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Grumble Grumble

Written By Carolyn Poage

“That’s not fair.” 

“But I should get to go.” 

“How come she gets to do that but I don’t?”

I hear statements like these from my kids frequently. I often get to play referee between two siblings both demanding that their way or desire is better. Or sometimes the complaint is directed at me and what I am, or am not, letting them do. It can be exhausting.

But when I think about it, these statements are not just ones I hear from my children. I hear them from adults around me. I hear it in movies, from celebrities, and even sometimes from believers I look up to.

And then, when I look deeper, I realize that I, too, am guilty of complaining. Maybe not always out loud, but definitely in my heart and mind. I also still have some growing up to do in the area of grumbling.  

 

Learning from the Past

In a women’s Bible study I studied salvation stories from the Old Testament. It was so good! The story that stood out to me the most is the serpent on the pole from Numbers 21. Are you familiar with this one? It’s not a typical Old Testament story that we learned in Sunday School, but it holds a very important lesson for us today.

The Israelites are in their last years of wilderness wandering before entering the Promised Land. They often grumbled about God and Moses through these 40 years. But amazingly, God always answered and provided for their needs. He gave them water from a rock and provided manna and quail. He led them through the desert. 

But once again, the people are unhappy. They are hot. They are tired. They are impatient. They are thirsty and probably want more to eat than manna. Instead of crying out to God and asking him to provide, what do they do? They grumble and complain. 

The Israelites accuse God and Moses of leading them to the desert to die. They also complain about the food that’s provided. As a parent, I know it does not feel good when my kids complain about the food I’ve made for them. 

God has been so patient with his people who frequently grumbled about his plans. This time, however, he sends poisonous snakes among the people and many die. Whoa! 

Why did he do this? Why did it have to be snakes? There are many amazing theological possibilities for this specific question of “why snakes” and I’d encourage you to dig into it if you’re curious…but I want to consider what could have been a better response for the Israelites.

 

An Alternative to Grumbling

Were the Israelites wrong to be grumpy and impatient? I think I would have felt very similar if I’d been living in tents as a nomad in the wilderness for 40 years eating the same thing every day. The emotions they were feeling were not sin. They sinned by choosing to grumble. So what could have been a better way for them to respond?

When we are sad, impatient, frustrated with circumstances, lonely, or scared, the Bible teaches us that we can go to the Lord with lament. We do not need to grumble or complain, we can take our worries and cares to the One who cares the most and lay it all out before him.

What is the difference between lamenting and grumbling? That is the question I’ve been wrestling with since studying this story from Numbers 21. 

Grumbling is talking to others about your disappointment with God. Lament is talking with God about your disappointment. 

Grumbling goes to others. Lament goes to God.

Grumbling is talking about God. Lament is talking to God.

So many times in the psalms we read the words “How long, Oh Lord?” The authors are crying out to God for relief. For help and rescue from whatever circumstances they were in. If we take our sadness and impatience to the Lord and cry out to him, we are inviting him into the situation. We are opening our hearts to him to work in us. We are crying out to the only One who can help us and change us. 

 

Not Always the Answer We Want

Lamenting is not a magical prayer that makes God give us what we want. The Israelites ended up confessing their sin in Numbers 21, and pleaded for the snakes to be taken away. But God did not take the snakes away. Instead he provided a way for the people to be healed if they chose to look up at a brass snake mounted on a pole. God did not answer their prayers like they asked, but he did give them a way out. A way to be saved.

When we spend time in lament, we are inviting God in and crying out to him for help. We are choosing to look to Jesus, who was mounted up on a cross and died for us. He knows pain and sorrow. He wants to walk alongside us in our grief and disappointment. When we look up to him, he offers us rescue. It might not be in the way we expect, but he is faithful to be with us in whatever comes.

 

Praising God Even in Times of Lament 

At the end of Lamentations 3, after many verses of lament and crying out to God, the author says Yet I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s faithful love we do not perish, for his mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness! I say, “The Lord is my portion, therefore I will put my hope in him.”

What if the Israelites had chosen to lament instead of grumble? They could have said “How long, oh Lord, will we wander in this wilderness? How long, oh Lord, will we have only manna to eat? Lord deliver us to the promised land you promised to us. You are faithful, God Almighty, and you will be faithful to your promises.” Even when we are in despair, and crying out to God, we can end our laments by claiming the faithfulness of God. 

1 Corinthians 10 encourages us to learn from the sin of the grumbling Israelites. It says, Let us not test Christ as some of them did and were destroyed by snakes. And don’t grumble as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come.

Let’s be a people who learn from the Israelites and not grumble and test Christ. Let’s take our grief to the Lord in prayers of lament and with open hands. He is faithful and hears our prayers. He is worthy of our trust. He is worthy of it all.

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