Signpost #5 - Vent Rightly!
There's an almost comical sameness to the way God's people respond to the difficulties God allows them to experience in the Wilderness. They wail. They rail. They rage and accuse. For some reason this reminds me of old TV comedies. I picture Jackie Gleason or Archie Bunker bellowing at their wives. Then there's Lucille Ball, often unable to wheedle what she wants from husband Ricky. Slowly that rubber face turns clown sad and an intense wail rises. Can you remember it, hear it? Over and over, their reactions to frustration are the same. Comical. Predictable.
Whenever I talk with groups about the Wilderness experience, people begin to laugh a little when they hear another bout of the Wilderness whine. There's a ton of venting and crying out in the Wilderness. It's amusing because it's reliably repetitious, and it's amusing because we hear ourselves in their complaints.
When danger or discomfort looms, the Israelites usually suggest a return to Egypt. Now there's a brilliant idea. How will you get back across the Red Sea, and even if you could, how glad would the Egyptians be to see you again? Remember all those soldiers and chariots swept away in the sea? Do you think the surviving Egyptians would hail you as heroes ... their new best buddies? Well, yes, but anything for a pickle. "We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic we wanted... " Numbers 11:5 NLT
Then later when faced with the dangers posed by their enemies in the Land God was giving them, Deuteronomy 1:27-28 records the people as complaining in their tents and saying, "The Lord must hate us. That's why he has brought us here from Egypt, to hand us over ... to be slaughtered."
WHO HATES WHOM?
Their first reaction to a fearful situation is always blame. The accusation that God hates them is a stunning conclusion to reach, at least it seems that way to us from our safe distance. We think: Hate you? How can you ignore his mighty power to rescue and defend you? You saw the sea part for you! What about his tender care and feeding, day by day? His faithful care is present on the ground with each morning's manna!
In an equally stunning response, God says to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them?" Numbers 14:11 Don't miss it. To believe God's faithfulness will fail in the face of a new challenge ... to forget the love and power he has demonstrated to us in the past... is to hate him! The people's repeated raging and litanies of complaint can seem comical to us, but God is not laughing.
But then we see Moses deliver a rant of his own. He has had it with the people's complaints about discomfort and boring food. Numbers 11 tells us that they hate their hardship and they scream at Moses. Moses turns to God and levels his own litany of suffering:
Moses heard all the families standing in the doorways of their tents whining, and the Lordbecame extremely angry. Moses was also very aggravated. 11 And Moses said to the Lord, "Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly? Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people? 12 Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby? How can I carry them to the land you swore to give their ancestors? 13 Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people? They keep whining to me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat!'14 I can't carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! 15 If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!" Numbers 11:10-17
CRY OUT TO GOD!
It sure sounds like Moses is whining also, doesn't it? Yet God responds completely differently! God hears him and immediately appoints help for him. Why the contrast in God's response? What is the difference?
The people of Israel direct their crying out to Moses and to each other. They grumble to each other and they accuse Moses. But here we listen as Moses directs his honest complaint to God. This deepens their friendship, and gives God- the only one who can really address his grievances - a chance to do so.
For a while I kept a list of other shockingly honest biblical prayers. Listen to some of them:
- Abraham: "What good are your blessings when I don't have a son?" Genesis 15
- David: "O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?" Psalm 13
- Jeremiah: "Why are you like a stream that has dried up?" Jeremiah 15
- John the Baptist is confused about why he is imprisoned if Jesus is truly the Messiah. In Luke 4, Jesus has claimed to fulfill Isaiah 61. My paraphrase of the question John sends Jesus from prison in Luke 7: "Captives... released? Seriously? What am I doing here if you are who you say you are?"
- Disciples in the storm: "Don't you care about us?" Luke 8
- The same disciples tried to silence Bartimaus, who was shouting out to Jesus for healing. Jesus, rather, just responded.(Mark 10)
When is the last time we were earnest enough for God's help or healing to cry out about it, to him, like blind Bartimaus?
God doesn't respond with impatience in any of these cases. Add to these, contemporary saints, like C.S.Lewis and Mother Teresa, whose biographies included anguished honesty expressing their sense of abandonment by God during certain long seasons of their lives.
We know that none of these scenes is the end of the story, but their suffering was gut wrenching and God listened and answered. In fact, the Scriptures are filled with pleas from God that his people would call out to him for help. To him. Yet we find it surprisingly difficult to actually do this. We recite our grievances or sorrows, but not to God.
God says: "I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me." Isaiah 65
I suppose the Israelites in the wilderness have one thing going for them as they face the probabilities of surviving, a million strong, in a place with no visible source of food or water... they're honest! They can articulate their real fears of dying in the wilderness... of having their lives amount to nothing... of disappearing as a people.
I wonder if this sets them apart from most of us in contemporary Christendom? One of my partners in ministry puts it this way:
There's nothing spiritual about pretending things are ok when they're not. Some of us work so hard to find the silver lining that we don't really let ourselves look at the cloud. That kind of positive thinking - out of touch with the reality and depth of pain in our world - can actually cut us off from experiencing God in our lives. Pretending to be somewhere we're not... to have more faith than we do... doesn't help. If anything it distances us from God because it doesn't let him in to our heart of hearts.
But once we've done the work of getting honest with ourselvesabout our Wilderness woes... (Neil calls it tuning in to the inner conversation) then what?
Say it to God. I'm not sure why we find this so difficult to do. We'll do anything, everything, except express the friendship God longs to have with us by trusting him with the truth he already knows. I often see the Lord like a parent holding the face of child and turning it toward him, saying, 'Look at me. Say it to me!'
Even Jesus, on the cross, echoes the pain of David's prayer in Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.
And the piercing truth is this: Because Jesus was abandoned on the cross for our sakes, we need never fear abandonment.
"My heart has heard you say, 'Come and talk with me.' And my heart responds, 'Lord, I am coming.' " Psalm 27:8 He urges us to do this because it changes everything. Wherever your greatest fear lies, or even your greatest discomfort, could you take a moment, and dare to let him hear it?