The Litmus Test of Humility

Philippians 2:14-18

Do any students or teachers know what a litmus test is? In the most specific sense, a litmus test is a chemical process that reveals the degree of acidity or alkalinity of a liquid or solution. It consists of dipping a strip of specially formulated paper into the liquid or solution. Red litmus paper turns blue in an alkaline solution and blue litmus paper turns red in an acidic solution. Litmus tests are most helpful in chemistry experiments or gardening to determine the pH level of various soils and substances.

Over time, people have used “litmus test” as a figure of speech to describe any one key detail or decisive factor that can reveal a person’s beliefs or character more fully. Your stance on certain political issues can reveal which political party you affiliate with, for instance. Other so-called “litmus tests” may be gauging your compassion or generosity (or lack thereof) by how you tip waitresses at a restaurant or gauging your honesty and integrity by how you respond when a cashier or register undercharges you for a purchase.

In our passage today, Paul introduces a litmus test for gauging genuine, Christlike humility in the church at Philippi. As we’ve learned, this church was experiencing many difficulties and trials because of their faith in Christ. Some of these trials came from outside the church, ranging from social marginalization to imprisonment. Yet other challenges came from inside the church as various members succumbed to taking themselves too seriously and promoting their own personal interests over the interests of others.

In Chapter 2, Paul has strongly encouraged church members to seek the wellbeing of one another actively and sincerely, even if doing so requires personal inconvenience and sacrifice. Since this instruction seems harsh or inconsiderate, Paul reminds us that doing so merely follows the example of Christ, who humbled himself so completely that he relinquished his public reputation as God, suffered as a servant to mankind, and died the cruel, undeserved death of a criminal upon the cross.

Of course, Paul also reveals that by devoting himself so humbly and completely to our salvation, Christ only lost out in the short-term – though this lost was indeed incredibly painful. In the long-term, he triumphed most completely and forever. Knowing this, Paul challenges believers to “work out our own salvation,” meaning that we navigate the way to our own triumph through suffering when we choose the path of humility along the way.

In our passage today, we will discover one keyway – a litmus test – for whether we who are followers of Christ are navigating our way through suffering with true humility. We all like to consider ourselves humble and faithful, but how can we know for sure? Sometimes we project our aspirations onto reality. We equate wanting to be humble like Christ with actually being humble like Christ. Just because you want to be so doesn’t mean that you are being successful. Today’s message will help you take an honest look at your humility.

Humility refuses to engage in divisive talk.
Do all things without complaining and disputing,

In this passage, we learn that true, Christlike humility carefully guards against any talk between people that undermines the harmony of God’s people. A humble person simply refuses to engage in divisive talk, but a person who lets arrogance, pride, and self-interest get the better of him or her either gets lured into such talk or initiates such talk.

“Do all things without” is a powerful little phrase. Do of course refers to our actions and behavior together and all things refers to all of our actions and behaviors, not just certain, specific ones. This means that Paul is giving blanket, comprehensive instructions. Simply put, there are no exceptions to what he is saying. He gives no allowances for actions or behaviors which may properly include or justify divisive talk. No matter what you may be doing at any given time, complaining or disputing should never take place for any reason.

Private complaining stops.

Complaining (grumbling) is one form of divisive talk which a humble person refuses to do. It is like the quiet churning or gurgling of a refrigerator in the background of your house or any other irritating, repetitive noise that goes on and on without end. This word describes a pattern of quiet complaining from one person to another – hushed conversations in a corner, veiled complaints over the phone, clever sarcastic comments or social media posts, and so on.

Public debating stops.

Disputing (questioning, or Gr. dialogismon), according to pastor and expositor R. Kent Hughes, “evokes to our English-speaking ears the petty dialoguing that calls everything into question.” He goes on to explain:

“We are prone to think that the way we relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ is a matter of indifference and that we are entitled to a little grouchiness, goggusmon. Even more, we can convince ourselves that a critical spirit is a virtue. We have probably all met someone who claimed to have the gift of criticism. ‘After all, someone needs to have the courage to say what I know everyone is thinking. Besides, a little disdain for others will be good for them. We wouldn’t want them to think too highly of themselves, would we? Some ‘healthy’ grumbling and questioning will help this ship sail right.’ But that is not what Paul says. In fact, such conduct impedes the working out of salvation in the church. In fact, it can ruin one’s own soul or the soul of another in the church. It can make the church the cultural joke of “a crooked and twisted generation.”

A humble and maturing Christian can see past divisive issues and petty differences to the bigger picture, realizing that God is drawing all of us closer to one another – flaws and all – to accomplish something significant. These do not bear down on minutiae and imperfections but exhibit a gracious spirit towards one another, knowing that they themselves have blind spots and flaws of their own. God knows how to get his work done in the church. He doesn’t need our complaining and arguing to help him out. He has better ways of bring about change in our lives. A humble person realizes this and so refuses to engage in divisive talk.

What does any complaining or debating in our lives ultimately reveal? These behaviors reveal a lack of confidence and satisfaction with God, for all complaining is always complaining against God. They indicate that we still harbor doubts that God is not in full control of our lives and that he is not fully, completely good.

Complaining and arguing – all forms of divisive talk – are major root issues in our lives, not minor, inconsequential ones. This was precisely the point that God intended to make through Moses in writing the Old Testament book of Numbers. In this book, we learn how the nation of Israel – specifically the adult Israelites whom God had delivered from slavery in Egypt through mighty divine acts – complained to one another and argued with Moses:

  • at the Red Sea (Exo 14:10-12).
  • about bitter water at Marah (Exo 16:1-3).
  • about being hungry in the desert (Exo 16:19-20).
  • about a lack of water at Rephidim (Exo 17:1-4).

Numbers amplifies this pattern of discontent and disobedience, showing how such complaining and arguing persisted and intensified after they departed from Sinai. Despite God’s ongoing faithfulness and forgiveness, provision and protection, they continued to complain. As a result, God canceled his plans to give them the Promised Land. They would die in the wilderness and the next generation would get a chance instead. The central verses of Numbers record this turning point:

Because all these men who have seen my glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded my voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected me see it (Num 14:22-23)

A census of the Hebrew at the start of that book gives us the names and numbers of people who complained against God. The second census at the end of the book gives us the names of their children who entered the land and got a second chance. As you can guess, the second list is smaller since many Israelites died in the wilderness due to their complaining spirit.

Numbers shows us how the people of Israel tested God’s patience. As a result, they failed to experience and enjoy all that God had planned for them. It also shows us how God remained faithful to his promises, despite the nations’ resistance to him. Ongoing disobedience, discontent, and distrust towards God will prevent you from experiencing the joys of your relationship with him.

Humility values public testimony over personal agendas.

Now that we have acknowledged that the litmus test of Christlike humility is a refusal to complain and argue, let’s learn a little more about what this humility looks like in a positive sense. Not just what it refuses but what it values.

It values integrity.

Paul says, “that you may become blameless and harmless.” These words are essentially synonyms being a similar thing, so by pairing them together Paul gives what he is saying here additional emphasis or stress, similar to how we italicize or place words today in bold. Then he describes what he means by describing us as “children of God without fault.” You’ll find it interesting to know that the word “without fault” is the same Greek word as “blameless” just before.

Here Paul is emphasizing the sweet innocence of young children have not yet learned how to be bitter and complain. This also calls to mind the Hebrew people in the wilderness who had been delivered from Egypt and adopted by God as his children in a national sense as the nation of Israel. They were chosen by God to show the world around them an example of genuine, trusting, satisfied faith in him, but they showed no such thing. For this reason, God turned to the young children of Israel who had not yet learned to complain like their parents.

When believers and nonbelievers alike view your life, do they detect a complaining and argumentative spirit? Or do they see the sweet, sincere, confident, and satisfied faith of a child?

It values the gospel.

Paul also says, “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” With these words, he reminds us of our mission – which is helping people take their next steps in following Christ.

We must remember that we are living as public witnesses for Christ in view of sinful and rebellious people who are resent and resist God. It is our privilege and responsibility to “shine as lights,” just as lighthouses help storm-beaten ships safely to shore in the darkness of night.

When we slip into complaining and argumentative ways, then our light dims and we project more darkness than light into the world. We turn people away from God rather than towards him. And we become less concerned, less sensitive, and less effective at drawing others to Christ.

A humble person refuses to complain and argue as they suffer, but instead “holds fast the word of life.” This means that humble person will make representing and spreading the good news of Christ a priority over seeking his or her own advantage through complaining and arguing. Such a person cares more deeply about being a refreshing and compelling testimony for Christ.

It values spiritual mentors.

Genuine humility not only values personal integrity and being a gospel witness, it also values spiritual mentors. Paul refers to himself here when he says, “so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.” By saying this, Paul is being candid but not selfish, though what he is saying is a bit ironic and almost facetious.

Paul is asking the believers in the church at Philippi to be humble and Christlike, and not to complain and argue among themselves, for his own sake. He is looking forward to the day when he will stand before Christ to provide an account for his ministry and Christian service endeavors. He desires to be able to present the church at Philippi as an example of personal ministry efforts done for Christ which proved to be effective. He wants to know that his sacrificial efforts in ministering to this church would not be for nothing. Knowing all that Paul had been through for them, it would be disappointing indeed if the outcome was nothing more than a group of professing believers who complained and argued rather than cared for one another and reached their community with the gospel.

When you’re tempted to complain and argue, please consider those faithful believers who have loved, mentored, served, taught, and invested in your life. If nothing else, seek genuine Christlike humility and avoid complaining and arguing for their sake, so that their ministry into your life is not without real and lasting change.

Humility experiences the profound joy of others-first living.

When we simply commit ourselves to loving and serving others, rather than complaining and arguing, we – like Christ – will triumph rather than lose and will experience a life and future of deep, lasting, and profound joy. And do you remember how we are defining and describing joy as we learn more about “The Joyful Life” from this letter? Joy is a calm, confident, and contented enthusiasm that comes from a life that’s centered on Christ.

It is a lifestyle of sacrifice and service.

Paul says, “Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith…” By referring to sacrifice here, what does Paul mean? He is envisioning a life that is, like an expensive oil or perfume, poured out, evaporated, and entirely burnt up on an offering in Jewish Temple worship only to enhance the value of the sacrifice itself.

Are you more interested in enhancing the lives of others or enhancing your own reputation? Today, our sacrifice occurs through real hands-on service and material investment into one another’s lives. God no longer asks us to offer sacrifices on an altar. That’s too easy to do. He asks us to serve one another in real, tangible, and personal ways.

Paul explains this mindset of genuine sacrificial service in his letter to the church at Corinth (2 Cor 12:15):

I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved.

This precious statement describes a man who had learned to spend his resources (“spend”) and his own energies and person (“be spent”) for people who didn’t return such love. Are you prepared to serve one another through suffering the same way?

It is a life of intensified joy.

There is a certain kind of personal gratification that comes from winning an argument, but there is a far deeper and more profound joy that comes from remaining quit, trusting God, and serving sacrificially instead. Paul says, “I am glad and rejoice with you all.”

With these words, he expresses no resentment or complaint about serving the people at Philippi, even though he had sacrificed and suffered much for their benefit and even though they were proving to be somewhat difficult. Instead, he said that he experienced increased, intensified joy from God. When he says, “I am glad and rejoice,” he is literally saying, “I rejoice and rejoice with you!” By doubling up the word rejoice, he speaks of double joy, or rather an intensity of joy which one use of the word alone cannot express.

It is a life of contagious joy.

“For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me.” With these words, we find that Paul chooses to double and triple his emphasis on the joy that comes through sacrificial service. First, he doubles both words again (a second doubling!), only this time he doubles it a third time by spreading this joy to others. The joy that comes through sacrificial service not only intensifies within the person who serves sacrificially, but it spreads to the people who are being served sacrificially as well.

Here Paul seeks to share his joy with the believers at Philippi, letting them know how glad he was to serve them. You know this feeling in some small, little way whenever you order a meal at Chick-Fil-A and say, “Thank you.” The cashier then replies enthusiastically, “My pleasure!” Even on your gloomiest day, this answer tempts your lips to smile. In a much deeper, grander way, the Christlike joy of a sacrificial believer serving others has a way of spreading to others. Is this the effect you’re having on others? Are you spreading contagious joy that comes through sacrificial service for Christ?

Oswald Jeffrey Smith lived to the age of 97 yrs., having served as the pastor of People’s Church in Toronto for many years. In 1963 he published a book, Oswald Smith’s Hymn Stories, about some of the songs he’d written. He had written nearly a hundred gospel songs together with his close friend, B. D. Ackley. One of my favorite older songs, this one published by Smith in 1931, is Joy in Serving Jesus, which happens to be the first song that Smith and Ackley wrote together. The lyrics are as follows:

There is joy in serving Jesus
As I journey on my way
Joy that fills my heart with praises
Every hour and every day

There is joy in serving Jesus
Joy; that triumphs over pain
Fills my heart with heaven's music
Till I join the glad refrain

There is joy in serving Jesus
As I walk alone with God
‘Tis the joy of Christ, my Savior
Who the path of suffering trod

There is joy in serving Jesus
Joy amid the darkest night
For I've learned the wondrous secret
And I'm walking in the light

There is joy, joy
Joy in serving Jesus
Joy that throbs within my heart
Every moment, every hour
As I draw upon His power
There is joy, joy
Joy that never shall depart


This song began as the personal testimony of Dr. Smith written at age 42. In his own comments about this song, he said, “In this hymn I express the joy that I have experienced in serving the Lord Jesus Christ.” Does this joy describe your experience with Christ today? I pray that it will! So, let me encourage you to say no to complaining and arguing and yes to sacrificial service for Christ. Let’s pray.

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