How do you react when something doesn’t go your way? I’ve noticed that even when I’m on cloud nine after a mountaintop experience—whether a conference, retreat, or vacation—all it takes is some small annoyance and a fountain of complaints begin spewing from my mouth. You’re leaving your women’s conference singing fresh worship songs when someone cuts you off in traffic. “I can’t believe the nerve of that person!” You receive good news of your husband’s raise at work and you’re thanking the Lord—but the next day you feel depressed by an unexpected medical bill that takes it all back. One minute you’re praising your children for a job well done at school, and the next you’re filled with frustration that they made a mess in the kitchen again. “Haven’t I told you a hundred times to throw away your trash and put your dishes in the dishwasher!?” How quickly our fickle hearts are exposed by our words.
Lessons from the Israelites
In Exodus 16 the Israelites had just come from a mountaintop experience. After wandering in the wilderness for three days without any water, God led them to the desert resort of Elim. In Elim there was plenty of water and the shade of 70 palm trees to cool their hot and wearied bodies. But just after they left Elim they entered the wilderness of Sin. Complaints poured from their mouths as their stomachs rumbled with hunger. They quickly focused their whining on the two men who were leading them, Moses and Aaron.
And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3).
Again the Israelites were caught in the trap of idealizing the past; it’s amazing how hungry stomachs can sour our words. Their days of slavery suddenly looked like days of feasting. The Israelites even suspected that Moses and Aaron were trying to kill them with hunger!
God’s Patience with Unworthy Whiners
Yet God in his mercy heard the complaints of his people. He was not detached or ignorant of their needs, but provided a generous solution. Each day he would rain bread from heaven, which the Israelites named manna, and they were to collect only enough for a day’s portion. Moreover, on the sixth day, they were to collect and prepare twice as much so they could rest on the Sabbath, when no manna would appear. In this magnificent display of provision, God was not only providing for his people but testing their obedience to him. He was showing the Israelites that he is the Lord who brought them up out of Egypt and that he hears their grumbling (Exodus 16 4-7). He was also teaching them daily dependence on him, his promises, and his life-sustaining provision. Ultimately, this dependence and provision points to trusting in Jesus, the true “bread of God” who came from heaven (John 6:31-35). In God’s instructions about the collection of manna we see a pattern of work and rest laid out for us by the Lord of the universe. It’s a pattern that will give us much blessing and peace when we follow it, rather than imagining our own way is better.
Our Complaints Reveal Our Hearts
After all, when something in our life goes awry and we do voice our complaints, who are we really directing them towards? In Exodus 16:8, Moses rebukes the Israelites because their complaints against him and his brother are ultimately against God.
“When the Lord gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him—what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.”
Sometimes we do the same sort of thing, don’t we? We get frustrated with the clerk at the store who rang our items up wrong and correct her with a less than gentle and kind tone of voice. We get annoyed that our kids are disrupting our work again by constant requests for snacks, and we lash out at them. Or we quietly murmur to our co-workers about the seemingly bad decision the boss just made. In all these situations, we need to remember the One who is sovereign over every interruption and unsavory circumstance in our lives. When we grumble, we’re really telling God that we know better, that our plan should win out. He is not unaware of your child’s temper tantrums or your overbearing relative or your tight budget. Instead, he’s using these trials to shape us and cause us to rely on his all-sufficient grace. He’s working in our lives for our good and his glory.¹ So the next time you’re tempted to open your mouth in complaint, pray for the Lord to put a guard over your mouth and keep you from making the same mistake as the Israelites. Instead, ask him to fill your heart and mouth with gratitude, to bring glory to the Lord over all.
1. Rom. 8:28