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Case Study in Complaining

Numbers 11:1 - Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when He heard them His anger was aroused.

Read all of Numbers 11.

Complaining is so common these days that it could be called a way of life for many people. Just about everybody complains. And why not? There's so much to complain about: teachers, traffic, taxes and troubles of all kinds! But the commonness of complaining does not make it right. The Word of God comes down pretty hard on thesin of complaining. The Bible teaches that complaining is definitely wrong for the growing Christian.

God presents us with a case study in complaining in Numbers 11. We not only observe the complaining of the people of Israel, we also gain insight as to the reasons behind the complaining. Furthermore, we see the tragic consequences that come to Israel because of their complaining. All of this, of course, has its application to the growing Christian. In fact, 1 Corinthians 10:11 tells us that what happened in the lives of God's people more than 3000 years ago was recorded for us believers in the 20th century.

The background for Numbers 11 is the journey of Israel through the wilderness. God had brought His people out from the bondage and slavery of Egypt through Moses. They had been to Mount Sinai where the Ten Commandments were given, and now they were moving out towards the land of Canaan--where the country of Israel is today. But they complained all along the way. Because of their murmuring and grumbling God had to discipline them severely. Some of them actually lost their lives! The Bible is shouting (!) here in Numbers 11 that God does not appreciate complaining. Thus we are exhorted in 1 Corinthians 10:10 not to "grumble as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer."

We see a couple of different areas of complaining in this 11th chapter of Numbers. In verse 1 it seems that the people were just complaining about the general problemsof the trip. There wasn't some single big problem like a famine or an epidemic or a new Pharaoh chasing them! No, it was just "normal" complaining about the little nitty-gritty hardships of living and travelling in the wilderness--lugging the tent, same old scenery, another hot day, etc., etc. If it wasn't for what the Bible teaches here, we might be inclined to say that this was legitimate complaining! But the Word of God indicates that this "white griping" was uncalled for. The Lord was displeased (to put it mildly!), and the fire of the Lord consumed some of them.

Do we also complain about the problems of everyday living? What about the food that is set before us at home or in the school dining hall? What about the "unfair" work-load that's been dumped on us? What about the irritating things like the weather not meeting our specifications? Yes, these "hardships" may cause us some inconveniences at times, but we are not to complain about them. The Lord always has good reasons for the hardships He permits to come our way. (Read Deuteronomy 8 to find some reasons for Israel's hardships in the wilderness.)

It is significant that the discipline of the Lord was more active near the outskirts of the camp (v1). Most likely this involved the stragglers who were out of order. You see, God had commanded Israel to march and camp in a very precise arrangement (Numbers 2 and 10). Probably those who were on the fringes of the camp were not where they belonged and were voicing their discontent in actions as well as words. It seems that in any Christian fellowship or ministry there are always the "stragglers" or "tag-alongs". How often we hear the loudest and sharpest complaints arising from the "fringe group".

Are we where we belong in reference to the Lord's people? Or are we possibly on the "outskirts of the camp" where we are "mouthing off"--and thus asking for the heavy hand of God's discipline? Notice also (v2), that God stops the fire of discipline in answer to Moses' prayer. The prayers of God's faithful people for the stragglers of today may have a lot to do with God's high tolerance level of loud-mouth complainers!

In verses 4-10 we see that the people of Israel also complained about the provision that God had given them. The Lord miraculously provided a daily supply of manna for His people. Free bread from heaven! When the manna was first given, the people were very thankful and enjoyed this bread. They said it tasted like wafers with honey (Exodus 16:31). But they began to take the manna for granted and even got sick and tired of it (v6). No longer did it have that sweet taste of honey. Now they complained that it had a bland taste of cakes baked with oil (v8).

Of course the manna itself had not changed - it was their appreciation of God's provision that had changed. But surely Israel should be excused for this kind of complaining! After all, manna flakes for breakfast, manna sandwiches for lunch and manna burgers for supper are not all that appetizing! And yet we read that God was very angry (v10). Why? Because the people were not thankful for His gifts. It's true that the manna was not caviar or lobster, but it was good and nourishing food for the demanding journey. Rather than thanking the Lord for His daily provision, the people complained and longed for the more spicy foods of Egypt (verse 5).

Are we content with what God has provided for us? There are many practical ways in which this could be applied, but let's think for a minute of the spiritual provision that God has made for us in Christ. In John 6, the Lord Jesus spoke of the manna, and then went on to show that He is the true Bread out of heaven. As the manna was God's means of maintaining the physical life of His people, so Christ is the way in which the believer's spiritual life is sustained. Growing Christians must feed on Christ. He is not only the source of our spiritual life, He is the sustenance for that life. (Read all of John 6.)

Are we satisfied with Christ? Or are we complaining about being "unfulfilled"? God's Word teaches that all we need for complete and total fulfillment is found in our Lord Jesus Christ. But the problem with many of us is that we still desire "the leeks and the garlic" of our former lives (v5).

The people of Israel complained of being unfulfilled because they began to long for the things of Egypt from which they had been delivered. The Christian who still craves the things of this world will be unfulfilled spiritually. If our "tastebuds" are excited by strong desires to experience what this world has to offer, or to accumulate the material things of this world, or to get ahead in this world, then the things of Christ will taste flat and bland. Where are your tastebuds?

The Lord's reaction to Israel's complaining about His provision teaches another important lesson. In verses 18-20, God informed Moses that He would give the people meat to eat. He would give them exactly what they craved and in such abundance that it would "come out of their noses" and be "loathsome" to them! Sure enough, that's exactly what happened, and in greedy hoarding of the meat they experienced God's heavy hand of discipline once again (vs31-35).

The Christian whose soul whines for the things of this world may get his wish. But God will grant the request in such a way that His fatherly discipline is included. What kind of father would God be if our unchecked cravings did not bring serious consequences? Let us not think that just because God has allowed us to have our hearts' desires that we have His approval! This lesson is encapsulated for us in Psalm 106:14-15: "They lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tested God in the desert. And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their souls."

The sin of complaining was one reason why Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty long years. It took only a few hours to get the people out of Egypt, but it took forty years to get Egypt out of the people. Is it possible that we are "wandering in the wilderness" of Christian living because of the sin of complaining? We may have it all together in the areas of doctrine and commitment, but we go on griping just the same.

Complaining, of course, is just the surface symptom of a much deeper problem: discontent. This is why the Bible so strongly condemns complaining. The murmurings and grumblings of complaint are evidence that we are dissatisfied with the way God is letting life come at us.

The solution to this problem is to recognize our sin and then realize and acknowledge that our heavenly Father always knows what's best for us--even down to the little problems He allows us to face. Let's stop our complaining so that our own lives do not become case studies in complaining.
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