out of personal vengeance and evil intent). If a sin has been committed, we are instructed to confront that sin (Matt 18) out of a concern for God’s glory, the church’s purity/witness, and for the soul of the one sinning, as repentance and reconciliation can only come when sin is confessed and repented of. Grumbling and complaining out of a resentment of God’s sovereignty and rebellion against authority, is what Paul has in mind here. Part 2 and 3 will deal with how to supplicate (which is a godly form of expressing dissatisfaction with a situation). BTW, Ps 102 is called a prayer “of complaint” (Ps 102:1) so not all complaining is sin. But watch this space on Mondays for the next couple of weeks.

      • GinaRD

        Thank you for your response.

  • Jackie Houchin

    I just heard a sermon by R.C. Sproul that had this same caution in it. (Disciples in the boat in the storm…”Doesn’t He care if we die!?”) And I have caught myself several times today “whining” about things that did not go exactly the way I wanted. Ohhhhh, I need a purple bracelet and a 21-day challenge!

    • And then there’s Martha’s “Don’t you care?” gripe to Jesus about Mary’s apparent slacking off. We get quite audacious when we aren’t thinking straight!

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  • Jason

    The second book (Perelandra) of C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy has a conversation in it that I hope to remember every time I’m tempted to be upset about something, because it would put to shame any thought of grumbling.

    Without too much detail, the main character meets an “alien” who cannot understand the concept of discontent because (and I paraphrase) “Why would you be upset for receiving the good God gave you instead of the one you expected?”

  • John L. Chapman

    Reverend Archer: Thanks for writing a blog post that seems, almost providentially, tailor-written for me about 8,000 miles away — I am guilty as charged, including “kvetching about unserious presidential candidates”! I did not know there was an active Baptist Church congregation in Durban, South Africa, but I wish all men of the cloth sermonized as plainly and forcefully as you write! Look forward to more of your posts and meanwhile I am going to try the purple bracelet idea myself….

  • William Brown

    Hi Clint,

    I enjoyed this post and wanted to share this observation. I’ve been thinking about this recently also, as I wrote a recent paper on Israel’s wilderness generation. It was striking to me that two groups in the Bible were known for their grumbling: Israel’s wilderness generation and the Scribes and Pharisees. What a striking illustration of the deadly effect grumbling can have on our souls!

    Thanks for your post – it clarified my thinking on this subject.


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