There I am with a jug of laundry detergent and carton of ice cream heading to the check-out only to find that among 10 check-out aisles only 3 are running and a billion people are rushing to pay for their groceries. I analyze the situation, calculate the potential wait time for each line and make a selection – only to find the person in front of me brought their coupons and an actual check book to pay for their 2 carts of food.
Let the complaining begin.
Under my breath you may hear me complain about the lack of staff, the businesses unwillingness to get self-checkout stations, and maybe even the food selection of the lady in front of me. After all, who actually eats that many lima beans.
This may be a bit of a dramatization, but I assure you that the situation (and my complaining) are not far from the truth. In those moments, when frustration builds, it’s so easy to fall into complaining – but have we ever stopped to consider what is behind the complaint itself?
The Root of Complaining
Complaining is not a neutral action, it comes from somewhere. In the situation above, like countless others, it comes from a feeling of helplessness which can breed a type of arrogance that says, “if I was in control this would not happen.”
In short, complaining is us declaring to anyone who will listen – “I could do better.”
- In the traffic jam, we complain about the other drivers who just don’t quite have the same skill and understanding as us.
- In our finances, we complain about the people with more money because they are not spending on the right things (and probably don’t deserve it as much as I do anyway).
- Inside our families we complain about our spouse and kids who would all finally reach perfection if they would only listened to us.
- In our churches, we complain about the people, the programs, and it’s purpose all which would be elevated to new heights of effectiveness if we were in charge.
Yes, that was a bit tongue and cheek, but make no mistake, complaining comes from a heart of pride. We want what we want when we want it and anything that may sideline that desire is in the crosshairs of our criticism. This is part of our fallen, sinful existence and something worth examining in our own hearts.
To help us unpack this more, we look no further than the people of Israel who appear to have a knack for grumbling.
Complaining in the Midst of Plenty
In Numbers 11-14 we read a series of events that include lots of grumbling among God’s people. Keep in mind that this is not long after God has supernaturally rescued the people from Egypt, shown his glory on Mt. Sinai, provided His law so that they could be near God Himself, leading them by way of a pillar of fire and clouds, and also provided regular food and water in the middle of the desert.
Having experienced all this and more we read, “the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes.” (Numbers 11:1)
Misfortunes? What misfortunes are they talking about?
Apparently, the people were tired of the way God was providing sustenance. Yes, it was literal bread from heaven. Yes, it was a supernatural provision of food that was providing for a million people EVERYDAY…but see the thing is…I want meat.
On one hand, I get it. I love a good piece of steak, yet there is something problematic with the way the people speak about that desire.
Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. Numbers 11:4-6
Three things about this statement from the people:
- Did the people forget they were slaves? That fish did not “cost nothing” because they were oppressed slaves being whipped and abused at the pleasure of Pharoh.
- Do they not realize the miraculous reality of the food they are eating? “Nothing but manna to look at” is a profound insult to the very God who is providing for their needs.
- Are they saying that God failed in providing enough nourishment to keep your strength from “drying up”?
See the problem with this?
Now, it would be wise for us to stop for a moment and consider the difference between a prayer to God and a complaint against God. Throughout the Psalms we see heartbroken prayers to God about life circumstances and struggles.
Consider the very bold words of Psalm [44:23]-24.
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
Is this complaining about God’s lack of action? In a sense it is. In this Psalm of lament we see the psalmist wrestle with the apparent absence of God’s rescue, yet this same psalmist punctuates the end of this heartfelt cry with “redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” demonstrating that this is not an arrogant complaint about how God’s not doing something but rather a submissive cry to a God that they believe has the power to change their situation.
Lament wraps honest frustration in faith – believing that God is good, loving, and able to care for the needs expressed.
Complaining is faithless arguing over what we think is best – believing that God has missed something or moved in a way that is wrong.
Faith and Complaining
Why do we bristle when people complain about us?
Is it because at that moment they are elevating themselves above us, questioning our motives and/or abilities? When someone complains about us in a public way it can also turn others against us leading to hurt relationships and personal pain. This gives us a hint at why God responds the way he does towards the complaining of His people.
David writes in Psalm 18 “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.”
God is unable to do wrong. He is perfect in His actions and His intent because perfection is who He is not just what he does. Therefore, when we complain about the way God is working we are bringing his character into question. This is most obviously seen in the question, “If God is good then why …..”.
Therefore, when we complain about the way God is working we are bringing his character into question.
This can be an honest question worthy of a thoughtful, gentle response. Unfortunately, many times it is an open rebuke against God for not acting in a way that someone believes He should act. Complaining on this level is a reversal of the roles of authority in the universe where we see that “God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
This brings me to the faith aspect. Are we living by faith, believing that God is who He says he is? The people of Israel had seen God’s presence up close. Moses himself saw the back of God and heard the Almighty describe Himself with these words.
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 3:6-7
Yet, in Numbers 11-14 we see the people not only reject God’s plan for their dietary needs but also reject God’s promised land, saying to one another, “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Num 14:3)
They were willing to trade freedom and provision for slavery and scaps because they did not believe that God had their best interest in mind or the ability to give them victory. Therefore, rather than plead with the Lord for help they complain about Him instead. This led to the loss of the promised land and a true lifetime of manna for that generation.
Gentle Warning and Reminder
Like Israel, we must guard against the tendency to grumble.
God desires to hear honest words from our broken lips, but our posture should be one of faith in a God who loves us and is able to work all things for our good. All the people of Israel had to do was remember all that God had done on their behalf. Their situation may not change but their perspective would have. Likewise, we must continually be reminded of the finished work of Jesus, the love of God to give us eternal life through Christ, and our promised existence in His presence.
Those truths may not change our current circumstances, but can definitely change our perspective from frustration to joy.
While the opportunities to complain are endless, may we be a people who quickly trust the Lord’s plan for our life, whether we are stuck in line at the store or struggling with deeper afflictions. Our God is faithful and He will prevail oi the end.
“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” Deut 32:4
Pastor of Church Communications
Mike grew up in North Carolina, moving to Lynchburg with his family to attend Liberty’s School of Divinity. He has been involved in Christian media for over 20 years and has a passion for using modern means to proclaim the ultimate truth of the Gospel.
Focused on Christ Podcast: Episode 13
Listen to more about the people of Israel and God’s response to their complaints and rebellion on the latest episode of Focused on Christ.