“Moses Strikes the Rock” ~ James Tissot

For the past few weeks, I’ve been complaining about the weather: too cold, too wet, too cloudy. Even though it’s actually spring now, it sometimes feels like winter will never end, and apparently I want everyone to know about it. Just recently after a workout at the YMCA, an older gentleman told me that warm weather is coming, and I said, “It’s about time.” When he told me it could even reach the 80s within just a few weeks, I said, “Well, then we’ll all complain that it’s too hot!”

Which made me wonder: is it really the cold weather that’s got me all twisted up inside? Or have I just become a complainer, turning over every blessing to see a curse on the other side?

During their 40 years wandering the desert, the Israelites developed a reputation for their own grumbling. They grumbled about not having anything to eat or drink, and when God provided manna, quail, and water, they grumbled that there wasn’t enough variety. They grumbled (justifiably) in Egypt about their forced slavery, but then they grumbled about the travel conditions when Moses led them out of Egypt. When they came to the land of Canaan, they grumbled about entering the land because it seemed too dangerous. But after they chose not to go to the Promised Land, they grumbled about being left out.

As we continue in 1 Corinthians 10, with Paul’s admonition that “these things happened [to the Israelites] as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved,” we find grumbling on his short list of what not to do. Grumbling and complaining pose real threats to our faith. When we’re focused on the problems we’re facing and see only the negatives in our circumstances, we leave little room for gratitude and we struggle to see God’s goodness or his plan. Grumbling also feeds the discontent so many of us struggle with anyway, by diminishing all we do have.

The word Paul uses here for grumbling, γογγύζω (gongyzō), isn’t just about voicing a concern, which is how I often excuse my own complaining. It means to “utter secret and sullen discontent and to express indignant complaint.” Sometimes it’s translated as “murmuring,” with its insistence on being heard. Which means even in our grumbling, just like with idolatry and immorality, we find hints of pride rearing its ugly head again.

If I look closely enough, I can see pride lurking beneath my own grumbling. My complaints about the cold weather and snowy days that have lingered into March are interrupting my plans, never mind what the calendar says or what God may have for me by staying put for the day. And I see something similar in the grumblings of Israel in the accounts from Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. While the questions they ask about what they will eat and what they will drink might seem valid, especially in Exodus 15 when they’d gone three days without finding water, from the beginning Moses recorded it as grumbling. Probably because their complaint wasn’t just about finding food and water; it was more about questioning God’s goodness in leading them out of Egypt. They’d just seen God perform the 10 plagues and change Pharaoh’s heart and lead them away from Ramses and deliver them through the Red Sea. If God could do all that, couldn’t they trust he had a plan to feed and hydrate them?

“Moses and Jethro” ~ James Tissot

And their grumbling got worse as their wandering continued. What initially seemed like valid concern turned into resentful demands. They not only turned the blessings of manna and water into a curse, they let nostalgia—and their stomachs—deceive them about the truly harsh conditions of Egypt. “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna” (Numbers 11:5-6).

They also complained about the same things over and over again. In Numbers 20, we see the people grumbling about a lack of water for at least the third time. They’d already seen God provide water in Marah and in Horeb. Didn’t they think he could do it again in Meribah?

To be honest, I wish I couldn’t relate quite so well here. But I know what it’s like to see God provide and move and reveal himself in miraculous ways and then get tripped up by a delay in traffic or an unexpected bill. And just like the Israelites, my real complaint often is about not getting my way, but sometimes it’s even more complicated than that. Sometimes, it’s about unfairness, that God is blessing others and not me. Sometimes, it’s about resentment, that God could intervene but doesn’t. Often it’s about convenience. Life just seems easier (for me, at least) when things are going my way.

There’s another kind of complaint that I don’t think Paul’s condemning in 1 Corinthians, a complaint the Israelites also were familiar with. In Exodus 2, before Moses delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh and led them into the Desert of Shur, the Israelites cried out because of their bondage. Moses used the word נְאָקָה (neaqah), or groaning, to describe these complaints, and he said God heard them and remembered them and took notice of them. It’s the same kind of complaint the Israelites would make again and again years later after they’d finally entered the promised land and were oppressed and afflicted by other enemies (Judges 2:16-23). This groaning also fills the pages of Job and the Psalms, when the afflictions of life soften the spirit and leave the complainers humbled rather than indignant. These are not the complaints of someone demanding her own way. Instead, they’re cries from the heart, begging God for mercy, for grace, for peace.

“As for me, I shall call upon God,” David writes in Psalm 55:16, “And the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur, and He will hear my voice. He will redeem my soul in peace from the battle which is against me, for they are many who strive with me.”

So as we come to our third desert wondering this Lent, we aren’t asking if we complain or grumble, but why? When we toss our grievances heavenward, are we indignant and demanding, wanting what’s fair and convenient? Then Paul’s warning is for us when he said some of the Israelites grumbled and we’re killed by a destroying angel. I’m not saying that’s our fate, but I do think complaining is destructive in our lives and our faith. How can we be thankful and content, as we’re so often instructed, if we’re always murmuring about our circumstances and grumbling about our relationships?

But if our complaints sound more like groanings, and the hardness of life has rubbed a soft spot of weakness and vulnerability into our hearts, then maybe we need to cry out even more to the only one who can save us. “For [God] has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one,” David writes in Psalm 22:24, “he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

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Artwork by James Tissot, public domain.