Grumpiness and Gratitude in the Wilderness of Life

Reed JolleyCommunity News

Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “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

It seems foolish to forfeit the glory of the Promised Land for the joy of grumbling, but that is what happened. 

The people of Israel had been delivered from slavery, miraculously and dramatically. They left Egypt trusting in the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.   All they had to do was make an eleven-day journey across a dreadful desert.  Yes, God delivered his people, but those same people missed the fullness of his blessing because they complained about the menu. 

Well, there is a bit more to it than that.  Actually, the Lord’s people grumbled in the wilderness again and again, thus missing the joy of being grateful for the greatness of God.  These same people also died in that desert wilderness.

Thank you are words we teach our children to say, and these two little words contain a whole universe of meaning.  Thank you draws us into a world of wonder.  Thanksgiving compels us to see things from God’s perspective.  Giving thanks sharpens our focus.  These two little words lead our heart in the right direction. They move our soul toward the God from whom all blessings flow, toward our heavenly Father who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.

But perhaps I am being overly simplistic.  Is gratitude always appropriate?  Is thanksgiving always possible? In the face of suffering and pain, am I expected to put a smile on my face and say, “Thank you” to God? Wouldn’t that be a bit superficial?

I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.  Perhaps she is your friend, too, for she has been a part of our church for many years.  Her disease causes her chronic pain. In fact, she feels quite miserable most of the time.  Her body tells her, moment by moment, that all is not well.  The disease often forbids her the gift of sleep.  It has caused her to quit her job and has affected just about every area of her life.  Nevertheless, my friend has made a habit of thanksgiving.  When diagnosed with this malady, she made a choice to be grateful to God.  Her gratitude is not the sugary sweet variety.  Instead, she is choosing to be grateful for the little things in life as well as for the big things.   Somewhere in the early stages of this affliction, she began making an actual list of the people, events, tastes, sights, and sounds in her life for which she was thankful.  Her goal was to get to 1,000.  My last email from her concluded with Thanksgiving #1238!  I don’t expect this grateful enumeration to stop any time soon.  Gratitude makes the heart glad even when it is burdened by life in a fallen world.

Grumbling, on the other hand, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The grumbler complains about the menu, never pausing to give thanks for his daily bread.  The pessimist is always disappointed, partly because things are never as bad as they could be and partly because they probably won’t get any worse! 

Grumbling leads us to grumble.  G. K. Chesterton—who had no room for those who grumble—once said, “I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.”

And the apostle Paul could not say enough about the value of thanksgiving and gratitude.  When he writes about the dynamics of unbelief, he says that it is characterized by dishonoring God and an absence of thanksgiving (Romans 1:21).  So, over and again, he tells the church to be thankful.

Be thankful for what?  Sometimes the apostle doesn’t even say.  In his letter to the Colossian church, Paul writes, Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful (3:15).  We are summoned to a life of thanksgiving regardless of our circumstances or our experiences.  So start your list and send it to me when you reach a thousand.  Thank God for your salvation. Thank Jesus that he is coming again.  Thank God for the crisp air of the Santa Barbara autumn.  Thank him for the children in our church.  Thank God for the food on your table, for the socks on your feet, and for the dawn of a new day.  Thank God for the breath in your lungs and the water that comes out of the faucet.

I think it is right to say that both grumpiness and gratitude are as much dispositions as they are deliberate acts.  It is also right to say that we become what we practice.  Those who grumble become grumblers, and those who give thanks are numbered among the thankful.  If we reach the age of fifty or sixty, our face will testify to whether we led a life of thanksgiving or a life of complaining. 

I have been blessed by the presence of two very thankful men in my life, and they both have caused me to be more grateful than I might have been.  I’m thinking of my father-in-law who died in July.  Bob almost lived to his 86th birthday.  Tethered to oxygen due to his emphysema , he spent most of his final years simply staying alive.  Every day was a struggle.  A basic task for me might take him thirty minutes to complete. Bob suffered, but he was thankful.  He was thankful not for his suffering, but in his suffering.  Thankful for his family, thankful for every day of life, and thankful for God.  Thankful. 

The other thankful man I look to is my own father, who is in his 83rd year. He is very healthy, but his legs don’t work very well and he is losing the ability to walk.  (The medical term for his condition isneuropathy.)  Nevertheless, my dad, Bud, lives a life of gratitude.  I love being around him because he is always—and I mean always—thankful.  When I asked him about this he chuckled and said, “I’m too lazy to be grumpy.  Grumpiness takes too much energy.  It’s easier to give thanks!”  He doesn’t complain about the menu, he gives thanks for his daily bread, and he looks forward to the feast that is coming after the business of this life is complete.  Hanging around with my dad makes me think about the greatness of God and the bounty of his blessings.  I become more thankful whenever I spend time with him!

It is said that when those in the early church met and conversed, they would never part without saying, Deo gratias!, Thanks be to God.  May it be so in our lives.  Thanks be to God!