For the next few days, we are going to explore episodes in the Christian Bible associated with the number forty, which are also traditionally associated with Lent.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against Me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. 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 wilderness; here they will die.
Complaining doesn’t help anything. Neither does criticism. But we tend to be experts in both. We complain when things aren’t as they should be. We criticize when others fail to meet our expectations. But I’ve never seen complaining produce a positive change in anyone. I’ve never seen criticism make anyone a better person.
The idea that complaining helps people to know what they are doing wrong is really just a negative person’s way of justifying their mean spirit. The lingo about constructive criticism is really just permission for us to tell one another we’re not good enough.
Don’t misunderstand me. I regularly pursue critique. I want to be better. I want to develop and hone my skills. But my searching for helpful critique is way different than my going out and offering unsolicited criticism. Most of us don’t search out others to help make us better; most of us just shoot our mouths off, trying to tell everyone else what they are doing wrong.
This is what is happening in the desert with the Israelites. They’re complaining, criticizing God. Remembering the relative security of life in Egypt, they begin to complain that life isn’t easy anymore. Somehow, they have forgotten that life wasn’t easy when they were slaves, but we all conveniently forget the hardships of the past when faced with the inconveniences of the present, don’t we?
They criticize God for the manner of His salvation. They complain about the miraculous daily delivery of manna and quail. They complain about the difficulties they see in conquering the Promised Land. They take their complaints to God, lashing out at Him. All their lamentation must have sounded to His ears like one long continuous antiphonal chorus, wailing: You’re doing it wrong; You’re doing it all wrong.
Don’t we do this all the time? We want to experience God’s promises–His promise for restored relationships, His promise for abundant life, His promise for greater resources to cope with difficulty–but we find the manner of His saving difficult and unpleasant. We want a better life without having to work for it. We don’t want to wander through life without any clear direction; we want to know what we are supposed to do right now, right away. We want to be stronger, more faithful, more capable of handling things like conflict and stress, but we want to go from total weaklings to superheroes in one fell swoop, skipping all the developmental requirements in the process.
And so we complain that life is hard, as if that should come as a surprise.
We groan that spirituality isn’t automatic, easy, or even easy to understand, as if we were ever promised anything other than a long obedience in the same direction.
Our complaints then turn to criticisms against God. We accuse Him of afflicting us unnecessarily, of torturing us with other people’s obstinance or lack of self-realization, as if all the problems of the world are someone else’s doing, and we’re just here to clean up the mess. Lucky world, to have us as janitors.
In these moments we would do well to remember that God made the Israelites wander for four decades because of their complaining and grumbling, their criticism and lack of faith.
The consequences of complaint and criticism are always negative, not only in the lives of those complained against or criticized, but (more frequently) in the lives of the complainers and the critics.
Sometimes our complaining dooms us to wander around for an even longer time. Having appreciated nothing, we find pleasure in nothing and we take pride in nothing. We become aimless, bored, and unable to enter into the Promise of God, even though it is often right in front of us. That’s what happened to Israel. In forty years they could have walked from Egypt to England and back several times, but they didn’t. They stayed largely stationary. That’s what complaining does: it keeps us from going anywhere in life, even to the good spots right beside the bad ones.
The Promised Land is always adjacent to the desert, but our complaining keeps us from getting in.
And our criticisms often isolate us in the process. Had Israel shown a little gratitude to God for all He had done on their behalf, had they acknowledged how far He had brought them and all that He had done to get them there, I’m tempted to think that His mercy would have extended to them one more time. But they weren’t thankful. They were critical:
Why, God, can’t you be more like Pharaoh?
He was harsh, but we always knew what was coming.
You are merciful, in a way,
but we never know exactly what’s coming next.
Why can’t you just give us the answers we want?
Our criticisms isolate us from others and from God. Our criticisms break our relationships. We wonder why no one wants to work with us, or hang out on a weekend, when we share our opinions about them freely. But it’s so simple, isn’t it? The reason no one likes you is because you’re mean to them. My friend Vince taught me this lesson when I was once critiquing someone else’s work. I wondered why that person and I weren’t better friends, and Vince told me it was probably because every time I spoke to them I had a suggestion for something they could improve. I meant well, but such suggestions have a way of undermining good intentions.
Sometimes we just need to celebrate the good things that are already there and worry less about telling others how they could improve.
Many of you reading this might be tempted to think that I’m advocating low standards. No. I have the highest standards for myself. I am advocating, however, a posture of celebration, love, and acceptance for others, rather than a posture of fixing, saving, pointing out shortcomings, and drawing attention to the many ways in which they do not measure up.
I think the devil came to Jesus hoping to get him to do what the Israelites in the wilderness did. The devil wanted Jesus to complain and to criticize. The bread he offered was designed to make Jesus feel dissatisfied. The demonstration of power he offered was meant to tempt Jesus to show everyone how things should be done. The authority he offered was meant to tease Jesus into proving how a real messiah would act. You see? Jesus was supposed to complain about the bread. Jesus was supposed to be critical of his own incarnation and the plans of His Father. Jesus was supposed to show the Father and everyone else that they were doing it wrong and prove that he could do it better himself.
But he didn’t.
Jesus knew that there is more to life than bread, more to God’s purposes than merely humiliation and suffering, and more to authority than forcing others to do what you want.
He was tempted to complain and critique, but he did not. He succeeded where Israel failed.
And he wants us to do the same.
This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.