The problems that cause stagnation in Christians can be as varied as Christians themselves. Commonly shared problems are the kind that Scripture tends to address frequently. One of those problems, and one that I’m afraid you share, is what we might call the Grumbles.
The Bible uses other terms for grumbling: murmuring, complaining, whispering, and even bitterness. In fact, the amount of times Scripture addresses this problem is surprising, for a sin that some people think is rather harmless. The severity with which God judged murmuring and complaining belies the idea that this is a benign problem.
The great sin of murmuring is neither its criticism (which can be done lawfully), nor its desire for change (which is healthy, when applied rightly). What makes murmuring so displeasing to God is that it is a posture of chosen discontent combined with cowardice and deceit. It combines two of the great sins: unthankfulness, and lying.
You see, a murmurer is not merely someone who has spotted a problem, or found something irritating. We all do that, in all kinds of ways. No, the grumbler is not incidentally critical. The murmurer has adopted a stance, a position, even a place, where all that is done in church or by their authority is seen through jaundiced eyes. The grumbler has become adversarial. The grumbler now refuses to see the good, the pure, the pleasant, or the well-intentioned. Indeed, he has become so convinced of his skewed interpretations of other’s motives and actions, that he is now quite incorrigible. Read the account of Israel’s murmurings, and you will see that the complaints were persistent, and even stubborn.
This would be bad enough on its own. Discontent is giving God’s providence a one-star review. Discontent is sulking in Heaven’s dining room, and turning up your nose at God’s largesse. Discontent is saying to God, “Can I speak to your manager?”
But the grumbler adds a layer of incorrigibility to his discontent by refusing the bolder actions of approaching those he is murmuring against. If honesty and openness pervaded what he was doing, he would at least be bringing in some light and balance to his dark ruminations. The act of having to confront another with Scriptural truth would force him to check his own thoughts with the standard of the Bible, and eliminate the exaggerated, the speculative, the assumed, the unfair, and the prejudiced. There’s nothing like calling another man to the bar of Scripture to see if that’s truly been the standard of your own thoughts. A lot of murmuring evaporates once the heat and light of honest, Scriptural communication takes place.
But the murmurer has chosen cowardice. He has chosen to grumble among family or “friends” (the kind that don’t sharpen you with Scripture). He grumbles out of the firing line of honest reply, out of the striking distance of a return confrontation about his attitude. He stews and fusses, sneers and curls his lip, points and remarks, but does not approach those he has the problem with. Worst of all, he tells anyone who questions why he does not approach those he is disgruntled with that “he doesn’t have a problem”. But this patently false. He does have a problem, as all his family within earshot are well aware. He simply is too cowardly to take the bull by the horns, and settle his complaint with biblical confrontation. He wishes to both grumble about another, and make it that person’s responsibility to approach him. This is what Jesus described when he said the Pharisees were “… like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying: ‘We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’ (Matthew 11:16–17). In other words, impossible and implacable.
But the oddest thing about the grumbler is his insistence on continuing at the church he grumbles about. He knows he finds everything distasteful. He has no plans to address his attitude. But he continues to attend the church that annoys him so! It becomes to him like a test of endurance, or a contest of wills. However miserable he may be, however much he suspects others of neglecting and mistreating him, he will not surrender to simply going somewhere else and starting again. By the strange perversity of the fallen nature, he prefers being miserable in the church he knows rather than beginning again somewhere else with the possibility of joy!
What he cannot see is how he has trapped himself. No one in a state of murmuring against his authorities can grow under those same authorities. No one who suspects his spiritual leaders of wrongdoing can simultaneously be in cheerful submission to those leaders. Without that cheerful submission, he is breaking his side of the transaction between spiritual leaders and those they teach (1 Peter 5:5). The writer of Hebrews explains how a refusal of submission backfires: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17) In other words, miserable, stubborn parishioners make life difficult for their pastors. Unhappy pastors don’t shepherd difficult sheep as well as they might. That means less growth for those sheep. To put it in terms we all recognise: don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Murmuring is antithetical to cheerful, expectant teachability. The two cannot dwell together. Therefore, the grumbler is not growing. It’s that simple.
Bill, the solution is contained in what I’ve described. The grumbler must accept the T-junction he is at. He must choose. He may choose to cut his losses, and begin somewhere else where he has no water under the bridge. He may choose to bite the bullet and confront those he has difficulty with, accepting that he will likely have to receive as much rebuke as he gives. But anything is better than the misery of perpetual discontent and stunted growth.
Your friend and pastor,