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First Thoughts

The Fifth Commandment of Staff Relationships: Thou Shall Not Grumble

When We Discover a Problem, We Will Neither Deny It Nor Complain About It But Seek to Resolve It

All Ministries Experience Trouble

The Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians while locked up in prison. He was being unjustly held for a crime he never committed, and you would think—even expect—that such treatment made him bitter.

It didn’t.

In fact, he wrote to us from prison and gave one of the most amazing instructions ever handed down by a convict, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14). When Paul, with chains around his ankles, says to do all things without grumbling or disputing, I think we can trust that he means it.  If “all things” include unjust incarceration, then it certainly includes enduring the problems we face serving the Lord in our contemporary ministries.

In a broken world like this one, your ministry is going to experience difficulties. Plans will fail. Teams will misjudge. The most thoughtful strategies will ignore crucial realities. Leaders will get things wrong. When those difficulties inevitably happen, one of the first things that ministry staff members do is ignore the commands of Scripture. We begin to grumble.

What It Means to Grumble

Grumbling is a sinful complaint. The Apostle Paul forbids it in Philippians 2:14, but the most fascinating treatment in Scripture of this sin happens in Exodus 16 when the people of Israel grumble against Moses as they confront the lack of food and water,

The whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The sons of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (Exodus 16:2-3).

It is not a sin to want food and water any more than it is a sin to want our ministries to go well. But the text of Scripture doesn’t identify the people of Israel as having an understandable desire for good things. The Bible is clear that the people were expressing a sinful, grumbling complaint (Exodus 16:8).

Because most people in ministry don’t understand themselves to be guilty of sin when they grumble, we need to understand four realities about the sin of grumbling.

Grumbling Is Self-Focused Instead of Others-Focused

The Israelites lashed out with a wicked spirit of grumbling because they were thinking about their hungry bellies. They were not focused on what was good for others. They were not thinking about Moses and Aaron and the serious stress they were enduring as they sought to care for so many people in the vast desert. They were thinking about their shrinking stomachs and parched palates.

Selfishness is a distinguishing mark of grumblers in ministry. Regardless of how pious they sound, grumblers are not thinking about others, and are not thinking about the ministry. They are thinking about their comfort, reputation, power, and prestige. One of the best ways to undercut grumbling is to repent of selfishness and pride.

Grumbling Lives in a Dream Instead of Reality

The sinful grumblers against Moses refuse to see the situation as it is. In their sinful discontentment, they remember Egypt as a place of pot-fulls of meat and bellies full of bread. They refuse to remember the forced labor, the sting of the lash, the mass executions of their sons, and the requirement to make bricks without straw.

Grumblers don’t see life as it is.

Grumblers in ministry refuse to see that all ministries have problems. Difficulties enter into every job. Every boss and every team is imperfect. Grumblers only see what they don’t like about the current situation and then blow it out of proportion. Grumbling is defeated with a ruthless commitment to live in the real world rather than La La Land.

Grumbling Seeks to Affix Blame Instead of Solving Problems

Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites are all in the same boat. They have moved out of harsh but familiar surroundings into an unknown land full of unexpected realities. Moses and Aaron occupy no privileged perch of protection but are facing the same challenges as the people they are leading. But the grumblers do not come to them as fellow strugglers with options to help relieve their suffering. They come with hateful accusations that all they want is to kill those they are trying to help.

Grumblers, whether wandering in the wilderness or serving on a church staff, love to assign blame. In their corrupt desire to blame, they attribute the harshest of motives to those who receive their blame. Instead of seeking to provide assistance and help, they want to be judge, jury, and executioner.

Grumbling Is Defined by Unbelief Instead of Trust in God

Moses makes clear that grumbling is a sin against God when he assures the people that “The LORD hears your grumblings which you grumble against him.” The criticisms of grumblers are not harmless complaints. They are faithless. They are protests against heaven. Grumblers rail against God and the way he orders his universe.

Grumblers on ministry staffs fail to see that the situations they complain about happen underneath the sovereign hand of a good God. It is worse than worthless to complain against his faithful leadership. All such grumbling only makes matters worse.

If Not Grumbling, Then What?

At First Baptist, it is a rule that you are not allowed to grumble and complain, but that doesn’t mean you remain silent and allow an unpleasant, harmful, or ineffective situation to go unaddressed. Far from it. You are not allowed to do that either.

The alternative to grumbling is a faithful and positive focus on solutions. When we confront significant challenges, every person involved should work to be part of the solution, supplying constructive feedback to meet the difficulty. If there is no immediate solution—and sometimes there really isn’t—then we faithfully pray until God shows the way forward.

Faithful staff members know there will always be many options when trouble comes calling. The one thing you can’t do is grumble.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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