I have been working on village material for the Fall. One of our new stories this semester will be about how God provided manna for his people in the desert in Exodus 16. It is a fantastic story, and I am really looking forward to discussing it in Villages in October. In the story, God’s people have just been rescued by God from Egypt. They have just witnessed him bring down the world’s strongest empire with ten plagues (Exodus 7-13). Then God drowns their oppressors in the Red Sea while they walk across on dry land (Exodus 14). And when they can’t find any fresh water in the desert, God provides, repeatedly (Exodus 15). So when chapter 16 starts and the Israelites have made it a whopping two months before they start complaining again, it is easy for me to pick on them. At least, it always has been easy. But now that we are in the middle of all this... I think I get it.
If deserts are seemingly endless expanses filled with arid conditions, dangers, and isolation, then I think we are in one. There is a worldwide pandemic; social injustice across the country and on our campus; bitter fighting online, in the streets, and in Washington; and physical, mental, and spiritual fatigue. While it has been worse (and could get worse), it is more than enough to cause us to cry “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13).
So what do we do? In the simplest terms, we cry out to the Lord in faith, and then we follow his instructions in faith.
The Israelites were not wrong to cry out to the Lord. The Bible is filled with holy cries to the Lord. The Psalms not only model it but expect it. Even Jesus cried out to his Father. God is not afraid of our complaints. Instead, he invites us to cast our cares before him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). But there is a way to sinfully complain, and the Israelites were experts at it. When we only recognize what is wrong and do not trust God to be able to fix it, we are walking faithlessly. Anything not done in faith, especially complaining, is sin (Romans 14:23). It is not enough to cast our cares on the Lord. We must remain in our trust that he cares for us.
To guard against faithlessness, carefully examine the context and the content of your complaint to the Lord. What prompted you to complain? Of course there will be the difficult circumstances (we rarely complain about how good we have it), but also look at your own heart issues. Do you trust that God is willing and able? Have you expressed that to him directly in prayer (Psalm 13:5)? Secondly, look carefully at the content of your complaint. Often complaints contain a thread of truth that is woven into a tapestry of lies. The Isrealites are weary of the food options available to them in the wilderness (Exodus 16:3). While there might have been better food in Egypt than in the wilderness, their complaint is clearly a faithless exaggeration. No one had been “sitting around pots of meat” and “eating all the food they wanted” back in slavery. The Israelites were swayed to faithlessness by the lies and justified their doubt with the thread of truth. We must be careful not to do the same. The world is broken, and the pain is real. Bring that to the Lord in faith that he will fix it.
Lastly, to complain righteously, we must trust in God who provides and tests. When we only trust in him to provide, we demote him to a divine butler. If our belief in him only extends to the point at which he accomplishes our will, then our complaint, once again, is faithless. The model prayer teaches us to cry, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The Israelites’ prayer for bread is answered, but the Lord also intends for it to test them (Exodus 16:4). Both the food and the trial are gracious gifts from God (James 1:17). We are to rejoice when we are tested because the Lord uses that for our good and his glory (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-18). The test is an opportunity to better follow his instructions faithfully. Every circumstance and every person might require a changing response on our part but always in obedience to our unchanging God.