Last week, in preparation to preach from Philippians, I began tracking how often I grumble. How often do I complain either out loud, under my breath, or in my mind? I’m ashamed to say it was far more than I would have suspected.

Paul says we should do all things without grumbling or disputing (Phil. 2:14). He then goes on to describe four characteristics of what we will become when we do so: blameless, innocent, children of God, and above reproach. He’s not talking about salvation with these terms; that was accomplished by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. He’s instead talking about how others will perceive us. He’s talking about an outward revelation of an inward reality.

I’m a little surprised by Paul’s description of this outward revelation. Why not focus on bigger issues? Wouldn’t our salvation be better evidenced by things refraining from lying or stealing or murdering our neighbor? Actually, no. Societal pressures can limit all of these things, even in non-believers. But what comes out of my mouth when things don’t go my way indicates whose kingdom I serve.

In the context of that chapter, Paul has been talking about Jesus’s self-sacrifice and willingness to put others first. Paul encourages us to model this example with a humble mindset and unselfish behavior. But selflessness can be a rather abstract idea, and our loophole mentality can cause us to weasel out of considering the importance of others. So Paul offers us a practical, though nearly impossible, task: Don’t grumble. About anything.

Why We Must Stop Grumbling

Don’t grumble about anything? Even traffic? Even the long line at the DMV? Even the weather? Even politicians? Even that annoying church member? Yes, even those things. By not grumbling we shine light in the world for a crooked and perverse generation.

Is Paul really saying that if I quit grumbling about things, I will appear as a light in a dark world? I admit I was a bit skeptical. But I really do think that’s what he meant, since for me to stop grumbling several things have to happen.

First, I need to humble myself to realize that my small grumblings really are sinful and offensive to God. This kind of humility chips away at my pride.

Second, I need to get to the bottom of the issue. I need to ask God to graciously show me where and why I grumble. During my weeklong experiment, in every instance I grumbled because things weren’t going my way. Grumbling usually blames someone or something else: an inefficient worker, an unjust system, an inconvenient incident. But the thought occurred to me this week: Why do I deserve this line to go faster or that person to act a certain way or my day to have a certain type of weather? I don’t.

Awareness of my grumbling showed me where I desire my kingdom, rather than God’s kingdom, to flourish. That is always the issue. When I grumble in response to circumstances, I am stating that the values of my kingdom matter more than the values of God’s kingdom. I am stating that people should work better for my sake, that systems should function in certain ways for my benefit, and that the weather should conform to my particular desires. I am the focus of my life.

Grumbling Hinders Humility

Third, I need to recognize that tendency to focus on myself and, instead, look to Jesus. He is the perfect example of what to do when kingdoms conflict. He was God’s kingdom on earth—and the kingdom of the world constantly clashed with him. Yet he didn’t “consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself . . . he humbled himself becoming obedient.”

Paul knew that to conquer the grumbles, you have to submit to God’s kingdom, to die to self. And when you submit to God’s kingdom, this attitude will pervade not only your words but also your actions. Conquering the grumbles may seem like a small part of building God’s kingdom, but because of what it requires, it’s a foundational building block. When in humility we seek to stop grumbling, we necessarily start building God’s kingdom instead of our own. Then his light shines through us in a dark world, allowing others to see God more clearly.

At a local fast-food restaurant I visit there is an employee who always smiles as he cleans the tables and picks the trash off the floor. Instead of complaining or rolling his eyes at the mess that some people make, he sings about Jesus, quietly, almost inaudibly. He is a light, often receiving smiles in return from customers as he passes on to another mess. By refusing to grumble he is showing what it means to live in God’s kingdom. May his tribe increase and our grumbles decrease.