A Look At Complaining

old_testament008-quails-for-meatA little background. I have been a complainer for … just about as long as I’ve known me. 😦 This is not an easy confession. I wish I could say I’ve developed the habit of trusting God in all things and never get wadded up inside over things that seem unfair, dangerous, unwise, wasteful, unkind, unhealthy, ungodly …

But the truth is, my first thoughts are usually of the “lash back” variety. And if not directly, then indirectly, to the first ready listener I can find. Of course, some call the latter by the ugly name, gossip.

Some years ago, as I was working my way through the book of Philippians in the Bible, I came across verse 14 in chapter 2: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” Some translations say complaining.

This verse follows a section about Jesus humbling Himself and coming to earth in the form of a man, humbling Himself to the point of death. And yes, following those lines is the declaration of God exalting His Son above all names. But then this:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing.

Some time ago I looked back on the all grumblers recorded in Scripture (people like me)—the Israelites. They finally escaped Egypt, only to have Pharaoh send his soldiers after them to bring them back.

The people saw the Red Sea in front of them and the Egyptians behind them, and they were afraid. Legitimately so, I would think. So they called out to God, but not just, Save us. Instead, they accused Moses of being irresponsible for bringing them out of slavery to die in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, God saved them.

Then they ran out of food and grumbled against Moses. Except, didn’t they really need food?

Next they couldn’t find water and they quarreled with Moses saying “Give us water that we may drink.” Was that unreasonable?

Of course there was the ultimate incident, when the spies returned from checking out their destination and ten stated, There are giants in the land. The people then grumbled in earnest, going so far as to discuss choosing a different leader to take them back to Egypt.

The grumbling didn’t end there either. But here’s the question. The Israelites weren’t making up the circumstances that frightened them. The Egyptians were indeed closing in behind them, they really did need food, and water, and there really were giants in the land.

So when does crying out to God about real concerns become grumbling and complaining?

Legitimate cries to God appear everywhere in Scripture, but perhaps the book of Psalms has the most concentration. Rescue me, get even for me, protect me … those kinds of pleas intermingle with why? and where are You?

Some people today use the Psalms as proof that it’s OK for us to rail at God, to be angry, to be disappointed with Him. I don’t agree. The difference between crying out to God and complaining is in our heart.

Complaining, I’d suggest, is actually an accusation against God. It’s not a request for Him to intervene but an assertion that He messed up.

Back to the Israelites. When they were in legitimate, life-threatening danger from the on-coming Egyptians, they didn’t just say, Save us. They said, Why did You bring us out here to die? We knew this would happen. Didn’t we say that to Moses back in Egypt when he told us the plan?

Same song, second verse when they needed food. Followed by the third verse when they needed water. It was never, God will supply because He brought us here, knows our needs, won’t leave us or forsake us. Rather it was an inference that the people knew better than God what their circumstances should be.

Here I see myself.

And unfortunately, many in my culture. We American Christians seem to have adapted a sense of entitlement, perhaps because we believe in a Bill of Rights. In addition, we say we have been endowed by our Creator with the right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Of course, I changed the wording on that last point from the right to pursue happiness, but truth be told, the way I wrote it is exactly what Americans believe, and unfortunately what many American Christians continue to hold on to.

Sadly, we’ve missed the central point of what our founders wanted to establish. Rather than entitlement, we were to be a nation of people responsible for what takes place.

But even that principle, when taken to the extreme, is off base. It can breed political activism instead of prayer. Expectation of governmental solutions instead of God’s answers. Grumbling and disputing instead of contentment.

I can’t get the image out of my head of Paul and Silas, beaten and in chains, singing God’s praises in the middle of the night.

Would American Christians be doing the same? Would I?

This post is an edited compilation of two that first appeared here in July 2008.

Published in: on March 2, 2017 at 6:52 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Revisiting Anger With God

Toddler_tantrumI read another post today about how God is big enough to handle our anger, how He already knows we’re angry, so we should express it to Him and even to others. This view is not new. It’s been floating around Christian circles for nearly twenty-five years. But repeating it does not make it Biblical.

As far back as 1988 Philip Yancey wrote Disappointment with God, and ever since, it seems we’ve escalated our reaction to things we don’t like. Now it manifests itself as anger toward God.

Please understand, I’m aware that a believer can go through a crisis of doubt, especially when difficulties arise, but the new thinking seems to be that anger at God is normal, even somehow healthy, and certainly understandable.

A verse in Lamentations disagrees:

Why should any living mortal, or any man,
Offer complaint in view of his sin?
– Lamentations 3:39

In the margin of my Bible I wrote this note: “Satan counters with his great lie—man is good so that gives the feel of justice in complaining to God.” Or against God. After all, if man is good, then he doesn’t deserve the consequences of sin he must live with—sickness, pollution, crime, cruelty, hatred, death. We are, instead, innocent victims of God’s inexplicable abuse of His omnipotence. And of course we should be mad about it.

That’s very much the way the people of Judah responded when they were conquered by Babylon. Most were dragged into slavery. The few people left in Israel ran back to their false gods, concluding that all the trouble they had experienced came because they had stopped worshipping those gods in the first place. Never mind that Jeremiah had been prophesying for years that God would bring judgment upon them because they had ignored and disobeyed Yahweh.

After Adam sinned, God said from day one that life would be hard and Man would die. Now we come along and act shocked and hurt and shake our fists at God and say, “Life is hard and people I love are dying. What’s more, I’m sick/aging and can only conclude, death is creeping up on me! This is wrong, unfair. How could you?”

What are we thinking? Life was hard for Jesus, for goodness sake, and He died.

Instead of this anger thing, we should be rejoicing that when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.

But no. Our response is now, “God is big enough to handle my anger.” That statement, or some form of it, has become a justification for hurling our ire at God.

Like most arguments, it has truth mixed in with the error, which makes it hard to pin down the problem. For surely, God IS big enough. A Christian’s anger toward Him would never diminish Him. Consequently, the silent part of the argument goes like this: If God is big enough to handle my anger, then to say I shouldn’t be angry at God is to imply He isn’t big enough, and certainly, certainly I don’t want to suggest that.

But such reasoning is flawed. It leaves out the other person in the equation: me. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with me. I’m not big enough to be angry at God, and doing so diminishes … not me exactly, but my relationship with God.

Let me elaborate on these points. “The problem isn’t with God, it’s with me.” The verse from Lamentations spells it out pretty clearly. My sin is the real issue. Who am I, a sinner, to accuse the Perfect One of wrong doing? For certainly that’s what anger toward Him says. God has goofed somehow—fallen asleep at the wheel, made a bad decision or a cruel one. Anger toward Him calls into question His very character. Who am I, a sinner saved by His grace, to suggest that God doesn’t measure up, that He is flawed?

In some ways, this was Job’s problem. He had lived a righteous life, but when he was suffering, at some point he decided he needed to confront God. Part of his complaint was that God was silent about what was happening to Job. In other words, God owed Job an explanation.

God answered Job by showing HIMSELF. He said things like, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of earth!” (Job 38:4) Job saw God as He is, and he repented. “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You” and “I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 40:4 and 42:3). In other words, Job realized he wasn’t God’s equal, to put Him on trial, to accuse Him of wrong doing.

Thirdly, to be angry at God hurts my relationship with Him. All unconfessed sin does. But when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and we decide to spit accusations at God, we are the losers. God’s intention is to walk through those trials with us. Instead, we push Him away, kicking and screaming accusations. How can He comfort us under those circumstances? How can He show His compassion, mercy, grace to help in time of need?

We are foolish, foolish immature children to yield to the temptation to vent our anger on God, the Righteous One. Sure, He is big enough to handle it, but that doesn’t make our actions right, any more than a four year old is right to stomp his feet and call his mom names because it’s time to pick up his toys or to lie down in the middle of a store and wail his refusal to do what he’s told.

Mind you, I am not belittling suffering or how hard it is to lose a loved one or to endure any number of other heart-wrenching trials. I just know that being angry toward God because of the circumstances is adding to the weight, not alleviating any part of it.

Much of the content of this post in a reworking of two articles that originally appeared here in March 2008.

Disappointed Or Disappointed With God?

Forgiving_Sins031I’m reading a book that, in part, discusses the Psalms, pointing out that some are laments or psalms questioning God, asking Him for answers, for change, for help, but in the end, the psalmist finishes in the same place as he started—with the same doubts and sorrows and fears.

In thinking about the various things that could trigger a lament, I realized there are human experiences that are disappointing—which is just another way of saying, we expect one thing to happen and it doesn’t. In fact, sometimes, the opposite happens or a different thing which looks worse than the circumstance we’re in, happens.

Take, for instance, the lame man who’s friends lowered him on a stretcher through the roof so that Jesus would heal him. Instead, Jesus says, Your sins are forgiven. How disappointed might that man have felt? He wanted to walk, expected to walk, but Jesus gave him a different kind of healing than he anticipated. Was he disappointed?

Scripture doesn’t say, but it wouldn’t be surprising if initially he felt disappointed.

Many other Jews were clearly disappointed with Jesus. They expected Him to be their Messiah coming to conquer and to set them free from their enemies. Of course He did those things—but the enemy He conquered was death, not Rome, and the freedom he gave was the freedom from sin and guilt and the Law, not political freedom from a repressive government.

Abraham’s descendents, enslaved by Pharaoh, were also disappointed with God though Moses led them out of Egypt. They wanted to escape, no doubt . . . until they were in the desert, with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them. Or until they had no water. Or until they saw giants in the promised land. Clearly, God wasn’t doing things the way they expected, and they decided a return to Egypt was in order. Some wanted to pick a new leader and some wanted to pick a new god.

On the opposite end of the spectrum stand Joseph and Gideon and Samuel and David and Daniel and Jeremiah and Paul and Stephen and John and Martha and the widow with her last mite, and many, many others. They were at the end of their options and didn’t see God. They were in prison or oppressed by a foreign power, exiled, running for their lives, impoverished, alone, facing death, and they couldn’t have looked at their circumstances and thought, Yep, just as I planned it.

But their unmet expectations were not, in their eyes, more than a light, momentary affliction. They were not disappointed with God. He hadn’t failed them or forsaken them. Rather, He was the One passing through the waters with them, holding their hand through the valley of the shadow of death, gathering them in His arm and carrying them in His bosom when they had wandered on their own.

The point is clear. I can have my expectations foiled, even shattered, and still accept the fact that God’s way, different from what I’d anticipated, is good and right. I can seize the opportunity to praise Him, or I can shake my fist at Him, mouthing silly phrases such as, “He’s big enough to handle my anger.”

I’ve been disturbed for a number of years with the “it’s OK to be angry at or disappointed with God” attitude in the Church. Now I’m beginning to wonder if this unwillingness to bow to His sovereignty might not be behind some of the false teaching that seems so prevalent in our day.

It’s in the presumption that God is supposed to make me rich, that God is not supposed to be wrathful, that God is supposed to keep me healthy, that God is not supposed to mean it when He says, All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

In the end, such attempts to shape God into the image we want for Him are not so different from the Israelites fashioning a golden calf and calling it Yahweh. That generation of people who shook their fists in the face of God, wandered in the wilderness for forty years, then died.

Talk about disappointment.

Except, God never let them down. Not once. He gave them food miraculously, every day; kept their clothes and shoes from wearing out; protected them and led them with His presence, manifested as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. And yet things weren’t as they’d hoped. Their disappointment had nothing to do with God and everything to do with what they thought how God was supposed to be and what God was supposed to do.

Instead of seeing God as a great provider who would surprise them with the unexpected and care for them in ways they hadn’t imagined, they groused and complained and ultimately said they’d had enough.

Disappointment with God led them to death.

In contrast, disappointment that yields to God’s plan instead of our own, results in things like Paul and Silas singing praises in jail after they’d been beaten, which in turn provided an opportunity for them to preach Christ to their jailer and see unbelieving people converted.

The “S” Word

We don’t talk about sin anymore, or at least not much and rarely outside the doors of a church. The concept rankles our society—steeped as it is in the belief that Mankind is basically good.

Christians, while giving intellectual ascent to the problem of sin, live very much like everyone else. We say things like “an innocent child” and “he didn’t deserve to die,” as if sin didn’t somehow pollute babies and death wasn’t the end result of sin as God said it would be.

Occasionally I catch one of those “reality” TV programs called “Super Nanny.” The premise is, a family with out-of-control kids contacts the show asking for help. In essence, they need a crash course in child rearing. And truly, the families they show are in crisis. In the worst cases, the children are in charge completely. The thing is, these little ones are often of pre-school age. How does this happen unless children have innate pride and selfishness and greed and deception and rebellion?

This morning I heard an Alistair Begg radio sermon from the book of Proverbs about child rearing. Interestingly, he said the chief problem for today’s parents is their theology. They don’t realize that the oh-so-cute little bundle they brought home from the hospital is a monster. He’s right. How we discipline someone who is good would be vastly different from how we would discipline someone who is inherently sinful.

Truthfully, our belief in sin is as fundamental as our belief in God because it is sin that separates us from Him. If we have no sin problem, then God seems irrational or mean or non-existent. I just finished reading Philip Yancy’s Disappointment with God, which I’ve mentioned here a time or two. The stories he tells of people disappointed with God, who think He is hidden or silent, now make sense to me.

The fact is, God remains inaccessible to us because of sin. It mars us, soiling us to the point that we cannot have fellowship with Him. Sin creates an breach between us and Him. A breach no one can cross except the Sinless One.

Again, in contrast to popular thought, Christ did not come to show us the way to also live sinless lives. He came because we cannot live sinless lives. He came to give us new life, to create clean hearts, to eradicate our sin problem.

So no wonder the world doesn’t get Jesus. If there is no sinful man, only good people led astray by society or damaged at an early age, then why would anyone need Jesus? And how could he expect to know God?

Published in: on May 29, 2008 at 9:34 am  Comments (8)  
Tags: , , , , ,

God—the God of the Bible—Is Not Disappointing

The dogs are quiet today, so I want to put the topic I introduced yesterday—how to generate promotion in an overly promoted culture—on hold while I write about something that came up recently. It’s the issue of being disappointed with God.

Rightly or wrongly, as I wrote back in March, I’ve traced the current fad of expressing anger toward God from Philip Yancy’s book Disappointment with God. (If you’re interested, you can read that post and others on the topic here, here, and here.) The subject has come up again.

In one instance, a good blogging friend has written an “if only” post. If only God would … In a second instance, my pastor mentioned Yancy’s book in the context of his sermon, saying it was one of the finest books he’s read. A third instance was from a radio sermon in which the pastor placed the equivalent of disappointment with God squarely on the shoulders of people creating a god in the image of their wishful thinking, and it is with this erroneous god they are disappointed.

All these thoughts were stirring through my head, and I decided I needed to re-read Yancy’s book. After all, I respect my pastor, and I thought his sermon, entitled “Jesus Is Enough,” from Colossians 2, was far from a message giving us permission to vent on God.

Maybe I was missing something. As I recall, I never did finish Yancy’s book, so possibly I missed something critical, like his final destination!

Today I read about his encounter with Richard, a young friend, new in the faith. He’d written a book on Job and wanted Yancy’s input. But as time passed and the book was about to release, Richard poured out the truth to Yancy—he no longer believed the things he’d written. He no longer believed in God.

Some time later, Yancy ran into Richard again, and they spent some time together. The young author admitted that his loss of faith wasn’t exactly as he’d portrayed it—a slow slide resulting from a series of unanswered prayers about health, job, relationships, and so on.

Rather, when he first heard about the claims of Christ, he wanted some kind of assurance that God was real and could be trusted. He heard about a faith healer holding services within driving distance, and he went. There he saw people of all stripes with all kinds of illnesses praying and claiming healing. One man particularly impressed him, a physician with cancer, who had been confined to a wheelchair for several months. He walked across the stage, claiming complete healing. Here at last was the tangible evidence Richard needed. God was real and did amazing, powerful things. Now he could believe.

Several weeks after the healing service, Richard decided to contact the doctor, to tell him how much his testimony meant to him. When he called and asked for him by name, the woman who answered hesitated, asked why, then upon learning the reason for the call, said simply, the doctor was dead.

The “tangible evidence” Richard thought he had found was yanked away from him.

Here’s why I bring up this story. Yancy wrote his book in part because this young man’s experience made him realize that people had three questions about God they weren’t asking out loud. One was, Is God unfair? The other two are, Is God silent? and Is God hidden?

But I’m thinking, was Richard even a Christian? He reminded me of that magician in the New Testament who followed the apostles around and wanted their same power. Not God, or so it would seem. The power, the signs. The same stuff people asked Jesus for. “Prove you are God.” As if healing people, feeding thousands from a few loaves, raising the dead, wasn’t enough.

Sometimes I think none of it is enough because we want God to be what we imagine Him to be, not who He actually is.

Where was Richard’s confession and repentance of his sin? His falling at the foot of the cross, his willingness to die to self, his coming to God through Jesus as The Way, the Only Way? I suggest, his unanswered prayers which made him feel so betrayed, were prayed to a God he did not know, with whom he had no relationship. He said as much. For a time he was at a Christian college and would hear people talking about a personal relationship with God, and about His giving them direction, and he said he even talked like that on occasion though he never actually experienced that kind of connection with God.

Interestingly, Yancy points out that the people of Israel had exactly what people supposedly want from God—they had tangible evidence of His presence in the cloud by day and fire by night. They even heard His voice and asked not to again because it was too frightening. They had His precise day-to-day direction—and disobeyed anyway. And He laid out a competely fair contract with them—do this and I’ll bless you in these ways; disobey and I’ll send you these consequences.

Just so! Whatever disappointing feelings people experience in connection with God are more a reflection of our state than they are of Him. After all, our hearts are deceitful and wicked, and we are consequently susceptible to the lies Satan would have us believe, especially about God. And just as he did with Eve, the old liar dresses it up to make us look perfectly innocent: Surely, it couldn’t be wrong for you to want to be equal with God! Surely God didn’t really, actually, literally mean you would die. Surely, you deserve something so beautiful, so tasty.

What’s changed in the enemy’s approach? Not much. Which is why God gave us His Written, God-breathed Word as testimony of His Word made flesh, and gave us His Spirit to guide us into Truth.

Published in: on April 29, 2008 at 11:33 am  Comments (7)  
Tags: , ,