People who moan really annoy me. People who go on about their petty problems or the failings of the government or the state of the roads or the behavior of young people—or old people. Don’t they realize how privileged they are? It really annoys me. The worst are those people who moan about people who moan.
Let me make my irony explicit. As I grumble about grumblers, I turn out to be the biggest grumbler of all.
But, of course, that’s what we often do. We think of grumbling as something other people do. What we do is make justified complaints or offer constructive criticism, but we don’t grumble. We make ourselves the exception—but the reality is that most of us grumble and some of us grumble most of the time.
And the section of Exodus in chapters 15-17, out on the eastern shore of the sea, is about grumbling. We get three examples of it:
“ So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” (15:24)
“ In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” (16:2)
“ But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses.” (17:3)
Three days from rioting
It’s sometimes said that most Western societies are three days of empty shelves from civil disorder. We appear to live peacefully together—but if something went wrong with food supplies, then it would only take three days before rioting and looting broke out. That’s certainly how it was among the Israelites.
The Israelites have been rescued from Egyptian slavery in the most dramatic fashion. They have seen the hand of God parting the Red Sea and defeating the Egyptian army. They have sung, “The Lord is my strength and my defence … In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed” (v 2, 13). But all that was three days ago. Today they are hungry and they are grumbling.
When we think of it like this, the Israelites’ grumbling is ridiculous and inexcusable. But then think about your own life. Perhaps you sing of God’s unfailing love on a Sunday morning. But three days later—or maybe three hours later— you are grumbling. Think of all the things that God has done for you. Think of all he has promised to you. But think, too, how easily you lose a sense of perspective. Think how much better you are at seeing what you do not have than what you do have. All we see is bitter water. All we see is our problem or lack.
What’s the big deal?
We can all too easily think of grumbling as harmless. But grumbling—all grumbling, including yours—is toxic. It’s toxic for two reasons:
First, grumbling grows because it spreads to others. It’s infectious. Think how those grumbling conversations unfold. We spread discontent. We reinforce one another’s grumbles. This is why it’s so important to cut it off at the root. We need to challenge one another when we grumble. We need to say, “Stop. Don’t talk to me about it. Go and talk to the person concerned” or “Go and talk to God, since he’s sent the circumstance about which you are concerned.” None of us are immune to the contagion—someone else’s grumbling gives us all the excuse our hearts need to indulge in it ourselves. Notice there’s a suggestion in 17:4 that even Moses caught the grumbling bug.
Second, grumbling grows because it hardens our hearts. Grumbling presumes to put God to the test. It scrutinises God. It questions his goodness. We become the judge and God is in the dock. Grumbling puts God on trial and finds him guilty. “He has failed to deliver the life I want … I deserve more than this … I need better than this.” Think about that for a moment. When you grumble, you are judging God. Is that really what you want to be doing?
Ask God to help you not to test God
In the Lord’s Prayer, when Jesus teaches us to say, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13), it’s the same word as “testing” in Exodus 15 – 17 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. We are to ask God to help us not to test God, so that we trust God. How do we test God? By putting him on trial for not running the world the way we would like.
God sent the plagues on Egypt so that Egypt might learn that, “I am the Lord” (Exodus 7:5). This is the refrain of the story of the plagues. Egypt failed to learn that lesson and was ruined as a result.
Now Israel is having to learn the same lesson, that “I am the Lord” (15:26; 16:12). They must learn what Pharaoh failed to learn—otherwise, they will receive the judgment Pharaoh received. Ultimately and tragically, the generation that left Egypt failed to learn that lesson and died in the wilderness.
A central theme in the story of the plagues is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Here, we find what leads to a hardened heart. Grumbling may seem a small thing. But it leads to a hardened heart. And a hardened heart leads to ruin. When God provides in a manner that does not accord with your preferences or your timing, be careful. You will want to grumble. Instead, take the opportunity to trust God, rather than to test him.