Numbers 21:4-9 – Being Impatient

grumbling

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’  Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” (NRSV)

Impatience.  Grumbling.  They go together like a hand in a glove.  The impatient person sticks his hand in the glove of complaints, voicing and animating his missed expectations for all to hear and see.

The ancient Israelites had been delivered with the miraculous and mighty hand of God.  But the celebration soon turned sour.  Out in the desert with millions of people, the Israelites had no food or water.  We have no account of the people reflexively using their spiritual connection with God to ask him for help.  Nope.  They just grumbled against God and his servant Moses.

God had enough of their constant complaints.  He had shown mercy and committed love to them over-and-over again.  Yet, the people still put on their grumpy faces any time something didn’t go their way.  God kept showing patience toward the people, but the people kept demonstrating impatience toward God.

If you stop and think about the pathology of your impatience and complaining (which we all do – come on, admit it) you’ll likely discover that at the heart of it all is a picture in your mind of how you think circumstances ought to go for you to be happy.  The Israelites expected a nice clean break from Egypt with a smooth transition into the Promised Land.  They didn’t sign up for hard circumstances and trouble to get there.

You go to church expecting to be fed and encouraged.  You expect that school will be enjoyable and that you’ll get a good paying job when you graduate.  You expect to go to work and have healthy working relationships and a good boss.  You expect your kids to listen to what you say and do what you tell them.  You expect your spouse to give you focused attention.  You expect the weather to be better.  You expect the little plastic things on the end of your shoelaces to last for the life of your shoes….

You get the picture.  No matter what scenario we posit, its more than likely it isn’t going to go as planned or expected.  The rub comes when those expectations aren’t realized.  Then, what?  In a perfect world we would always respond in a reasoned, wise, and healthy manner.  But if we’re feeling like we’re in an emotional place of insecurity out in the desert, our response is more likely going to be impatience, grumbling, and complaining about things which aren’t going as planned.

A great deal of disobedience, bad behavior and speech, and poor decision-making has its beginnings in impatience.  The minute you become impatient, take a long deep breath before you make your next mental decision.  Check-in with yourself.  Be mindful of what your real expectations are for the circumstance or person in the present moment of becoming upset.  Make the decision not to complain or argue.  Instead, choose to say what you want without grumbling.

It is truly possible to stand for holiness, live for righteousness, and uphold the words and ways of Jesus without being a jerk about it through impatient sighs, annoying facial expressions, and terse words of carping and criticizing another person made in God’s image.

Monitor yourself throughout the day today.  Notice the times you become annoyed.  Stop and take a minute to analyze what it is you are expecting.  Instead of grumbling, ask God how he wants to strengthen your faith through the situation or encounter.  Because God is there to help you, not to pick on you.

Holy God, your patience is incredible in the face of human impatience.  Yet, your boundaries are firm, and you will not put up with our petulant ways forever.  Help me to live into the model of your Son, the Lord Jesus, who with you and the Holy Spirit are attentive to come alongside me to your own glory and honor.  Amen.

Evicting Complaints

            

 

 
            Every person on planet earth knows what a complaint is because we have all done it and we have all been the brunt of it.  In order to handle grumblers we must first deal with our own complaining spirit.  When our ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and fell into a state of sin, their attitudes changed.  Whereas their reflex responses in the garden Paradise were to enjoy God and be open with Him, their automatic emotional reflexes after their fall were to hide and blame.  Adam’s first response to God after disobeying Him was to point his finger at Eve:  “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”  And Eve’s initial reflex attitude was blame, as well:  “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3).
 
The basic sinful nature of us humans from that time forward has been to have an automatic reflex attitude of blaming, quarreling, and complaining.  The heart drifts toward complaint as if by some gravitational pull because grumbling seems a reasonable response to disappointing events. Generally, you do not have to extend an invitation for complaint to show up. It arrives as an uninvited guest. You return home from a frustrating day to discover that complaint has moved into your guest room, unpacked its luggage, started a load of laundry, and is rooting through your fridge. Even as you work to evict complaint—as you move its bags to the curb and change the locks—it somehow crawls back into the guest room window. Complaint resists eviction.  Before we know it, complaint feels right because it is familiar. With every struggle, we become like the Israelites murmuring in the desert (Exodus 16-17). God desires to prepare our faith for his work and service in the community and in the world, but we are hunkered down in our automatic reflex pattern of grumbling.
 
We can discourage complaint’s residency in our lives by inviting another guest to move in with us. That new guest is a prayerful attitude of trust and gratitude. When we choose to trust God and give Him thanks in the face of deep disappointment, complaint has less space to maneuver. While attempting to unpack for an extended stay, complaint discovers that trust and gratitude have taken all the drawers in the guest room and already occupies the empty seat at the supper table. Faith and gratitude evict complaint because faith and a grumbling spirit are not able to live in the same house together. One inevitably pushes the other one out.
 
It does not take any effort to complain most about the people closest to us – which is why marriages need to be continually strengthened; the relationship between pastor and people must always be nurtured; and, the closest relationship of all, with God, ought to be characterized not by murmuring and complaining, but by an automatic response of trust and gratitude in the face of trouble.
 
The ancient Israelites experienced the greatest miracle of the Old Testament – being delivered from harsh slavery in Egypt through the parting of the Red Sea so that they could walk across on dry ground and escape the Egyptian army’s pursuit.  It is easy to praise God when great things happen, and the Israelites had a whopper of a praise and worship service after that deliverance.  But it is quite another thing to praise and trust God when trouble happens – and when it happens over and over again.  Immediately after the praise and worship, Moses led the people into the desert and there was no water.  God led the people on purpose into a difficult situation because he wanted to test their faith.  Faith is a muscle that must be exercised so that it can strengthen and grow.  But the Israelites quickly forgot the blessings and grumbled about their situation.  The Israelites reflex attitude response was to complain and ignore God’s direct commands.  Maybe they did so because they spent four-hundred years in slavery in Egypt and complaint had made such a home with them there that it was second nature to them to murmur about their situation.
 
 
 
I keep a little c-clamp in my office to remind me that I am not in control, but God is.  The c-clamp also reminds me that I need to keep a clamp on my tongue when it comes to grumbling and complaining.  Sins of the tongue are some of the most dominant forms of disobedience to God in the Bible.  We use our words and our mouths because the tongue is powerful.  The Apostle James put it this way:  “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8).  Here is a probing question:  Can any of us go 24 hours without complaining about something or someone?  Those of us who cannot answer ‘yes’ must recognize that we have a serious problem. If you cannot go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go 24 hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. And if you cannot go 24 hours without grumbling about something or someone, then you have lost control over your tongue and you are addicted to murmuring and have an adulterous relationship with complaint.
 
We must drink from the well of everlasting life and not from the well of complaint.  Jesus is the Living Water we need.  If we find ourselves being compulsive complainers, it could be that we have not yet found the spiritual water we are thirsting for.  We complain because we are not content and we are thirsty.  So, drink deeply of Jesus Christ.  Everyone who drinks of complaint will never be satisfied.  But everyone who drinks the water Jesus gives will never thirst, and that water will become in that person a spring welling up to eternal life.
 

 

God is with us.  Difficult circumstances, trouble, hard situations, problem people, and the seeming impossibility that things will not change are not evidence that God isn’t there; instead, it is evidence that He is with us, wanting us to come to him and trust in his grace and provision.  Will you trust God with your impossible situation?  Will you give thanks to God for everything, including your trouble that humbles you to pray?  Will you come to the fount of Living Water and find satisfaction and contentment in Jesus Christ?

The Seven Deadly Words of the Church

“We’ve never done it that way before.”  Any church leader or board who has this as their mantra is on a one way road to death.  I know that’s a harsh statement, but sometimes we need eye-opening statements to shake us from our denial about how things are really going.  Jesus did not just change people’s lives; he changed the systems that kept people in bondage.  If we have no substantive spiritual growth, and no real evangelism occurring, our church system is giving us what it is set up to do.

 
When Jesus came to Jerusalem and took a whip to the existing system of buying and selling and money-changing, needy people came and filled-in the space where the vendors were.  Praise to Jesus by the children could now be heard.  Jesus, as he has done so many times before, healed the blind and the lame.  The Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ time forbade anyone who was lame, blind, deaf, or mute from offering a sacrifice at the temple.  The picture here is one of needy people streaming to Jesus to be healed so that they can worship God along with everyone else.  By engaging in his healing ministry, Jesus was attacking the establishment by making the way clear for all to come to God, which was God’s design for all nations and peoples to do in the first place.  Jesus will not tolerate a system that practices profiling based on anything, whether it is age or disability, when it comes to worship.  He wants no obstacles to anyone who wants to come to God.
 
            Any time any existing system is challenged, there will be those who push back because they benefit from the way things are.  It is a myth to think that when a church changes something, whether it is a new program, cutting an existing one, or introducing different ways of doing worship or ministry that there ought to be 100% acceptance.  When the American Revolution began only about 25% of the people believed that a revolution ought to take place.  Most were either loyal to Britain or thought fighting wasn’t the way to go.  After the revolution, you would be hard pressed to find an American who didn’t rejoice over it.  The chief priests and the teachers of the law were incensed and angered by the systemic change Jesus brought.  They especially didn’t like the accolades that Jesus received for cleaning house.  At its core, the real reason the religious leaders didn’t like it is because it challenged their authority, and they were jealous and envious of the praise Jesus received.  They tried to dress up their indignation and hide their intense anger with a question that was designed to point toward the fact that Jesus ought not to be receiving such praise.  But Jesus sloughed it off, identifying himself as the promised Messiah.
 
            Jealousy and envy stand in direct opposition to the values of God’s kingdom, which prizes humility and mercy toward others.  Proverbs tells us that envy rots the bones (14:30), and the Apostle James tells us that envy and selfish ambition is unspiritual and of the devil and accompanies every evil practice (3:14-16).  The real culprit behind the religious establishment’s system, as well as our own conflicts and disagreements is sin.  But in order to try and appear better than we are, people often confront another with something that is not the real issue. 
 
            Back in the Old Testament, Numbers 12:1 says, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife.”  Miriam and Aaron were the siblings of Moses, and they had a problem with a black woman (Cushites were Africans) being a part of the assembly and of the family and worshiping along with the Israelites.  But the very next verse tells what they said to Moses.  Instead of coming clean about what their real problem was, they attacked Moses with a different issue which wasn’t the real issue for them:  “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?  Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”  Even the issue they raised was really one of jealousy and envy.  They were acting like the chief priests and teachers of the law in Christ’s day, and Moses was a Christ-figure, exhibiting humility and trust through the situation.  God acted by making Miriam a leper, a person who would be excluded from the assembly, and left her to ponder how it feels to be treated as Moses’ wife was.
 
            Jesus was all about alleviating any and all obstacles for all people to the worship of God.  He cared about it enough to attack a system that fed on obscuring what real sacrifice was, and taking on the establishment that prevented certain persons from coming to God in prayer.
 
            The way for us has been made clear through the death of Jesus.  He has removed the old system and replaced it with the new.  Hebrews 8:13 says that “By calling this covenant ‘new’, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”  What is more, Christ’s death has made us clean, and as white as snow, having purified us from all unrighteousness.
 
            It is not our job to put limits on people on how they might serve or worship God according to race, ethnicity, class, disability, age, or gender.  The New Covenant demands it be so.  Jesus insists on it.  And, so, we ought to be a beacon of hope for all who are coming to God and desire to offer their sacrifice of service or praise to him by eliminating any system or rule or practice which conflicts with Jesus’ ministry.
 
            It is an act of grace to be the voice of the voiceless, to work for change that brings people closer to God.  It is the grace of humility that helps us to keep questioning what we do, and don’t do, so that others will be blessed through our church.  We must keep exploring the frontiers of church ministry because we do not exist for ourselves.  Ego and hunger for power can get left at the door.
 
            May we be like Jesus, and be active and proactive in making the way clear for others to come to God by first having God clean out our own hearts.  May the seven deadly words of the church be replaced with a new set of seven life-giving words:  “We are always changing to reach people.”