The Cost of Complaining

“The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. ‘Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.’”
Exodus 16:2,8 (Common English Bible)
     Frederick Douglas wrote, “Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needful to be done.” What Douglas speaks of may be called the claim of positive action – the decision to meet all circumstances not with a negative spirit, but with a positive mind and a useful response. When we meet disruptions in life, little inconveniences and seeming disorder of daily rhythms, it is good to remind ourselves that complaining doesn’t improve the situation. What complaining does accomplish is damage – damage to us and to those who must hear our complaints.
     This damage is seen in the people of Israel. After leaving their captivity in Egypt, life along their journey through the wilderness becomes difficult. Food is scarce, as is water, and the people complained about the hot days and the cold nights. Their whimpering and complaining eventually became directed against their magnificent leader, Moses, who had faced Pharaoh squarely on their behalf, and secured their release from slavery. Memory of a difficult, even cruel, life in Egypt as slaves faded as they exaggerated the comforts they once enjoyed under Pharaoh. Under the cloud of complaining, their future as a free people grew dim.  The great vision of liberty was surrendered to a past not rightly seen.
     To this miserable and confused state Moses said, “Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.” Now that is insight worthy of our best reflection! Often complaints arise from a sense that we have been treated unfairly or a belief that life has been unreasonably difficult. Someone or some circumstance is the blame for a life that is less than what we might have. But tell us that our complaint is against God and we may be forced to consider that God never really promised the ease we feel entitled to. Perhaps, God has placed each of us into a world where there are heavy loads to bear and difficulties that demand our best energies, both mind and body. Some reading this may remember the song lyric of decades ago, “I never promised you a rose garden.” God didn’t.
     Complaining doesn’t solve anything. And most agree that complaining is a sign of mental and moral immaturity. Complaining brings nothing of value to the table of life. But complaining does exact a heavy cost. It diminishes a clear view of the presence and activity of God in our lives and it sends friends and acquaintances running – in the opposite direction. What remains is to develop a mental attitude that says, “This is the way things are right now. Where can I see God in this? And what positive response can I make?” It is this new mindset that finally moved Israel out of the desert and into God’s promised land.


When Our Spiritual Energies Fail

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
Isaiah 40:31 (Common English Bible)
     These words from Isaiah provide the source of spiritual strength. Every day we need spiritual power to do the will of God and to do it well and with joy. In full view of the challenges that press overseas and here at home, the people of God require all the encouragement, and strength, that genuine faith in God can offer. Today, as in every era since these words were spoken by the prophet Isaiah, these words have brought the people of God both challenge and direction, as well as guidance and strength. And, as each day seemingly becomes more demanding, this source of strength remains equal to the need.
     The conviction here is that God’s work demands God’s power. Just as our physical bodies weaken without sufficient food and rest each day, so do our spiritual energies fail unless they are daily replenished from God. Yet, when Isaiah speaks of, “hope in the Lord”, Isaiah is not suggesting that we passively engage in wishful thinking; an optimistic mindset that God will come through for us when the day grows difficult. Rather, Isaiah’s use of the word, “hope” is a call to cling our souls to God. “Hope” in the Old Testament is always active, not the passive use that is commonly understood today. It is an expectant dependence on God, a certain confidence that God will renew our strength equal to what we seek.
     It takes time to be holy. Yes, we are called to “do good things”, as the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians, but always we do so together with God. In our daily time with God, reading the Bible and devotional literature, time in prayer and quiet reflection, our souls receive the inflow of God’s power. What a tragic experience it is to witness someone who seeks to do God’s will and please God but does not spend the time “clinging to God” in such manner that they receive God’s power. In time, their spiritual energies fail and discouragement overtakes them.
     These words close with the promise of unwearied strength. This is not to say that we will never experience physical exhaustion. In the early pages of Genesis, God taught the importance of rest and renewal. God’s grand design for our life is a rhythm of work and rest, of producing and being replenished. The promise here is that when our lives are fixed in devotion to God, we may experience physical exhaustion from time to time but always with the exhilaration that God enables us, by faith, to plod forward because we are undergirded by God’s grace and enfolded by God’s love.

Our Daily Work

“Isn’t this the carpenter?”

Mark 6:3 (Common English Bible)

      It is an encouragement to recall, that in the days of his flesh, our Lord had a job to go to each day. Daily work was as much a part of the rhythm of life for Jesus as it is for us. Often we permit more impressive accounts of Jesus’ life to minimize or eclipse this simple reality – Jesus had to make a living for his family, just as we do. This detail of Jesus’ life is not insignificant and the church is grateful to Mark’s Gospel for including it. It is essential for our total view of the Lord’s humanity. This knowledge underscores that Jesus entered fully into our humanity and brings him closer to the life of the common person. Additionally, Jesus’ work provides a rich perspective for understanding our own daily work.

     First, Jesus’ occupation as a carpenter brings dignity to all honest toil. In the day of Jesus, any form of manual labor was despised; such occupations considered the unfortunate lot of slaves. A gentleman or lady would not engage in any activity that would result in soiled hands, or worse, callouses. Deeply embedded in the culture was the conviction that bodily work, particularly hard physical labor, is unworthy of a respectable, free person. Many considered such work degrading. Such was the prevailing culture into which Jesus was born, raised and worked. So, when the question is raised, as it is here in Mark’s Gospel, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” it is spoken with contempt. It is, as we would say today, an attempt to put Jesus “in his place.”

     Second, any careful observer of Jesus’ life recognizes that the dominant motive behind all that he did was to please his heavenly Father. He declares this himself; “I always do what makes him (God) happy. (John 8:29)” One may feel sure that this same attitude was never absent in the exercise of his vocation as a carpenter. This motive to please God was redemptive – Jesus never found his physical labor distasteful or boring. Rather than dragging himself to the carpenter’s shop each morning, Jesus must have arrived to his daily work with enthusiasm. Not because the work was easy or pleasant or even profitable but because by completing a job well, he brought joy to his Father in heaven.

     Perhaps, most important, Jesus’ work as a carpenter enriched his sympathy and understanding of our common life and prepared him for his redemptive mission. While it is true that for the last three years of his life, Jesus was a professional – a healer, a teacher and equipper for ministry – he worked with his hands for a much longer period of time. He knew what it was to experience hardship and fatigue and to make ends meet on a small income. As a carpenter, Jesus faced many of the same situations and problems similar to those we face. Townspeople sought to diminish Jesus that day by pointing out that he was a carpenter. But their words have become our confidence that Jesus truly did enter fully into our common condition and showed us the way to live with grace and dignity.



Courageous Faith

“…and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Mark 12:30 (Common English Bible)
     These words are a portion of Jesus’ great commandment. Here Jesus emphatically declares that there is a place in the exercise of faith for using our minds. God wants our heads as well as our hearts. Beautiful, compelling worship stirs the heart and encourages the spirit – the organ, the piano and the singing of the great hymns of the church. But what of our minds? God’s desire is that our minds be kindled as well. Placing our minds into the service of God is every bit as necessary as private prayer and public worship. What Jesus makes clear is that when God claims a person, God claims the whole person.
     When women and men put their minds to work in the service of God things begin to happen. One powerful dynamic is the movement, from one degree to another, of a greater understanding of God and God’s purposes within the church and the world. There is a powerful pull within many people of faith to keep belief fixed and static. The pursuit of a deeper understanding of scripture and grasp of truth is threatening. Old, cherished understandings of the faith are familiar and comfortable. Yet, the fear of new discoveries of God’s truth may be, in fact, disobedience to God; the choosing to worship a God that fits nicely into our preferred set of beliefs rather than the God who is revealed in the pursuit of truth.
     The application of our minds to the exercise of faith also results in an enlarged capacity to discern God’s will for our lives. Ephesians 2:10 teaches that God created each person “to do good things.” The quest for each person of faith must be the rich discovery of God’s specific purpose for their life; the understanding of what “good things” are expected from a person committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The deep study of scripture and reflection on where God may be in the world gives clarity about the things that matter most. Asking no questions and the refusal to pursue truth wherever truth may lead is a dangerous course. Satan’s temptation of Jesus failed, in part, because Jesus applied his mind to knowing God.
     Recently, a man sat in my office and declared that the Presbyterian faith of today was, in fact, a large departure from the faith he cherished ten years ago. He was experiencing a mixture of disorientation and anger. The denomination has taken theological positions he simply could not agree with. I found his comment, “The church has left me” to be unsettling. Perhaps the church has left him. If this otherwise intelligent man has chosen to keep his belief fixed and without the exercise of healthy inquiry, the church has moved on. The church does get it wrong from time to time, that is certain. But I celebrate participation in a community of faith that courageously seeks new understandings of a God that continues to surprise us.