“Honesty with God or Complaining?”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations
Over the past few years, one of my favorite hobbyhorses has been the need for honesty in our conversations with God. In our hymns and prayers, we shouldn’t pretend that things are hunky-dory when they aren’t. If we’re afraid, we should talk about that. If we’re angry, we should talk about that. As evidence, I cite Job, who was angry with God, yet did not sin with his lips, and the many psalms of lament.
After Bible class one day recently, one of the brethren at Jackson Heights approached me. He said, “You know how in 1 Corinthians 10, how Paul encourages the Corinthians not to complain like the Israelites did? What’s the difference between complaining and being honest with God?”
I paused. “That’s a good question,” I said.
“I thought it was,” he replied.
It _is_ a good question, and an important one. What’s the difference between the godly who brought their anger and fear to God and were commended for it and the ungodly who brought their complaints to God and were condemned for it? I think the answer has to lie in the way that the Israelites expressed themselves and the heart their expression revealed.
In particular, I think the Israelites’ primary problem was that they complained not in faith, but in faithlessness. I’d never noticed this before, but as I flipped through the Pentateuch, looking at every complaint the Israelites offer in the wilderness, a striking pattern emerged. In almost every instance, they direct their complaint not against God, but against Moses. Exodus 16:3 is typical. The people say to Moses and Aaron, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
This is facially nonsensical. As Moses points out in Exodus 16:8, “What are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.” Nevertheless, the Israelites persist in grumbling against Moses and Aaron for the next 40 years. They attribute to the Lord the power to kill them (which appears earlier, in Exodus 16:3, among many other places) but not the goodness to preserve them.
This is very different from what we see in Job. Job certainly engages his friends throughout the book, but his primary complaint is always against God. In fact, engagement with God is what he most desires. Repeatedly, he pleads for a hearing with his Creator that will give him the opportunity to justify himself and seek fair treatment. Even in his misery, he remains confident in God’s ultimate justice and goodness.
To put things another way, Job trusts in God, and the Israelites don’t. Job believes in a world where God is in control, but the Israelites think they are at the mercy of hostile terrain, powerful enemies, and foolish leaders. To them, God is nothing more than another threat.
When we are honest with God, then, we also must make sure that we are honest about God. Maybe we don’t understand why we’re suffering. Job and many psalmists didn’t. Maybe we’re frightened and angry. Job and many psalmists were too.
However, our misery must not lead us to doubt His good nature nor to reject our relationship with Him. Job and the psalmists never give up on engagement with God, but the Israelites never really engage with Him in the first place. Their refusal reveals their fundamental unbelief. Now, as then, faith and unbelief both will meet with their appropriate reward from Him.