I’ve about given up on talk radio. Every time I turn it on someone is complaining about something. Facebook is much the same way. We don’t usually call it complaining, but replace it with terms and phrases like “venting” and “just sayin’.”
But isn’t it interesting that what is so intolerable in others we find perfectly acceptable in ourselves? Even as I find other people’s complaining distasteful, I have to admit that I complain, too. And having access to my own heart, I can say something about myself that I can’t say with confidence about anyone else – I do an awful lot of complaining in my heart. I think a lot of complaints that I never verbalize. And though I can’t be sure, I suspect I’m not alone.
A word that the Bible uses for complaining is grumbling. Even in English that word evokes a detailed picture of the concept. To grumble is to express dissatisfaction or disapproval with something or someone. We find it used in both testaments, with the first demonstration coming in the book of Exodus right after Yahweh brought His people out of the land of Egypt.
In Exodus 15, though the people have just been freed from slavery, they “grumbled against Moses” because the only water available to them was bitter. So Yahweh miraculously turned the bitter water sweet (Exo15:24-27). One chapter later, the people again “grumbled against Moses and Aaron” because there was no food to eat. So Yahweh miraculously gave them bread and meat (Exo 16:1-14). In the next chapter, there is another shortage of water and the people again “grumble against Moses.” So Yahweh gave them water from a rock (Exo 17:1-7).
There are at least two things we should note about each of these passages. The first is that the people had a very short memory when it came to Yahweh’s disposition to take care of them. Their first occasion of grumbling came just after Yahweh parted the Red Sea and annihilated all the Egyptians who pursued them. It’s safe to say that was a sign that He wanted to take care of the Israelites. The other two occasions likewise followed episodes of Yahweh’s miraculous provision. In other words, in spite of all that they had seen, the people did not trust that God cared for them and they did not believe that He would provide. Their focus was placed exclusively on their unpleasant circumstances.
Second, though in the people’s minds they were grumbling against Moses, the reality is that they were grumbling against God. In ch16 in response to the grumbling about their hunger, Moses said, "At 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 grumbling against the LORD. For what are we, that you grumble against us? 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" (Exo 16:6-8).
Clearly Moses and Yahweh regarded the people’s grumbling as grumbling against Yahweh. But how can this be? Yahweh answers that question in Deut 8: “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut 8:2-3).
The people may have thought they were grumbling against Moses, but because Yahweh was the sovereign hand bringing about both hardship and salvation, their complaining about their circumstances was an expression of dissatisfaction with the very plan of Yahweh. It was an implicit accusation that Yahweh was not wise and loving. Yet, the text above demonstrates not only that Yahweh was sovereign over it all, but that He had a good purpose for everything He was doing. He was seeking to teach them humility, obedience, and dependence upon Him.
All of this can be applied to our own lives. Let’s think about this, but in the opposite order. First, when you and I complain about whatever is uncomfortable in our lives, we might think that we are merely grumbling against our spouse or our employer or our government, etc. But the truth is that because God is the sovereign hand bringing about every circumstance in our lives, all of our grumbling is grumbling against Him. He regards it that way. We implicitly accuse Him of a lack of wisdom and love when we grumble about what He has brought into our lives. Further, we imply that we know better than He does what is best for us. This is the exact opposite of humility. It is pride.
Yet, what God wants to teach us in each situation is humility, obedience, and dependence upon Him. He wants to teach us to trust Him with our lives. He wants to conform us into the image of His Son, and He uses every circumstance in our lives to accomplish this (Rom 8:28-30). When we grumble, we argue against His purposes, His methods, His wisdom, and His motive.
Second, when we grumble we demonstrate a remarkably short memory regarding God’s disposition to care for us. How many ways has God shown that He loves us and has our best in mind? If God gave His Son for us, how can we question His care for us in lesser things? As Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? We could all give long testimonies about all the ways that God has cared for us over the years, yet when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, all of that history is forgotten and we begin to grumble against Him.
So how do we deal with habitual grumbling? Here are a few suggestions. First, daily rehearse the mighty works of God (Psa 77). Make it a habit to remind yourself of all He has done in salvation history and for you specifically. Second, thank Him for those things (Psa75). Third, when you are tempted to grumble, remind yourself that God is sovereign, good, and wise; He knows better than you do what is best for you; and He is using these precise circumstances to make you more like Christ (Rom8:28-30). Fourth, thank God for the situation about which you are tempted to grumble. That’s not a typo. Thank God for the situation about which you are tempted to grumble. Ephesians5:20 instructs us to give thanks always and for everything. We can do this precisely because God is sovereign and is forcing everything to work together for our good. Everything.
One common reply to such teaching is “but what if I don’t feel thankful? Aren’t I being a hypocrite if I give thanks without feeling thankful?” I would answer that question with another question: what other commands in Scripture is it permissible to obey only when we feel like it? We are commanded to give thanks. And if we are struggling with feeling thankful, we should ask the Lord to change our hearts, but we shouldn’t wait until then to obey the command to give thanks. I truly believe that the act of verbalizing thanks to God for a difficult situation and recognizing His goodness and wisdom in bringing it will go a long way toward softening our hearts about that situation. In other words, if we submit to the Lord by giving thanks and believing the truth about Him, we will grow to have hearts of true gratitude. It’s amazing how quickly the Lord changes our hearts when we just obey Him.
So powerful is the ability to live life without grumbling that Paul cites it as one of the primary ways that we shine as lights in this world (Phil 2:14-15). May the Lord grant us the grace to recognize our grumbling for what it is and replace it with thanksgiving.
Posted by Greg Birdwell