From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Numbers 21:4-5
We loathe this worthless food! You don’t have to spend too much time reading about Israel’s trek from Egypt to the Promised Land to hear them grumbling. Grumbling because there is not enough water. Grumbling because they think they will die of thirst. Grumbling because they don’t like Moses’ leadership. Grumbling because they don’t like the menu God provides in the wilderness. We loathe this worthless food!
And that kind of grumbling—which we all can fall into—makes us reimagine the past and conclude it was better than it was. When we grumble, we focus on our less-than-ideal present while pining for an idealized past that never actually was.
Consider another incident of Israel’s grousing in the desert. This time we find them recalling their lives as slaves in Egypt as if they had all been living as guests in Pharaoh’s palace:
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
Lobster and leeks, melons and merlot? Hardly. The Jews were slaves hunting for straw, not celebrities dining on sirloin.
Indeed, the people whine, and their fussy lamentations are like fingernails on a chalkboard to Yahweh’s ears! God is so displeased with the people’s grumbling in the wilderness that he sends fiery serpents to bite the ungrateful grousers, and some of them die! Clearly, peevish grumbling is the un-gratitude of God’s people unveiled. This lack of gratitude is not a pretty picture, and we learn that it provokes the wrath of God (Romans 1:21) even as it leads to more ingratitude. A pessimist is never satisfied.
However, while grumbling is a sin, complaining is essential. In fact, it is imperative that we learn the art of complaining. Say what? Yes, to paraphrase Proverbs 29:18, Where there is no complaint… the people perish! Grumbling is contagious and leads only to more grumbling, but every human good in our world comes as a result of a good hearty complaint!
And what exactly is a good hearty complaint? To borrow from Mark Twain, a complaint differs from a grumble as much as lightning differs from a lightning bug. Grumbling, you see, gets bogged down in the mire of disappointment, bitterness, and the company of the disgruntled. A hearty complaint, though, is a catalyst for change.
History verifies the necessity of complaint. Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation with 95 complaints! George Mueller complained that orphans weren’t being cared for, and he ended up caring for thousands of homeless children. Charles Spurgeon complained about working conditions in London and helped make significant improvements. William Wilberforce complained about the British slave trade and spent fifty years of his life working to end the practice. Martin Luther King Jr. complained about inequality for African Americans. He had a dream, a complaint, and the United States is better because of it. Mother Teresa complained about poverty and set up houses for the dying in India.
It is high time we realize that the church is fueled, sustained, and driven to healthy ministry only when her people complain! This means that when the people of SBCC stop complaining, we might as well close our doors, abolish our homegroups, lay off our staff, and join another congregation where people know how to offer up a good complaint!
The Bible is full of complainers who were not satisfied with the status quo.
Jeremiah knew how to complain: Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (Jeremiah 12:1).
Joshua knew how to complain. He asked the people, How long will you put off going in to take possession of the land, which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you? (Joshua 18:3). Joshua was a visionary leader who had the courage to upset the complacent with his complaint.
Job knew how to complain. When his friends offered their analyses of his suffering that were just plain wrong, he challenged them: Will windy words like yours never end? (16:3). Later Job complained to God, and Job kept complaining until God gave him an answer in response to his great suffering.
David knew how to complain. Think about his sometimes bitter complaints to God in the Psalms. He asked, with pained honesty, God, why are you treating me this way?
Jesus knew how to complain. He called the Pharisees, the religious people of his time, blind guides, hypocrites, whitewashed tombs full of dead people’s bones (Matthew 23).
Simply put, vision rises from complaint! It is only when we are a bit angry over the number of children in our foster care system that we develop a vision to adopt. It is when we are aghast over world hunger that we give to organizations that attack the root of the problem. When our stomachs churn over abortion, we call Network Medical and offer to help. When we grapple with the reality of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, we share the gospel with our friend at work or even find ourselves taking the gospel to an unreached people group.
Santa Barbara Community Church, 2016 is upon us! Oh that we would be people who know how to complain in the coming twelve months. It was the ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes who said, If you give me a lever and a place to stand, I can move the world. Let us pray that God will instill in our hearts a complaint. As he guides each of us to act on our complaint, God just may move the world. May it be so in 2016.