When I first took my daughters through the first five books of the Old Testament, their favorite story was “the Joseph story.” (Btw, if you want to watch a dated but still well acted movie adaptation of the Joseph story, the 1995 TNT version is actually quite good; Ben Kingsley plays Potiphar and he, of course, knocks it out of the park). Their next favorite story was, not surprisingly, the Exodus narrative (chs. 1-15).
But after those two came not just a single story but a certain kind of story–the wilderness wandering stories–specifically, those stories where God’s people grumble–or, as they would say, “whine and complain.” The Israelites leave the Red Sea, venture into the wilderness, and after three days there’s no water. Then there’s no food. Specifically, no meat. Then there’s no way to conquer the Canaanites. God’s responses to these situations are impressive, revealing both depths and the limits of his mercy.
When my daughters and I got to Numbers 14 (where the Israelites grumble about the spies’ report of the land) and God responds by condemning the entire generation to die in the wilderness, one of my daughters asked, “Why is grumbling such a big deal to God?”
It wasn’t sexual immorality or anger “issues” or substance abuse (or…) that kept Israel from entering the Promised Land. It was grumbling. What is the big deal?
In Romans 1 Paul’s grand indictment of humanity is as follows: “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.” Really?
What does grumbling “say” that makes Israel’s God–the One who is “slow to anger and abounding in love”–react so strongly?
First, grumbling says, “God, you don’t care about me.” Grumbling subtly accuses God of being apathetic: “If you cared about me/us, you would never have let this happen.”
Second, grumbling says, “God, you are incompetent.” Grumbling subtly accuses God of failing to run the cosmos in the right way (or, at least, our own little corner of the cosmos). He is not only apathetic; he is simply pathetic: “If you knew what you were doing, you would never have let this happen.”
Third, grumbling says, “God, you don’t know what’s best for me.” Grumbling accuses God of not really understanding us: “God just doesn’t get me and my needs.”
Fourth, grumbling says, “God, nothing good will come from this.” Grumbling assumes the incredible ability to foretell the future, to extrapolate without error: “I know that all that is happening to me right now is completely pointless. I have thought through all possible future scenarios, and I’ve concluded that all of them are bad.”
Underneath all of this is the assumption that says, “God, I have all I need to know in order to judge you.” No need to wait, to listen, to inquire, to get another’s perspective.
These aren’t exactly mild accusations.
At times in these “wilderness wanderings” God gives the people over to what they say they want. And in Romans 1 Paul three times speaks of God giving humanity over to its desires. Most Christians know enough to rejoice in the fact that God does not give us what we deserve. But do we know enough to rejoice in the fact that he does not give us what we desire?
In Romans 1 Paul, just after giving his grand indictment against humanity, states, “…but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools….” What a sobering, even terrifying description. Could it be any worse? Persons are persuaded they are wise (who think they know what is best) and yet are fools. For Paul we don’t merely do bad things, or think bad thoughts. We just think badly–period.
True wisdom, as the Wisdom literature teaches, begins with doubting self completely and trusting him completely: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
I don’t know how long this will last but my 2 1/2-year-old son is the happiest kid in the world. He has his moments, but for the most part, he is sooooo content. What is his secret? I think he is truly persuaded that mom (and maybe dad) knows exactly what is best for him.
I have a bad habit when it comes to movie-watching: I’m always trying to figure out how it’s going to end. As soon as I can see it coming, I tune out. Hence, I (unfortunately) prefer movies with all manner of twists and turns in the plot. On the other hand, I don’t like just random, “plotless” movies: it has to be going somewhere, and every scene needs to contribute to the whole. But how can one know in the midst of watching a movie whether it will end up being a great, highly unpredictable “thriller” or a terrible, plotless movie? That’s easy: the track record of the director. Does s/he know how to tell a good story?
How about the Joseph story? How about the Exodus story? Jesus’ story? Your story?
“Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good. His love endures forever.” – Psalm 136.1