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  • Writer's pictureNijay K. Gupta

Gospel Affections: On Grumpiness

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

Mark Rothko Chapel, in Houston, Tx

This is the second essay in a series on “Human Emotions and Christian Formation.” If you haven’t read the first essay (or need a refresher), which lays the groundwork, I encourage you to go back and read that now.

In this series, I use Paul’s letter to the Philippians to consider how emotion-oriented language in Scripture says something very important about the gospel of Jesus Christ and how believers are formed (or malformed). We started with Worry, now I want to talk about a topic you might be surprised to find Paul addressing— Grumpiness. Paul gives the Philippians this command:

“Do all things without murmuring and arguing.” (Phil 2:14)

We all know grumpy people, we’ve all had grumpy moments or seasons. When I am feeling grouchy or moody, I address the problem by taking a nap or eating sugar. Moods come and go, right? So, what could be so theologically important about grumpiness? Why would Paul command the Philippians not to murmur or argue?

Paul's not talking about being annoyed by a flight delay. Or irritation over a rude comment on Twitter. He’s talking about the problem of having an inner spirit of grumpiness, settling into a place of agitation and annoyance.

When we look at the context of Phillippians 2:14 closely and define Paul’s specific terms in more detail we can see why the topic of grumpiness made it into Paul’s New Testament instructions. Paul’s not talking about grumbling and murmuring under your breath as you stand in a long customer service line. He’s not talking about being annoyed by a flight delay. Or irritation over a rude comment on Twitter. He’s talking about the problem of having an inner spirit of grumpiness, settling into a place of agitation and annoyance. In the words of the Grinch, Turning into a big, fat, curmudgeon.

The Context: Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

Paul wrote to the Philippians from a situation of difficulty. He was in prison facing an unknown future (Severe punishment? Death?). At the same time, the Philippians, like Israel rescued from bondage in Egypt, had an initial conversion experience of elation and glory (Philippians 2:1-2) but then had to go through a wilderness of their own, and they didn’t like that one bit. A dark period of in-fighting and persecution lingered. Morale in the church was low. People were on edge. The honeymoon period of the Philippians’ Christian faith was over.

Paul used his letter to remind them that suffering is part of the journey (1:29) and that their hero, Jesus Christ, willingly walked the path to the cross in obedience to the Father (2:6-11). There was no joy in his humiliation, but there was hope in the plan and goodness of God.

Paul called the Philippians to imitate the mindset of Christ in their own circumstances (2:5). A few verses later he told them to work out your own salvation (2:12). His instruction wasn’t about earning their salvation. Rather, he was saying, Christ had to “work out” how to trust the Father with carrying out his plan towards his good gospel end, I (Paul) had to recognize that no obstacle deters the gospel’s movement (1:19); and now you have to “work out” that same kind of trust for yourself.

To trust God when things aren’t going well “without murmuring and arguing” means to keep on marching forward, step-by-step in the wilderness, even if you can’t see anything on the horizon. You may feel like you are wandering to no end—which can easily lead to grumpiness—but you are not lost. Tolkien sounds a lot like Paul when he penned the famous phrase, not all those who wander are lost.

Defining the Terms: From Groaning to Grumpiness

Paul chose words to fit the context of the Phillipian's suffering. His exhortation not to “murmur” or “argue” is not about momentary griping. The tradition of lament and complaint against God is common in the Psalms and affirmed as part of Jewish and Christian spirituality. Groaning, even complaining, can come from a spirit of unrest and act as a protest when things are not the way they should be. Paul doesn’t instruct them to turn away from that.

When your mind dwells on something too much with intense negativity, this becomes a mental snare.

The second term Paul uses,“arguing,” in Greek is dialogismos. Dialogismos can work multiple ways in a sentence. It references “mental processing” when used for one person’s thoughts and “dialogue” when used for two or more people together. It can have a neutral meaning including “thoughts,” or “considerations” or can carry a negative meaning like “schemes” or “bickering.” Dialogismos can even refer to the natural—even good—mental exercise of mulling something over. But when your mind dwells on something too much with intense negativity, this becomes a mental snare. Sometimes adjectives are added in English translations like “evil thoughts” (Matt 15:19) or “futile thinking” (Rom 1:21). I think of the Lord of the Rings creature Gollum, who likes to talk to himself. Gollum’s “good” personality is trying to make the right decisions, the “evil” personality dwells on cynicism and revenge. Inner dialogue is often good, but if that “bad” persona wins, it darkens the soul. Paul isn’t urging the Philippians away from the dialogismos that voices that something is wrong, he is urging them away from the dialogismos that creates a mental downward spiral.

The first term Paul uses (“murmuring”) is goggusmos and involves muttering, kind of like a growl. This might have been an onomatopoeia, the sound “gogg” resembling the low grumbling we might make when pouting. In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the term goggusmos comes up over and over, especially in Exodus and Leviticus pertaining to Israel’s complaining in the wilderness. If Israel is wrongly reminiscing about the “good ole’ days” in Egypt you’re likely to find the word goggusmos. A Jewish text called Psalms of Solomon associates “murmuring” (goggusmos) with oligopsychia— “a small, shriveled soul” (16:11).

Paul’s word choice spotlights a kind of inner grumpiness that may start out as just one bad day, but if left to fester, can transform the complainer into a curmudgeon, a grump, someone with a gnarled and shriveled little soul.

Micro-Emotions and Macro-Emotions

I keep coming back to these questions in my recent study of Paul: why does he give emotion-related commands? Are we supposed to not have feelings? Aren’t feelings reactionary? And what do emotions have to do with the gospel and the Christian life?

As I have been reading up on emotion in psychology, anthropology, and brain science, I’ve come to learn that emotions are far more important to our overall well-being than I ever realized. Emotions not just reflect our inner disposition, but they can play a role in shaping us as well. And Paul is very interested in how Christians are shaped.

If grumbling sticks around too long, it turns into grumpiness, which leads to a shriveled, little soul, twisted and angry and bitter.

With my findings in mind, I’ve started to use new language to distinguish two types of emotions: micro- and macro-. Micro-emotions are those spontaneous, fleeting feelings that are part of our instincts—like instant terror when I see a spider or a sense of joy when I see a rainbow or baby. We can’t control micro-emotions much unless we change our minds about spiders, babies, and rainbows.

When Paul and Jesus give commands about emotions, they are not really expecting us to cut off or control micro-emotion reactions. They are more interested in macro-emotions because those act as a kind of inner barometer of how we are navigating the world, and it is possible to shift that barometer towards thriving and a sense of inner peace and contentment.

For example, we can slip into a deeper and more permanent form of depression when we have a long-term difficult situation. Or, our “joy” meter might stay at a high level for a long time due to a great work situation.

When Paul warns the Philippians to check their grumbling and sour attitude, he’s advising them to check their whole perspective on life. He goes on to say they must be “without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (2:15)—this is a kind of hyperlink to Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness (Deut 32:5). Paul doesn’t just want the Philippians to muster up happy feelings, he wants them to change their viewpoint on what God is up to. Don’t look back to Egypt. Don’t fixate on the aches of wandering. You have a faith and hope that make it possible for you to shine like stars in a dark world; cling tightly to hope.

All of us get grumpy sometimes. There’s no shame in blowing off steam when you’ve had a bad day. Find someone you can complain to. Tell Jesus, he knows the grind. And then release it. Stars exist to shine. Gospel people tell good news. If grumbling sticks around too long, it turns into grumpiness, which leads to a shriveled, little soul, twisted and angry and bitter. The solution isn’t: put on a happy face! I doubt Paul gave himself that kind of pep talk in his prison cell. The opposite of grumpiness is moving forward with hope. Sometimes in a sprint, but all too often in baby steps, clinging on to friends and family, and grasping tightly to Jesus, the Word of Life.

So, don’t be grumpy. Keep on moving. You can wander with hope because, even though you can’t see the finish line, your leader can.

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