If it is true that people naturally gravitate toward ease, it is no surprise that we so easily complain. When it comes to the church, it is not difficult to find cause for complaint. We complain about the preaching: too long, too short, too little grace, too much grace. We complain about the administration: too much communication, too little communication, too different from the way that I would prefer it to be done. We complain about the ministry: too much focus on this ministry, too little focus on that ministry, too many expectations, too few expectations. We complain about the membership: too nosy, too aloof, too exclusive, too large, too small. It takes no great talent to find cause for complaint in the church.
Truth be told, complaints about the church are not always entirely unfounded. The church can be a messy place with significant faults. The church comprises sinners, who frequently wrong God and one another. Still, the apostles consistently thanked God for his people, while Jude negatively assessed “grumblers” and “malcontents” as “following their own sinful desires” (Jude 16). When brothers and sisters in Christ sin against us, it can be difficult to express gratitude for them. At such times, it is helpful to turn to Scripture to find objective reasons to be thankful for God’s people. In Philippians 1:3–11, we read of Paul’s thankfulness for the saints in Philippi: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy.” Following this expression of thanks, he offers at least three reasons for his gratitude, which should instruct our gratitude for the people of God among whom he has placed us.
First, Paul was thankful for Christ-centred fellowship of God’s people. By “fellowship,” I don’t mean friendly chats about last night’s rugby game around Sunday morning coffee. Paul was thankful “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (v. 5). Later in the letter, we learn that their partnership was material in nature (i.e. the church contributed financially to his needs), but that was only one aspect of the partnership. The word translated “partnership” implies deep, abiding communion. Paul and the Philippian believers did not merely agree on the facts of the gospel; they had together experienced intimacy with God and one another because of the gospel. The gospel had produced in them what Don Carson has called “precious God-centredness.” He was thankful that, like him, they wanted to please God, even if imperfectly.
Even when we don’t see entirely eye to eye with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can give thanks to God that, through the gospel, he has produced in us “precious God-centredness.” Our fellow church members may sin against us but we can be confident that, if they are truly in Christ, we have the same goal: We want to glorify God. Such partnership in the gospel—striving for the common goal of God-centredness—is cause for thanksgiving.
Second, Paul was thankful for the Christlike destiny of God’s people: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). Even in the messiness of church life, he was confident that every true believer at Philippi was destined for ultimate Christlikeness. He would spend eternity fellowshipping with these brothers and sisters in Christ.
When we are tempted to complain and grumble against God’s people, let us remember that God loves them and has destined them for eternal glorification—as he has done for us. We will spend eternity in frictionless fellowship with every brother and sister in Christ—even those we find testiest in this life. We should be thankful that God, in Christ, is doing the same work in every child of his as he is doing in us.
Third, Paul was thankful for the genuine bonds of Christ-wrought love in God’s people: “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel” (v. 7). Even though there were moments of tension, and times in which sin needed to be corrected, he knew that the Philippians loved him and he loved them back (v. 8). They were willing to identify with him in his chains and in his proclamation of the gospel. They counted his ministry as their own and felt deeply the afflictions that he experienced for the gospel. In turn, he yearned for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (v. 8)—an affection that transcended petty squabbles and genuine hurts.
As you reflect on Philippians 1:3–11 this morning, allow these verses to realign in your heart genuine affection for God’s people. Even when wronged, thank God for the Christ-centred fellowship, the Christlike destiny, and the Christ-wrought love that exists between brothers and sisters in Christ.