READ : Exodus 17:1-7
Most of us have high hopes and expectations, both for ourselves and for those we love. But what do you do when your dreams don’t come true, and life doesn’t turn out the way you expected?
The town I used to live in had a weekly paper called “The Shopper” where people advertised things to buy and sell. One day one of the ads caught my eye – “For Sale: Ivory wedding dress, size 8. Never worn.” I couldn’t help but find myself wondering: What sad story lies behind that one-line ad?
I found myself thinking about that old ad recently as I was celebrating the joy of our oldest son’s wedding to a wonderful young woman. It was the culmination of years of expectation, the answer to countless prayers. At that moment, life was everything we were hoping for.
But you know what? Life can also be terribly disappointing. We set out with such high hopes, our lives 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 all the years to come. But along the way, things happen. It doesn’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 disappoints you, when it’s not what you expected?
Living in the Wilderness
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 exodus 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 and taken the land. But it seems as though God failed to seize the opportune moment.
For some reason, in between Egypt and Canaan, he placed a terrible wilderness. And as the people began to walk that hard road, across burning sand and over sharp rocks through a dry, desolate wasteland, their enthusiasm for the journey 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 first happened at a place called Rephidim, which means “resting places” in Hebrew. The name seemed a cruel joke to the Israelites, because the oasis was dry and it was difficult to rest when they were parched and thirsty. The whole “Exodus thing” wasn’t what they expected.
Isn’t that a picture so often of our own lives! Sometimes we think that being Christians means our lives become a sort of pleasure excursion with a divine tour guide. We’re after all convinced that, although there may be minor difficulties, nothing major could go wrong for us because God would never let that sort of thing happen to his children. But 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 then our hymns and songs of testimony 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 causes us to complain about the circumstances of our lives around us. We begin to feel sorry for ourselves, and self-pity is increased by some of the tendencies of chronic complainers. Here are a few of those tendencies:
The first 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. Did they really think he would let them die now?
Another tendency is to idealize the old life. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” the people cried. Ah, Egypt – there was the life! The Israelites in the wilderness talked a lot about Egypt. “Would that we had died . . . in the land of Egypt,” the people grumbled, “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). Sounds like the food channel, doesn’t it? Your mouth starts to water just listening to them. You’d think the people of Israel had lived at a country club in Egypt, that life for them there was just an endless round of parties and gourmet dinners. But the Bible gives a more accurate picture. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, eking out a miserable existence under the lashes of their slave drivers. 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 grumbled about Moses’ leadership until they worked up enough resentment to threaten him with stoning. Of course, it was irrational. But the reason we like to have someone to blame is to shift attention from what may be our own faults. 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? Who else can I blame for my problems?”
The Danger of a Critical Spirit
The really important thing to note here from the story of the Israelites in the wilderness is how dangerous it is to give in to a complaining spirit because what that really was doing was to criticize God. After all, he was the one in control. It was God’s care and God’s goodness, God’s wisdom and God’s provision which the people were criticizing by their grumbling and fault-finding.
And why is that a danger? Is it because God is touchy, because he’ll strike down any puny man or woman who dares to stand up to him? No; complaining about the providential ordering of our lives is dangerous not because God is touchy, but because such complaining usually is an indication of a far more serious problem, the problem of unbelief. What the people were really saying by their grumbling is that they doubted God’s goodness. “Why did you take us out here to kill us?” they said, as if God were evil, as if his agenda were to inflict the maximum amount of unhappiness and then destroy people. Or maybe God had deserted them. “Is the Lord among us or not?” the people of Israel questioned. Is the Lord among us? After watching the waters of the Red Sea part, after seeing the pillar and fire that led them, after tasting manna each day on the march, they still could wonder whether God was with them. Israel’s sin was unbelief, and unbelief is always dangerous because it is a way that ends in death.
An Alternative to Complaining
So if complaining is not a healthy option 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 when your life turns out differently than you hoped for or expected.
First, ask yourself this simple question: What could God be 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 begin to be angry and critical, ask yourself this, “Is God telling me something through this situation? Is he trying to reach me and teach me?” Usually, if you ask those questions, you’ll find that the answer to them is something like this. God will say to you, “You’ve been forgetting me, and I want you to come back. I want you to love me for who I am, not just for what I can do for you.” That’s the reason why the wilderness lies between Egypt and the promised land. 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. Sometimes God is even forced to withdraw his presence from us – or at least to dim our sense of his presence – and to make us pass through a time of spiritual wandering, in order to cause our hearts to turn back toward him and to love him again the way we once did.
And here’s another thing to do: if life is disappointing to you, refuse to give in to doubt, especially doubting God’s love and goodness. This is the great lesson that the Bible itself draws from this incident of Israel in the wilderness. Again and again throughout Scripture the biblical writers will look back to what happened there at these places called Meribah and Massah, and the message is always the same. Moses put 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 very verse when the devil tempted him. You may recall how Satan had urged Jesus 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 to have failed us is to want to put him on trial. “God,” we say, “prove yourself to me. Do something to show me that you’re real, and that you care.” And then if he doesn’t, if God refuses to dance to our tune, we begin 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.
Here’s the last thing to remember. While we mustn’t test God, he may test us and he will do that by allowing disappointments to come. Just how strong is your faith? Is it strong enough to trust God even when things go wrong for you? Is it strong enough to praise and glorify God even when life doesn’t turn out the way you hoped? There’s a wonderful word Christians use in connection with our 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 as well as thankful when things go well. It isn’t as hard to trust in the Lord when everything is as we want it to be. But when bad things happen, how do you react then? If you hang onto your faith when life is not what you expected and say, “Lord, I still believe in you, I still love you, I still trust you,” you will see your disappointment turned into blessing.