Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a time where God’s powerful and miraculous hand was impossible to deny? Such were the days of the Israelites who lived during Moses’s lifetime.
The books of Exodus and Numbers track God’s miraculous rescue of Israel from the clutches of Egyptian enslavement. God isn’t only going to rescue his people; he is taking them to the long-awaited Promised Land.
There is only one obstacle preventing Israel from escaping from Egypt and seizing the Promised Land. That obstacle isn’t Pharaoh and his massive army. It isn’t the imposing Red Sea. It isn’t even the entrenched Canaanite forces.
The only obstacle is the grumbling hearts of the Israelites.
The two words in Hebrew that are translated “grumble” are lun and ragan. Lun has the connotation of growling. Ragan has the connotation of whispered rebellion. The word in Greek that is translated as grumble is a fun word to say: gogguzo. The word sits in the back of your throat and you have to spit it out. Just for fun say it out loud now (a nice scowl makes it even better).
Each of these three words captures the state of each of our hearts in the midst of our grumbling. When we grumble we growl against God. Recently a congregant showed me the 22 stitches he received when a dog thought he was a threat. Like an angry dog who misperceives your kind intentions to pet it, we growl against our gentle and kind Heavenly Father wanting to love and care for us. When we grumble, we rebel against God’s rule. Our grumbling declares our distrust of God’s sovereign rule over our lives. “Not good enough!” we spit at the Almighty.
Israel’s grumbling reaches a fever pitch after they send spies to the land of Canaan and are frightened by the might of the Canaanites:
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 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?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).
Moses and Aaron plead for their people to trust God’s provision, but they will have none of it. They try to stone Moses and Aaron in front of the tent of meeting only to have the glory of the Lord appear and intercede.
God’s anger burns white-hot, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:11-12).
Moses begs God to show mercy to the people and God does show mercy. But there are consequences. This grumbling generation will not see the Promised Land. Only their children will. God concludes, “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me.” Like the parent taking ungrateful children on the road trip of a lifetime, God has heard enough whining. Why should he bestow such lavish presents on such an ungrateful group?
Centuries later, Paul recalls the Jews in the wilderness as he warns a church with a grumbling problem about the severity of the consequences of their grumbling. He says, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Corinthians 1:9-10).
God takes grumbling seriously. James admonishes us, “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9).
To grumble is to leak darkness when we were made to shine. Each of us can think of a grumbler in our family, in our neighborhood, and in our workplace. They are emitters of toxins. Like a black pen leaking in the pocket of a white shirt, they ruin every environment they enter. But you were made to shine. You are bleach, not ink. Paul says to the church at Philippi,
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:14-18).
Notice what Paul does here. Paul exhorts the church not to grumble or dispute so that they might be those who they were intended to be, “lights in the world.” Take note of how he pivots at the ending of this passage. He says that even as he is being broken and poured out for their sake, he does so with joy, not grumbling. In other words, Paul, who has endured persecution, beatings, and imprisonment for the sake of those he is ministering to, finds joy even in the direst of circumstances.
We were made to rejoice. We were made for gratitude.
Do you want to shine in a dark world? Do you want to shine in the midst of difficult circumstances? Rejoice!
Grumbling is the way of the flesh. It is the way of fear. It is the way of our nature.
Grumbling is the way of darkness.
Gratitude is the way of the Spirit. It is the way of trust. It is the way of our new nature.
Gratitude is the way of light.