Grace and the Grumblers

Gently Falling_36x36_Oil_Lynn Abbott© 2016 Lynn Abbott

Sandwiched between two of my cousins in the backseat of my Aunt and Uncle’s station wagon, I marveled over the cacophony of complaints.

Of course, at age five, I wouldn’t have expressed it quite that way; nevertheless, I suspect that my eyes grew big.  My cousin Jeff simply smiled.  He was just two years older and wise in the ways of large families.

But I had never heard anything like it.

I hardly noticed the fog over the San Francisco Bay as we passed over the Golden Gate Bridge on that outing.

The persistent querulous questions of my cousins, occupied my thoughts…

“Are we there yet?”

And then, my vivacious aunt’s firm reply, “No, we are not there yet.  Please keep it down so your dad can focus on the drive.”

Quiet, however, did not reign that day.

“I’m hungry,” resumed my youngest cousin.

The whining took a new turn and never let up.

After all, eight cousins, my mother, aunt and uncle were stuffed into that station wagon.  Arguments soon broke out between the siblings over car space.

My cousins Jeff and Tod sat with me in the back jump seat.  I felt drowsy and nauseous; I leaned my head against the window and fell asleep.

I awakened about a half an hour later to find Jeff staring incredulously at me.

“How in the world can you sleep through this?”  he asked.

Still groggy, I could think of no immediate reply and so I shrugged my shoulders.  After all, there was nothing I could do to shorten or make the journey more comfortable.

The only thing left was to simply make the best of it.  It had never occurred to me to question either my mom or my aunt and uncle. I was just along for the ride.

And I knew that a trolley ride and visit to Fisherman’s Wharf would be well worth any discomfort in the back seat.  I trusted Mom.  After all, she had never led me wrong.

But my cousins didn’t know that. For them, it was just another extremely long car ride.   Even seven-year-old Jeff with his seeming vast experience of family life had never visited San Francisco.

I supposed they felt trapped in that car.  Even so, the adults had no intention of letting my cousins climb out of that car. Never mind my uncle’s good-natured threats to deposit the chief whiners on the next corner so they could walk home.

Had one of my cousins actually tried to make a break for it, my uncle would have tackled him.  My aunt and uncle wholeheartedly loved my cousins… even when my cousins whinged.

And Mom, my aunt and uncle all understood the difficulty of a long journey for children who had no understanding of the destination.

In fact, God understands His children in much the same way. He knows that for you and me, the journey sometimes seems incredibly long and uncomfortable.

You better believe it.  And like a weary child, I call out to Abba, “Are we there yet?”

I get discouraged.  I grow tired.  And I wanna go home.

The children of Israel felt the same way when they landed in the desert, far from Egypt and all they had ever known.

Indeed, the history of Israel in that wilderness is marked by an ongoing cycle of griping.  Brief periods of gratitude occurred after God miraculously provided for a particular need.  Yet, Israel’s grumbling often resulted in God’s discipline.

To be perfectly honest, God’s dealings with His people in the desert have always puzzled me.  I’ve often wondered how that fit in with His grace.

In addition, it seemed that some complaints were met with tender care, and others with discipline.  I didn’t know what to make of it.

Psalm 102:27, of course, declares that God is unchanging.  Hebrews 13:8 tells us that our Savior is “the same yesterday and today, yes and forever.”

Yet, I didn’t understand why on some occasions His people were disciplined for complaining about what appeared to be some pretty tough circumstances.  Where was grace in that?

But as I recently re-examined the life of Moses, I found the answers to the puzzle.

After the victory in Egypt, Moses found himself saddled with a rather large and undisciplined group–600,000 men plus women and children.

I imagine the task of leading such a crowd through the desert to the Promised Land had to have been rather daunting at best. But when water and food ran low, that constituted a crisis.

Even though the people had just witnessed  tremendous miracles, they feared.

Even though God had demonstrated His power and delivered His people from Egypt,  travel beyond the borders of Egypt had proven uncomfortable.  They whined…

I’m thirsty…and hungry…

Legitimate needs…food and water.

I’m sure the people worried they would not survive.

Yeah, they had short memories. Their faith–like a tender sprout in the desert–needed nurturing.

And our God of grace fostered Israel’s faith.   After all, before His people would be ready to conquer the Land of Promise, their faith in Him would need to grow.

Thus, God would provide for His people again and again.  When water ran low in the wilderness of Shur, the people cried, “What shall we drink?”

Their fledgling faith wavered. They expressed heartfelt fear, concern and honest need.  Moses interceded on their behalf, and God responded with miraculous provision of water, (Exodus 15:22-27).

Yes, our God gives grace to help in time of need.

Undoubtedly, God understands and cares for His children.

Soon, however, fear consumed the Israelis once more.

“Would that we had died by the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger,” the people said to Moses.

Moses fell to  his knees once more.  As a result of Moses’ godly prayers, God provided both water and food for His people in the desert.

And He promises to provide for you and me as well…

Streams in the desert, (Isaiah 32:1,2; 35:5,6).

Manna in the wilderness, (Exodus 16:4).

He is our Living Water, and Bread of Life, (John 4:10, 13-14; John 6:35).

But it is significant to note that  God provided His people with only enough manna and meat for each day.

Grace provided and yet, at the same time, spurred their faith: “…and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction,” (Exodus 16:4).

God gave them just enough for that day’s journey.   He provided a simple lamp for the path rather than a massive searchlight for the horizon.

And with each step, their faith stretched.

For this reason, God led His people as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day.  This allowed just enough direction for that day. No more; no less.

Grace for the day.

His compassion was indeed “new every morning,” (Lamentations 3:23).

But like so many of us, the people discounted God’s past provisions in the face of new, overwhelming obstacles.  In Exodus 17, the people complained again about the lack of water near their latest camp.

Grumbling.  Again. Apparently, they had forgotten all that God had already done for them.

But once more, God dramatically and miraculously provided.  In fact, you probably remember that God commanded Moses to strike the rock at Horeb.  The result?  Water poured forth for God’s people.

In all of these instances, God gave graciously to His whining children.  So why did God discipline His complaining children on other occasions?

The distinguishing factor is actually a simple one.  You see, although our whimpers can often express authentic need and genuine fear,  sometimes our cries spring from  rebellious grumbling.

And the resulting disobedience often leads to heartbreak not only for an individual child but also for the entire family.  Like any good parent, then, Yahweh will prevent His children from jumping out of a moving vehicle.

In His infinite wisdom, our Sovereign Shepherd discerns between the needy whimper and the defiant whinge.

He steps in when we cross that line.

When our grumbling encourages us to flirt with harm or to actively pursue danger to ourselves and others, our heavenly Father takes action. Sometimes our safety requires a firm hand.

Uh, huh. Grace was there all along.

Even in the discipline. I just didn’t recognize it at first (Hebrews 12:6).

Ultimately, our heavenly Father will not allow His child to remain lost.  The Good Shepherd seeks His sheep and brings them home.

Of course, stepping back from the situation, I can see that rebellion makes no sense.   Jumping out of the car, running away from home, doing things my own way… I can easily get lost in the indifferent wilderness.  Or worse yet, I get hurt or I hurt others.

In fact, when the twelve spies reported back regarding the people who lived in Canaan, the God’s people refused to enter the land.  Grumbling stirred rebellion in the Israeli camp to such an extent that the people threatened to stone Moses, their leader.  But at its very core, their grumbling spirit revealed a lack of faith in God who had led them and provided for their needs time and again.

Years of faith building in the desert.

And yet, they rebelled.

Nevertheless, Moses walked closely with God, and in deep faith, he prayed for those who sought his life.

God’s answer to Moses’ prayer reflects the perfect balance between grace and justice found in God’s nature.

In response to Moses’ intercession for the people after the “golden calf” incident,  God revealed the following about Himself, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness and truth; who keeps loving-kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished…” (Exodus 34:6,7).

Our Father cannot allow rebellion to fester in the family.  To do so would indirectly allow a few members to hurt themselves as well as the whole family.   The book of Hebrews explains, “For those whom the LORD loves He disciplines…” and “…He disciplines us for our good…” (Hebrews 12:6,10).

When His people threatened Moses, God stopped the mutiny: “…Then the glory of the LORD appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel,” (Number 14:10).

As always, God showed up precisely on time.

Israel as a nation would not have survived the insurrection.  After all, jumping out of a moving vehicle is dangerous.  Grabbing the wheel from the driver as the car hurdles down the highway isn’t wise.

When I consider Israel’s desert wandering, I newly appreciate the apostle Paul’s injunction, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” (Philippians 2:14).

Don’t get me wrong.  Our loving, heavenly Father wants us to run to Him with our fears and heartbreak. He draws near to the brokenhearted, (Psalm 34:18).  He hears our desperate cries.

But grumbling propels us toward rebellion and away from God.  For this reason, when my heavenly Father “tackles” me, I know that He has done so for my good.

You betcha.

We can be sure of this:  when whinging leads us dangerously close to the precipice, Abba pursues and pulls us back from impending disaster.

In love, God disciplines and redirects His children.

And after that, He graciously restores us,  providing good gifts in spite of our grumbling.

That’s right.  We may wander far, but our Shepherd will always find us.

He graciously leads us to the Promise.  We need only trust Him through the sometimes uncomfortable journey.

And in unending love and grace, He will refresh our faith with streams in the desert.

“Bless the LORD, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul…Who redeems your life from the pit; Who crowns you with loving kindness and compassion,”~Psalm 103:1-2, 4