Complaining: Venting Out Our Doubt
“The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
The Laborers in the Vineyard
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Most of us do not complain well on a regular basis. We lift up petty complaints that dissipate as soon as they hit the air because they have no substance. They are meaningless. They are lies, like the pickup lines used in chat rooms and bars that have no purpose other than getting attention.
Everything is too hot, cold, fast, slow, big, small, or out of balanced for me. I am the most balanced, average individual and if they would just do what I want, they could please everyone. But it never happens. These are the thoughts of a madman with delusions of mediocrity, misunderstanding the majesty of himself as a unique creation of God. We are not alike and we cannot please everyone.
Oftentimes we complain because we do not know how else to communicate. We walk up to a person, make a comment about the weather, and then launch into a series of complaints in attempt to find some common ground with them. It’s a conversational gimmick that has nothing to do with communicating real virtue and values. It’s just playing politics. We lack the boldness to say, “I would like to get to know you better. Tell me about yourself. What is something you really care about?” Instead, we comment about the latest political workings and how we have lost faith in our leaders, waiting to get an amen from our new friend-to-be.
On the flip side, those who truly do have something to complain about… neglect, abuse, torture, rampant generational poverty with no escape… often do not complain but focus more on gratitude for whatever small blessings they may have in their life. Do we spend more time complaining about the flavor or temperature of coffee than we do about starvation? I think we probably do.
Strong complaints about deeply experienced injustice are often not complained about, but instead hid down deep within us. We hear about them, to be sure. In many cases though, we hear about them through a lawyer, a family member, a pastor, or some other community advocate (or professional complainer). The person who puts the complaint into words is not the one to whom it belongs. The real victims sometimes bury the hurt until it festers and they take vengeance into their own hands. Generally speaking, if we are complaining, we still have options and have not become truly desperate yet.
I think if there is one profession that truly sees the transition from complaining to desperate begging, it is probably hospital nurses, and particularly those that work in Emergency and Intensive Care units. Perhaps even more specifically, those who work with children in those areas. Again, the patients are not usually the ones with the complaints… it comes from their parents. When things are just bad, there is plenty of complaining and threats to transfer to another hospital. As things get worse though, and options become scarce, the complaining stops and the begging, pleading, and bargaining process of grief begins. It is no longer just irritation, it is true desperation.
I think the Hebrew people were on their way out of complaints and heading toward true desperation, where the were about to have their needs miraculously met by God. Yet, in their irritation over their present predicament, they found the strength to vent their doubts, putting to rest any questions about what was going on in their hearts. They were living agnostic lives, looking to Moses to solve their problems instead of going to God, whom they feared and may not have entirely believed in. He was too mysterious. Moses was an easier target.
Underneath the parable Jesus taught about the servants in the marketplace is a message about doubt as well. The main lesson we should take may well be that we should be grateful for whatever blessings we are given. However, those who complain still have enough to survive. They have not reached desperation yet. If they had, they would not have been complaining, from a place of power, but begging, from a place of poverty. Their complaints show their doubts in the goodness and justice of God.
Do you complain to God? Do you show your doubts openly to Him and others? Or do you hide them away until things get terribly desperate and you have no way out? I think God is patient and kind to us, even in the midst of our doubts, but I think he prefers us to put away our pretenses and be honest about what they are. “Lord, help my unbelief!” is not a complaint, but a desperate cry for help, in the midst of such doubt… and it is a prayer I believe God honors. It seeks faith and wholeness, not just an opportunity to vent, when in truth we are not willing to do what is necessary to be made well. If we are given what we are promised, it is only the sin of jealousy that leads us to complain about the blessings of others. Complaining may not be a sin, but it will not get us what we want with God.
What do you notice others complaining about the most?
What do you think you complain about the most?
When have you reached true desperation?
How did that experience change your attitude?
What kind of attitude do you need today?