Whiners and ComplainersBy Nathan Mates
Last summer, I adopted two cats. I didn't like the name the adoption agency had given the female cat, so I decided to pick a new one. Very early on, her personality surfaced: she'd meow loudly for attention, and on getting a good scratch behind the ears, she'd appear to gratefully receive it. However, she seems to have "Feline Attention Deficit Disorder" ("FADD," though I severely doubt any such thing exists) in that after being petted for a few seconds, something else catches her attention, and she runs off to look at that. While running around, she's still purring, and suddenly realizes that she's not being petted, and complains, runs back to be petted, runs off, and this process repeats until I tell her to make up her mind. After a few days of this behavior, I picked her up, and told her "Due to your inability to sit still at your master's feet, I name you Martha." [Luke 10:38-42] (The other cat's name was left at Stanley, as I didn't mind the adoption agency's name.)
Besides a tendency to anthropomorphize my pets, I think the above behavior is something for us humans to watch out for in our own lives: the tendency to call out to God, be blessed for a short time, walk away, and at the first sign of trouble, repeat the process by calling out to God again. This tendency is documented enough times in the Bible to show there's definitely something in human nature that causes this to happen.
Flip back to the book of Exodus for some extreme instances of this whining and complaining. In the 10 Plagues on Egypt [Blood, Frogs, Gnats, Flies, Livestock, Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness, Death of the Firstborn; Exodus 7:14-12:30], the Israelites saw some pretty amazing miracles. Big miracles. And they weren't convinced that God was in control. They'd plundered the Egyptians of gold and silver on the way out [Exodus 12:35-36], and headed towards the Red Sea. The Pharaoh of Egypt sent an army after them to get the wealth back, and the Israelites started whining: "They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"" [Exodus 14:11-12]
Thanks to God, the waters of the Red Sea parted for the Israelites, they crossed safely, and Pharaoh's army couldn't swim. Once again, God's power had been demonstrated right in front of them, and they still didn't get it: "In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death."" [Exodus 16:2-3] God heard them, and sent quail and manna to eat, and provided water and other sustenance in the desert. [Rest of Exodus 16]
You can probably guess what comes next: even after Moses went up on Mount Sinai and picked up some of God's radiant glory, people were still complaining. God's manna wasn't good enough for them, and they wanted meat, and God's patience was wearing thin: "Now the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month-- until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it-- because you have rejected the LORD, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, "Why did we ever leave Egypt?"'" [Numbers 11:18b-20]
At some point in this process, the temptation to want to find a time machine, go back and slap some sense into these people gets pretty strong. "Hey! Listen Up! God's taking care of you! Have faith and stop complaining!" is about as far as one would get before you realize that you forgot to learn Hebrew or Egyptian, there weren't any showers out in the desert, you forgot to bring nose plugs, and stumble back into your time machine. And so God's chosen people go on complaining.
Scouts were sent out to investigate their promised land, and the lies of most of the scouts caused more complaining: "But the men who had gone up with him said, "We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are." And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, "The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them." That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. 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! Why 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?" [Numbers 13:31-14:3]
God, quite frankly, had had enough of whining and complaining, and pulled out the punishments: "But you--your bodies will fall in this desert. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. For forty years--one year for each of the forty days you explored the land--you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.' I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; here they will die."" [Numbers 14:32-35] These whiners would get no earthly rewards after their sins.
The Israelites never seemed to "get it" about following God. Going forward to the book of Judges, the Israelites are mentioned many times as "doing evil in the sight of the Lord" [Judges 2:11, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1 and 10:6] God raised up a solution to each one, but the people still rebelled. Under the Kings, the Israelites continually sinned until once again, God had lost patience: ""Say to them, 'This is what the LORD says: "'When men fall down, do they not get up? When a man turns away, does he not return? Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away? They cling to deceit; they refuse to return. I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. No one repents of his wickedness, saying, "What have I done?" Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle. Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the requirements of the LORD. "'How can you say, "We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD," when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have?" [Jeremiah 8:4-9]
It took the Babylonian captivity to remind these Israelites who was in control, but even afterwards, they never fully recovered. Instead of forgetting God's word, some took following it to extremes. The Pharisees had developed a huge code of laws to be followed to the extreme, Jesus commented on their missing the big picture: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." [Matthew 23:23]
Most of the early Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, managed to avoid most of the whining and complaining the Israelites demonstrated. However, some Christians since then have occasionally been guilty of mouthing off to God about things. The experience of Job is instructive: he wanted to plead his case before God [Job 13:18], but after God reminds Job of who's in control, Job's answer is far more succinct than any of the Israelites in the desert: "Then Job answered the LORD: "I am unworthy--how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer-- twice, but I will say no more."" [Job 30:3-5] Unlike Job, many today complain for God to remove a weight from their backs, rather than praying for a stronger back to bear under the pressures of life.