Where does negativity come from in a church setting?
Church fights, like most fights, often come from the tension between two parties. For example, in Ephesians 2, the issue is between Jews and Gentiles. Sometimes the rift is more contemporary, like Democrats and Republicans in a modern church. Other times the point of friction is between the rich and the poor, as in James 2. In my experience, tension naturally arises between those who give and those who have needs. The self-assured “good members” of a church grow weary in their good works toward those who seem to have a perpetual crisis to be solved or a flaw to overlook.
How can I become a person who complains less? How can I better contribute to the harmony of my church?
The parable of the workers in the vineyard offers some key insights into this question. First, we can observe that negativity comes from forgetting who we are. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1). In this passage, we are the hired help, not the master of the vineyard. We are servants and not the Lord.
Either we trust God to run his vineyard well, or we do not. Timothy Keller famously wrote, “Worry is not believing God will get it right, and bitterness is believing God got it wrong.” We could add that complaining is believing it wasn’t up to God in the first place.
As the parable unfolds, the master of the vineyard hires workers to spend a full day in his service for the acceptable rate of one denarius a day. A few hours later, he sees more potential laborers and makes them the same offer. He repeats this process every few hours from early morning until about an hour before sunset when the work day would naturally end. At sunset, he summons all his workers and begins to dole out the agreed-upon wage for the day—one denarius (Matthew 20:2-9).
In the parable, each worker received what they were promised, but not every worker put in the same amount of effort for the same length of time. In the real-life activity of fieldwork, we could add that no two workers did exactly the same work or exerted exactly the same effort. Each worker encountered a day-long journey before arriving at their destination, but no two journeys were the same. For some, they toiled all day in the field under a hot sun. For others, they despaired without any work at all until the last hour when they were offered wages.
We all must go on a journey before we can reach our destination. In Christian life, no two journeys are alike. I grew up in a Christian home that taught me many of the habits and routines of the Christian faith from my childhood. Perhaps, your journey was not the same. Perhaps you came to faith later in life. God clearly tells about the destination, not the journey. He tells us where we are going but not the details of the road that leads us there.
Negativity comes when we want the destination but not the journey. We become disgruntled with the time and effort it takes to complete the task at hand and start dreaming of a quick and easy route to our goal.
Worse, we often start making assumptions about how this journey will go. “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius” (Matthew 20:10). These workers had no reason to believe they would be paid more than promised, but they assumed it. Having assumed it, they were disappointed, not by reality, but by how reality compared to their expectations.
In the following verse, they begin to complain.“And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying,‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’” (Matthew 20:11–12). Notice again, that each has received exactly what the master promised at the beginning of the story. No one was cheated. The negativity came from comparing their journey to the journey of another.
We can imagine this text being applied to the early Christians reading the Gospel of Matthew. On one side of the table are Hebrew Christians who had known and honored God since their youth. On the other side of the table are Gentile converts who last week had been worshipping at a pagan altar. It would be easy for the Hebrew converts to compare themselves to the Gentiles and wonder why they did not get some bonus prize for their extra years of dedication. When they are told instead that there is “neither Jew nor Gentile” in Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28), they would be disappointed - not by the riches of grace in Jesus - but by the misleading assumptions and comparisons they had made in their own mind.
Today, negativity still comes from comparing ourselves to others. Nothing good comes from it. Paul warns, “Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12). Smugly judging yourself by your own standard or enviously comparing yourself to others are both foolish measurements. We do not know ourselves until we have measured ourselves in Christ.
I am reminded of the conversation that Peter had with Jesus after the resurrection. Struggling with his denial of Jesus at the cross, Peter attempts to turn the spotlight elsewhere. He points to John and asks, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus’ answer is as short as it is sharp. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:21-22)
You follow me! That is enough!
The owner of the vineyard responded in a similar way to the laborers in the parable. “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?’” (Matthew 20:13). Negativity comes when we forget what we were promised. We have been offered the riches of his grace, but somehow we find a way to ask, “Yes, but what else? Can I also be in charge of the thermostat and the song selection for Sunday?”
The vineyard master says,“Take what belongs to you and go.” I cannot imagine these words were spoken in a pleasant tone of voice. “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’” (Matthew 20:13).
What is it about God’s generosity to someone else that makes us bitter? It happens all the time. Jonah complains about the forgiveness of Nineveh. God responds by asking, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) In the story of the prodigal son, the older brother pouts about a party thrown for his brother. The father responds, “It was fitting to celebrate and glad” (Luke 15:32). What is it about God’s generosity that makes us angry when he is kind? Or, to offer a more literal translation of the Greek text in Matthew 20:13, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
Negativity comes when we think we are the director of the play. We have imagined how we think the show should go. When it is going as planned - as we planned - we are content. But the moment the drama diverges from our expectations, we yell, “Cut!” We want everyone back on the script. Our script. Life as we would have it.
We are not the directory of this play. In the script of heaven, the gospel tells us that all the laborers will be treated as one in Christ. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27–28).
In short, our negativity does not result from God’s failure to do what is right. Our negativity results from our failure to be grateful for what God is doing.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.