Confessions of a Chronic Complainer
March 21, 2004
A few weeks ago, I picked up Laura after school, and she told me, Dad, we have to go to the hospital.
Well, many parents might panic if their child said that, but with Laura, I know immediately what she means, I don’t even have to ask why.
That’s because of this heart condition Laura has, which has had us at the emergency room at least a dozen times in the past five years. Even during BASIC’s ski trip in January, Laura took a late night trip to the emergency room in Gunnison, Colorado. Barb and I got a call about 11 p.m., and I hear, “Mr. Sullivan, this is doctor so and so at Gunnison Regional Hospital and we have your daughter here.”
I knew without asking what was going on. This has become so common with us that the nurses at St. Francis in Broken Arrow know us. They’ve given us a frequent visitor card – buy four, get the fifth ER visit free. They’ve named a new wing of the hospital after Laura. They have an EKG machine with her name on it, and the display shows an electronic image of Laura’s face.
And a special room in the ER with family pictures so Laura will feel at home, and a pillow that says in script....Laura...on it.
Anyway, this has become fairly routine for us. So this time, I called Lisa on the way home to tell her we wouldn’t be home immediately, because we had to take Laura to the hospital. Now, it’s become routine for Lisa, too, because the first thing she said was, “when are you going to be home – I need to go somewhere,”
and she couldn’t leave until we got home because we had Drew with us that afternoon.
It’s a picture of how routine this has become, because most big sisters would have said something like, “Oh, I hope Laura’s OK.... or, tell little sister I’m praying for her.” But instead, it’s “well, you’ve really messed up my schedule.”
I told Lisa, sorry for the inconvenience. So we get to the ER, and we’re checking in at the desk, where they ask you which car you’d like to put up as collateral for the ER bill. I keep hoping they’ll give us a plastic card with a bar code on it, so when we get to the ER, we don’t have to answer the same questions each time.
Hey, we’ve been here before, just look in your computer under large contributors.
As we’re sitting there answering these questions for the umpteenth time, Laura says, “Dad, it stopped.”
What she means is not that her heart literally stopped. That’s what we pay the hospital for, because the medication that is given to Laura to bring her heartbeat back to a normal rhythm, literally stops her heart for about a second.
So, what Laura meant was that it slowed down on its own. That’s so rare with her, once she’s had an episode start. In fact, only once before has it stopped after it’s been up in the 200 beats per minute range for more than a few minutes.
So, they take us in to triage, and yes, it had slowed to normal. We didn’t need the nurse to tell us that... because Laura always knows immediately. The nurse asks us if we want to see the doctor anyway, and that if we don’t see the doctor, we won’t be charged for this ER visit. I told her, no, as much as I like to contribute to the local economy, and as much as I like to see the doctors get a new Porsche every year, there was no need to see the doctor, get an EKG, hook her up to a heart monitor and watch her stare at the wall for an hour if her heart had slowed to a normal rhythm again.
So, we went home, with Dad happy to not have to spend as much as a few hours at the ER, and happier still that we would never see what would have otherwise been a bill for about $1200 for that day.
But here’s the reason I tell you this story.
When Barb called later, I told her what had happened. And I began to complain to her. I complained about the 45 minutes out of my day it took, and what an imposition on my already busy schedule it was. Barb, being the caring, dutiful wife that she is, said, suck it up Sully and quitcher whining and moaning.
Well, she could have said that, but she did commiserate with me. After I hung up, I sat down in my office at home to do what I’d planned to do.
You see, I was working on this sermon. God had already given me scriptures and a theme...but that day he gave me a title.
Confessions of a Chronic Complainer
Instead of rejoicing that I didn’t have to spend $1200, instead of being thankful my daughter was just fine...instead of considering that at least a couple of hours of my day could have been consumed by this, but only about 45 minutes was,
I complained the first chance I got.
What I’d been reading in the Word were passages like these...
Exodus 15:24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?"
Exodus 16:2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
Exodus 17:3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?"
Exodus 17:7 He named the place Massah (Testing-Place) and Meribah (Quarreling) because of the quarreling of the Israelites and because of their testing of GOD when they said, "Is GOD here with us, or not?"
Numbers 11:1 Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD
Numbers 14:2 All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert!
I hate when God uses me for sermon illustrations.
But how many times have we read these stories about the grumbling Israelites?
And each time, we think, these foolish people...how could they so quickly forget what God has done?
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that in some ways, most of us are just like them. We’re chronic complainers...we’re murmerers, as the KJV describes the Israelites. We’re grumblers, as many other versions say.
Even as I’d really experienced an undeserved blessing from God, and moments later I was complaining....the people of Israel had just experienced God’s marvelous and miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and only a few days later, they were already grumbling.
Let’s look at this amazing contrast. At the beginning of Exodus 15, the people had just witnessed God parting the Red Sea, and destroying the Egyptian army that pursued them. This was after seeing God bring plagues on the Egyptians until the Pharoah finally released them from slavery.
And Moses and the people of Israel praised God with these words...let me read you a selection:
Exodus 15:2 The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
Exodus 15:11 Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you-- majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?
Exodus 15:13-17 "In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. 14The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia. 15The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away;
16terror and dread will fall upon them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone-- until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by. 17You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance-- the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established.
This song of praise and thanksgiving, this song of proclamation...the people of Israel proclaiming God’s power, declaring their trust in His faithfulness, His ability to do what He has promised, His ability to defeat the enemies of Israel....
This song ends with verse 18. And then Miriam picks up the theme of praise and thanks again in verse 21. Now, finally, three short verses later, one verse for each day they were in the wilderness after singing this remarkable song of praise to God, because it says in Ex. 22 they went three days into the wilderness and found no water...we read Exodus 15:24...So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?"
Was this a simple question? No, it says the people grumbled against Moses. They complained. They murmured. And they blamed Moses. By implication, they blamed God, and questioned His faithfulness.
The very same God who, only three days earlier, had shown that He was certainly master over water...He had parted a sea, and made a path through the sea that was literally dry land, to deliver His chosen people.
God knew all about water...He made it....He controlled it, and He provided it.
How clearly this story illustrates our human nature. It shows how our flesh is ungrateful. It shows how, in our natural minds, we so quickly forget what God has given us and done for us.
In our natural man, we’re so often only aware of the immediate need, that we forget the One who made us, the One who redeemed us, provides for us. We forget His past good gifts, sometimes even very recent past, as if He’s unable to provide for us in the future.
These Old Testament stories are not just stories. They’re written to be examples for us to learn from, so we can learn not to make the same mistakes.
1 Cor. 10:11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.
The whole first part of 1 Cor chapter 10 is full of warnings from Israel’s history. Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”
So let’s learn a little more from Israel’s history of grumbling today. It’s important to note God’s response to this first example of grumbling, so closely following the powerful and miraculous deliverance of His chosen people from slavery.
First, God had given His people Moses as their leader. That’s part of God’s response to Israel, because a lesser leader than Moses could have responded in several ways.
He could have had the same response we sometimes have when we read this...How foolish can these people be? He could have joined the grumbling...“Yeah, where’s our water? We’re getting thirsty.”
But God chose His leaders well. Moses cried out to the Lord, on behalf of these foolish people. Rather than chastise, rather than blame, rather than wash his hands of their lack of faith, Moses, on behalf of his people, identifying with his people cried out to the Lord.
God, despite their grumbling, despite their quickly forgetting His power, God provided them what they needed. They got the drinkable water they needed. Moses did what the people neglected to do. He turned to the Lord.
And God, once more, proved Himself faithful. Now, it would be nice to say, after that, the people were so humbled, so grateful, that they quit their griping, that they learned from their experience. But truly, it was just beginning.
What we see is that the people were habitual, chronic complainers. We also see that, for many months, God responded by blessing them, by providing for them.
So let’s notice something important about these chronic complaints and God’s response to them.
If you look at the complaints that begin in Exodus 15, which we just reviewed, and continued through Numbers 11, what we see is that the stories are oriented more toward the miracle to come that is, God’s provision for their complaints, than the grumbling itself.
In each one of these complaints, we see a whining that’s almost humorous. It’s a grumbling that would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Yet, all these complaints anticipate what one commentary calls “Yahweh’s miraculous and presence-proving reactions”
I think this shows that most often, God’s first response to our failures to trust Him, is to bless us...to show us we’re wrong to doubt Him...
Unfortunately, these miracles of God’s provision and Israel’s complaints, also anticipate Israel’s incredible denial, which culminates in the orgy of the golden calf, as well as their eventual wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, all because they didn’t trust God enough not to complain.
And not just complain, but lapse into absolutely absurd ideas and accusations. They didn’t just grumble about their lack of food and water.
Look at Ex 16:3: The people were hungry. That’s certainly understandable. But rather than say, Lord, give us our daily bread, rather than the simple statement, “we’re hungry...” rather than wondering aloud – where’s our next meal coming from... They said, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hands in Egypt!”
Matthew Henry said, “none talk more absurdly than murmurers.” He wrote, commenting on this passage:
It is no new thing for the greatest kindness to be basely represented as the greatest injuries. They so far undervalue their deliverance, that they wished they had died in Egypt; and by the hand of the Lord, that is, by the plagues which cut off the Egyptians.
And then we see in Numbers 14, as the grumbling and complaints come to a head, we’ll look more closely at the significance of that in a moment, but we see
Numbers 14:2-4 All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! 3Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" 4And they said to each other, "We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt."
These verses graphically represent how stupid our complaining can be. They wanted to return to Egypt?!?! They wanted to return to a land that God had devastated? They wanted to return to a land where the people were still mourning for their dead firstborn sons? This was the same land they had plundered the day before they left. Did they think of what kind of welcome Pharoah would give them if they had actually returned? I don’t think he was too happy with them. Yet, in their faithless state, in their grumbling, they actually considered that returning to Egypt might be a better, a safer course of action, than trusting fully and wholeheartedly in the God who had provided them food and water where there was no food and water...in the God who had struck Egypt with plague after plague, the God who had parted the Red Sea.
Their actions and attitudes revealed what they really thought of God.
Let’s look a little more closely at the Numbers passage.
The reason the people were complaining this time wasn’t because of their stomachs. It was because of the bad report brought by ten of the 12 spies they’d sent into the promised land.
In Ex. 13, we read that one representative from each tribe of Israel was sent to explore Canaan. Canaan was the land God promised – the proverbial land flowing with milk and honey, the land God would give to the people of Israel.
But when they came back, they said, yeah, it does flow with milk and honey, there’s a lot of wonderful things there, but the people who live there are powerful. They’re too big, too strong, too tough for us.
Numbers 13:33 : We saw the Nephilim there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them."
And then we see the response to this report. Numbers 14:1 – all the people wept aloud.
And then the grumbling begins..... again. We see that in the verses we just read, Numbers 14:2-4: After all these people had seen with their own eyes...not just the written account we have, but their own eyes, they doubted that the Lord was really a match for these giants.
William MacDonald says, “a low concept of God can ruin a person, or an entire nation, as is here so painfully illustrated.”
Can you see what happened here? God had promised the people of Israel that this would be their homeland. He’d brought them safely out of Egypt. He’d provided miraculously for their daily sustenance. Yet, they didn’t trust him. That led to grumbling. Grumbling so severe that they talked about stoning their leaders, the ones who had been God’s agents in bringing them this far.
There they were, a whole nation, within sight of the prize, and a whole generation cuts themselves off from what God had promised. Now, we’re not talking about their salvation here. We’re talking about the good things that God wanted to give them. And all they had to do was trust Him.
Israel as a whole responds in faithless, grumbling, complaining fashion, and this time, God says, your will be done....If you don’t want to enter the promised land I’ve given you, If you can’t trust me to give what I’ve promised, I won’t make you receive it.
A little sidebar is in order here. The amazing character of Moses here is illustrated, his love for God, and his love for his people is shown by how he responds.
These people are about to stone him, and they probably would have, if God had not intervened. Yet Moses still stood his ground in prayer for them. He could have just stepped aside, and said, “Hey, I’ve done all I can – these people are just too stubborn and faithless for me to do anything with....”
Instead, he prayed an eloquent prayer, recognizing that God was slow to anger (vs. 18) abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. He asked God to display his forgiveness.
Now, when I read the daily newspaper, or hear or watch the news....I have to tell you, I often think of God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. God destroyed these cities for their evil. And sometimes I wonder what holds back His hand of judgment on us....surely, the evil we see in our world today, is just as bad as what was happening in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Yet, I believe there are many like Moses in America, and around the world, who are pleading with God for forgiveness....identifying with their nations or their people, asking God to spare and forgive these people.
I believe it’s a model for how our response should be to the evil in our day....to the rebellion against God. He is slow to anger, and His heart for this world is redemptive...
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Though God did forgive the people of Israel for their faithless attitude, there were still consequences for their rebellion and their grumbling. They were to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. They wouldn’t witness what God had promised.
Now, God kept His promise, because the children of the faithless Israelites would indeed enter and enjoy His promised land.
A short note on the word grumbling is in order here. In most of the verses we read earlier, the original Hebrew word for grumbling means: to stop (usually over night); by implication to stay permanently; hence (in a bad sense) to be obstinate (especially in words, to complain).
Interestingly, this word is the modern-day Hebrew word for hotel. Now, I don’t want to make too much of this, because there are different words used that are translated complain, that don’t carry the same meaning, but consider this...
Could it be that the difference in grumbling and complaining God judges, and the complaints God has compassion for, is whether or not we stay there...that is, we persist in it, and never get past the complaining to our knees.
There are complaints throughout scripture that God seems to hear favorably. We can distinguish between Godly complaints, that is, complaints that are not faithless, and complaints in which God must resort to His loving slowness to anger.
Psalm 31:10-17 My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors; I am a dread to my friends-- those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten by them as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery. For I hear the slander of many; there is terror on every side; they conspire against me and plot to take my life.
Now, if we were to stop there, we might think, wah, wah, wah!!! Without the context of the remainder of this Psalm, this definitely sounds like a complaint to me.
But let’s read the rest.
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, "You are my God." My times are in your hands; deliver me from my enemies and from those who pursue me. Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.
There are many other Psalms of complaint...
Psalm 142:2 I pour out my complaint before Him; I declare my trouble before Him.
Psalm 102:1 A Prayer of the Afflicted, when he is faint, and pours out his complaint before the Lord. Hear my prayer, O Lord! And let my cry for help come to Thee.
Psalm 64:1 Hear me, O God, as I voice my complaint; protect my life from the threat of the enemy.
Psalm 55:17 Evening and morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur, And He will hear my voice.
Psalm 55:2 Give heed to me, and answer me; I am restless in my complaint and am surely distracted,
So what’s the difference between this and the grumbling we read about? The grumbling that after time, God felt compelled to judge?
The words for complain and murmur here aren’t the same word we just defined – which means literally to stay overnight. So, the difference between this and the grumbling we read about, is that the Psalmist doesn’t stay there.
He doesn’t get a hotel room and spend the night with the complaint. The Psalmist progresses from the complaint to prayer. He doesn’t wallow in the complaint, but he takes it before God, in faith, trusting that God will do something about the need, the situation that prompted the complaint.
So, when we see the biblical picture of grumbling, and the admonition to stop our grumbling, it’s not a positive thinking kind of thing at all. It’s not that we cannot speak the truth about our circumstances without slipping into grumbling.
We can be like Joel Vesanen...we can be like Jody McEndarfer...two godly examples that spring to mind right here in our midst. Very positive people. So positive, that if you didn’t really know them, you’d think they were phonies.
Yet, they’re not afraid to recognize the reality of a situation, but they’re always putting the issue in the light of God’s faithfulness.
Have you ever considered how our complaining, might hold us back from what God might have in store for us?
We see in Hebrews 3:18 a New Testament reference to these OT stories we’ve been looking at this morning. The Hebrews of old were unable to enter the rest of God...in this case, the promised land, because they demonstrated their unbelief in many ways, not the least of which was their grumbling.
Hebrews 3:18 And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?
The Israelites rest was the promised land. Our rest might be from difficult circumstances. It might be simply the peace of God which passes understanding, in the midst of difficult circumstances. It might be something else.
But we cannot enter God’s rest if we are disobedient. And our disobedience, and our unbelief is revealed in our grumbling. Sometimes we see the admonition to “trust God” as a simple encouragement, and it is that.
But God says more emphatically...Trust me. Have faith in me. Have confidence in me, and my plans for you, and the way I choose to work it out.
John 14:1 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.
1 John 4:16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us