READ : Exodus 17:1-16
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
All of us have hopes and high expectations. But what do you do when your dreams don’t come true?
The town I used to live in had a weekly paper called The Shopper, in which people advertised things to buy and sell. I was reading it one day when something caught my eye – “For Sale: Ivory wedding dress, size 8. Never worn.” I wondered: What sad story, what broken heart and shattered dreams lies behind that simple ad?
Life can be terribly disappointing. We set out with such high hopes, our lives stretching out before us filled with great expectations. A new job promises to turn into a distinguished career; a new marriage will blossom into the security and warmth of a happy family; a new child is certain to fill us with pleasure and pride for years to come. But along the way, something happens. Things don’t turn out quite like we hoped. Disappointments set in. The job turns into a dead end, the marriage goes sour, the child produces more heartache than happiness. What do you do when life is not what you expected?
When the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they began their new life with songs of praise to God for his salvation. Then their journey to freedom commenced, but instead of a triumphant parade into the Promised Land, it turned out to be a march through the wilderness. At first glance, God seems not to have managed the thing very well. When they escaped from Egypt the Israelites were at a fever pitch of excitement. The people’s enthusiasm and zeal were at their height after they crossed the Red Sea. If they had reached Canaan in that state of mind, they would have walked right in to take the land. But it seems as though God failed to seize the opportune moment. For some reason, in between Egypt and Canaan, he placed the wilderness. And as the people began to walk that hard way, across burning sand and over sharp rocks through a desolate, treeless wasteland, their enthusiasm waned and discouragement set in. It was not long before disappointment gave way to anger and their songs of praise turned into bitter complaints. This happened first at a place called Rephidim, which means “resting places.” That name seemed a cruel joke to the Israelites, because the oasis was dry and it was difficult to rest when they were parched and dry. It wasn’t what they expected.
What a picture this often is of our lives! Sometimes we think that once we become Christians, our lives will turn into a sort of pleasure excursion with a divine tour guide. We’re secretly convinced that, although there may be minor difficulties, nothing major could go wrong for us because God wouldn’t let that sort of thing happen to his children. People who think that way soon find that the Christian life is not what they expected and that the pains and hardships of the wilderness are very real indeed. And all too often our hymns of testimony then turn into bitter complaints against God.
WHEN WE COMPLAIN
The experience of the people of Israel in the wilderness shows what can happen when disappointment leads us to complain about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We begin to feel sorry for ourselves, and self-pity is increased by several tendencies of chronic complainers.
One is to exaggerate how bad things are. “We’re dying of thirst,” the Israelites cried (v. 3). But God had been providing food and water to them all along. Would he really let them die now?
Another tendency is to idealize our old life. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” they cried. Ah, Egypt – there was the life! The Israelites in the wilderness seem to have talked a lot about Egypt. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full” (Exod. 16:3). “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic!” (Num. 11:4,5). Your mouth starts to water just reading about it! You’d think that they had lived at a country club in Egypt, that life for them was just an endless round of cocktail parties and gourmet dinners. But reading the story gives a more accurate picture. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, king out a miserable existence under the lashes of their masters. Fish? Cucumbers? They didn’t even have straw for their bricks. Egypt was, as the Old Testament describes it, “the house of bondage,” “the iron furnace.”
Perhaps most dangerous of all, disappointment can make us look for someone else to blame for our present circumstances. For Israel in the wilderness, it was Moses. They criticized him, they grumbled and complained against him until they worked up enough resentment to threaten him with stoning. Of course, their blaming Moses was irrational. Moses had not brought them out of the land of Egypt; God had. No one had forced them to leave; I don’t remember anyone holding a gun to their head as they marched out through the Red Sea. But it didn’t matter that the blaming was irrational – self-pity usually is. The reason we indulge in it is not to make an objective and rational assessment of our situation, but to shift attention away from our own responsibility. When life isn’t what was expected, people rarely ask, “What have I done to get here?” They usually ask, “Who did this to me? Whom can I blame?”
THE DANGER OF A CRITICAL SPIRIT
What’s most important to learn from this story is how dangerous it is to indulge ourselves by complaining when life disappoints us. You see, what the Israelites were really doing was criticizing God. After all, wasn’t he in control? At the end of the story we’re told that Moses named the place Massah (proof), and Meribah (contention). According to the Bible, he did this because of the fault finding of the children of Israel and because they put the Lord to the proof by saying, `Is the Lord among us or not?’” (v. 7). God was the real target of their complaints. It was God’s care and wisdom, God’s character, which they were criticizing by their murmuring.
Why is that a danger? Is it because God is touchy, because he wants to strike down any puny man or woman who dares to stand up and criticize him? No; complaining is dangerous not because God is touchy, but because such criticism usually is an indication of a far more serious problem. The problem is unbelief. What the people were really saying by their complaints is that they doubted God’s goodness. “Why did you take us out here to kill us?” they said, as if God is malevolent, as if his agenda for life is to inflict the maximum amount of unhappiness and then destroy us. Or maybe the trouble was that God wasn’t able to help them. Maybe he had failed and deserted them. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they grumbled. After watching the waters of the Red Sea part, after seeing the cloud of pillar and fire that led them, after tasting the manna each day on the march, still wondered whether God was with them. Their sin was really unbelief, and the reason unbelief is dangerous is that if a person persists in it, it leads to death. That is exactly what happened to this Israelite generation in the wilderness. Those who dismissed the goodness of God and denied his presence later disobeyed his commandments and in the end died under his hand in the wilderness.
AN ALTERNATIVE TO COMPLAINING
If complaining is not a healthy option spiritually when you’re faced with disappointment, what should you do instead? I’d like to suggest three positive and practical responses to adversity, three things you can do if something turns out to be not what you expected.
First, ask yourself this simple question: What is God trying to teach me through this adverse experience? It’s okay to acknowledge your feelings of disappointment. It’s all right to express your hurt, but before you indulge in self-pity and begin to criticize God, ask yourself, “Is God telling me something through this situation?” Usually, you’ll find he’s trying to say something like this: “I want you to come back to me. You’ve forgotten me. I want you to want me for who I am, not for what I can give you.” That’s the reason why the wilderness lies between Egypt and the promised land; that’s why there is a hard life between salvation and heaven. God uses the journey to prepare us for the destination, to teach us to depend upon him, to desire him, to seek him for himself and not just for the benefits he gives. One of the quirks of human nature is that we can get used to anything – even the presence of the living God. Sometimes God is forced to withdraw his presence from us – or at least our sense of his presence – and to make us pass through a time of spiritual wandering, in order to get our attention and cause us to desire him again the way we once did. When it’s not what you expected, maybe you’ve been expecting too little. God may be trying to tell you that he wants to give you his very self.
The second thing is this: When life disappoints you, refuse to give in and doubt God. This is the great lesson that the Bible itself draws from this incident in the wilderness. Again and again throughout Scripture reference is made to what happened here at Meribah and Massah, and the biblical writers repeatedly warn not to put God to the test. Moses said it this way in Deuteronomy, “You should not put the Lord your God to the test as you tested him at Massah” (Deut. 6:16). Jesus quoted that verse when the devil tempted him. Satan had urged him to jump down from the pinnacle of the temple so that God would save him and thereby prove that he cared, but Jesus responded with these words, “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Our tendency when God seems distant is to put him on trial. “God,” we say, “prove yourself to me. Do something to show me that you’re real.” And then if he doesn’t, if he will not dance to our tune, we start to doubt him. But faith believes that God is there and that he cares even when things happen that make it look like he isn’t or doesn’t.
The final thing is to remember that, while we must not test God, he must test us by allowing disappointments to come to us. How strong is your faith? Is it strong enough to trust God even in the midst of adversity? Is it strong enough to praise and glorify God even when things don’t turn out the way you had hoped, the way you expected. There’s a wonderful word Christians use in connection with faith. We believe in the providence of God. God’s providence is his wisdom to see what’s best for us, combined with his power to provide it. And because we believe this, we learn to be patient when things go against us and thankful when things go well. Faith is really only tested in the disappointments of life. It’s not so hard to trust in the Lord when everything is as we want it. But what about when bad things happen? How do you react then? If you hang onto your faith when it’s not what you expected and say, “Lord, I still believe in you, I still love you, I still trust you,” you’ll see disappointment turn into blessing.