We don't often think of it this way, but one of the most significant moments in the Pentateuch occurs in Exodus 16:2. By this point in time, the Israelites have seen one of the most impressive displays of God's power in the entire Bible. He has rescued them from Egypt, brought them safely through the Red Sea, and destroyed Pharaoh's army when he attempted to follow them. Now, God is leading them to the bountiful land He promised to their fathers.
Nonetheless, they complain. Even though they have watched God destroy countless thousands on their behalf, they express regret that God did not destroy them too because their situation is so, so bad. We have seen similar behavior from them before, but this time, they prove themselves unchanged by an experience that Paul compares to baptism in one Corinthians 10:2.
In fact, they won't ever change. On its own, this incident seems insignificant. God even reacts to their complaining by giving them the food they ask for. It sounds like everything is fine, right?
Everything is not fine. Through their complaining, the Israelites have started down the slippery slope to disaster. The same spirit that leads them to grumble also will lead them to rebel when God tells them to go up and claim the land. They will grumble about God's choice of Moses to be their leader, His decree that priests must come from the tribe of Levi, and, in the height of irony, the delicious manna that He gave them in response to their grumbling about lack of food!
In time, this exhausts even the patience of God. He decrees that none of the complainers will enter the land. Every time they grumble thereafter, He kills off another few thousand. By the end, of the more than 600,000 men who began the journey, only two survive to complete it. In the Bible, the people of God are frequently a wretched lot, but rarely do they behave so shamefully as this.
It's easy for us to sneer at their bad behavior. However, it should call us to examine ourselves instead. In the style of Romans 2, we must ask whether, as we condemn the grumbling and complaining of others, we ourselves grumble and complain.
Do we, for instance, complain about the elders whom God has given charge over us? How about the preachers who faithfully present the word to us? What about the spouses that God has given us? What about the jobs that we can use to provide for ourselves and our families?
This is far from a complete list. Satan tries to get us to complain about a nearly infinite list of things. Many of these things are gifts from God, but somehow, we don't think they're good enough for us.
Because complaining is so common, we often treat it as a minor spiritual problem. However, the example of the Israelites shows that it is anything but. I'm not the judge of anybody, but I suspect that when Christ returns, more than one Christian will learn to their dismay that their practice of the sin of grumbling has led them to lose their souls. We cannot be faithful Christians and habitual complainers at the same time.
Instead, let us be people who are thankful, humble, and patient. If we suffer from the failings of others, how much more do we ourselves fail! If earthly life is imperfect, how much more should we look to the joys of the life to come with eager anticipation! As with the Israelites, God has given us all we need. In all things, let us seek and glorify Him.
I’m a simple man. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that it is sufficient to equip us for every good work. My favorite hymn is “Give Me the Bible”. Consequently, whenever I encounter a problem that afflicts the soul, I presume that the solution lies in learning and following the whole counsel of God.
This also leads me to raise an eyebrow when I see brethren coming up with extra- Biblical cures for spiritual ailments. The phenomenon occurs in several different areas, but it is perhaps most prominent in brotherhood teaching on marriage and family. Though marriage counseling based on secular wisdom varies greatly in quality, all of it pales in comparison to the word of God. If Christians want to treat such counseling as a side dish, fine, but they must not mistake it for the main course.
That main course consists of all Biblical teaching about human relationships. Too often, we behave as though the only texts about marriage are the ones that mention marriage: Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Peter 3:1-7, and the like. Indeed, this apparent paucity of Scriptural material becomes justification for the use of material from elsewhere. We can't just go on preaching the same three marriage sermons, can we?
For those with eyes to see, the list of relevant passages is far longer. In fact, thousands of verses of Biblical ethics apply with greatest force in our marriages. If we can't seem to manage treating our spouses in a Christlike way, it calls into question the sincerity of our godliness in every other area of our lives. James would ask us if the same spring can send forth both sweet and bitter water. A bad marriage is a fundamental and potentially soul-destroying problem for at least one spouse.
Sadly, Christians in difficult marriages commonly use this truth as an opportunity to pin all the blame on the other spouse. I suspect that most of the time, brethren go to marriage counseling because they want to get their partner fixed. Almost always, they try DIY counseling and berate their husband or wife for perceived failings.
This is exactly backwards and dangerous besides. Christ does not call us to control others. He calls us to submit to His control.
He also warns us in Luke 6:37-38 that according to our standard of measure, it will be measured to us. We are on notice, then, that if we harshly judge our spouses, God will treat us the same way, only more so. Thus, unless we are James’ hypothetical perfect person, able to bridle both our tongues and our bodies, our desire to improve our marriages amounts to the familiar call to improve ourselves.
At this, thousands of voices cry out in outrage, “But what about them???” What about them, indeed? Conveniently, the Bible gives us instructions for how to handle a spouse who is not merely engaged in questionable behavior but is clearly and actively sinning. They appear in 1 Peter 3:1.
The way for a wife to win over a disobedient husband is by submission and godly living, all without a critical word being spoken. It is the way, not an occasional break from a campaign of nagging. Neither does this text exist to provide moral cover for a well-I-tried-that refusal to obey in the present and future. The passage addresses women specifically, but it is excellent advice for men as well.
Along similar lines, consider the relevance of Philippians 2:14 to marriage. It is one of the shocking verses in the Bible. Surely when Paul says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” he is using hyperbole! He doesn't actually mean for us to do that!
It is not hyperbole. It is a commandment, and its edge is sharp. If you want a better marriage, you know what you can do? Don't dispute with your spouse. If they invite you to a fight, decline the invitation. Don't grumble to your spouse. Don't grumble about your spouse. If you obey, your marriage will be better, if only because it will contain less shouting.
There are many, many other passages with equally sharp edges that concern our marriages too. They are not easy to follow. In fact, they are quite difficult, which is why many Christians do not honor them. It is, alas, much easier to complain that our husband or wife is toxic, narcissistic, and gaslighting us.
Additionally, even if we do what is right, our godliness is not guaranteed to win over our spouse. Some Christians are married to people with hearts like rock. They will stubbornly pursue evil all the days of their lives to their ultimate destruction. If so, nothing we can do will change them.
We do not imitate Christ because it is effective in influencing others, though it is more effective than anything else. We imitate Him because it is right. Even if godliness does not lead to a better marriage, it invariably leads to glorifying God. When we are tested in our marriages, may He help us to steadfastly seek Him regardless!
Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Few better illustrations of this truth exist than the behavior of the craftsmen of Ephesus in Acts 19. They, along with everyone else in the city, are familiar with the miraculous powers of Paul and the large numbers of Ephesians who are coming to Christ. However, the craftsmen are much more interested in income than in eternal life. Because Paul’s success means that they can’t make as much money from selling idolatrous shrines, rather than obeying the gospel themselves, they start a riot to oppose it.
Still today, there are plenty of people who would rather serve Mammon than the Lord. Consider the man who lies because his boss expects it, or the woman who never attends Sunday services because she works every weekend. To their number we can add the denominational preachers who invest countless hours in trying to explain away passages like Acts 22:16 but won’t spend five minutes trying to figure out what it means. I’ve known exceptions, but most people who are required to maintain a doctrinal position to keep their job will continue to maintain it in the face of overwhelming Scriptural evidence.
However, money is far from the only thing that can blind our eyes to the truth. There are few passages that are as straightforward as Matthew 19:9. I’ve studied the verse with any number of couples before they even obeyed the gospel. Not once has any of those Biblical novices had any trouble figuring out what the text means, even when it had dire implications for their own marriage.
Ironically, the people I’ve encountered who struggle with comprehension in Matthew 19:9 have much more Scriptural experience than that. 99 percent of the time, they’ve got a problem. They’re unscripturally divorced. They’re unscripturally remarried. They’ve got a loved one who is unscripturally divorced or remarried.
Then, with such powerful motivation, they return to “restudy” the text. The ones who know enough Greek to get into trouble use their Greek to do exactly that. Others engage in massive Scriptural-reinterpretation projects. I’ve seen novella-length papers arguing that Christians are still under the Law of Moses, written with the sole goal of applying Deuteronomy 24 to modern marriages instead of Matthew 19. Sadly, none of this changes the teaching of Matthew 19:9 or what the Lord will do on the day of Judgment.
It's easy for us to shake our heads at how easily others fall into self-deception in their study of the Scriptures. However, these things should call us not to arrogance, but to watchfulness and fear. If others who are knowledgeable about and even devoted to the word can make such grievous errors, none of us are exempt! Money, family, and even the fear of what others might think can render us equally blind. Only through awareness of our own vulnerability and stern commitment to the truth can we avoid stumbling ourselves.
Once we become Christians, most of us quickly realize that we are never going to perfectly follow God’s commandments. Despite all the spiritual artillery we bring to bear, our hearts and our lives stubbornly remain flawed. In a word, godliness is hard!
Because it is so difficult, many Christians choose to embark on a less painful course of action: perfecting others. All of us know the temptation to sympathize with our own sins while extending no compassion to our struggling brother. Our own spiritual battles are complicated, but the solutions to their problems are clear. “If only they would. . .” we sigh. Sometimes, we feel sufficiently enlightened to take them aside and explain, “If only you would. . .”
However, before we decide to get in touch with our inner Aquila and Priscilla, we need to make sure of two things: that we have engaged in the necessary business of beam removal and that the problem we are critiquing is actually a problem. We are called to compassion not only for the spiritual weakness of our brethren, but for their earthly problems too. We should not mistake the latter for the former.
In particular, we should acknowledge the hurdles encountered by parents of children with special needs. Parenting by itself is difficult enough, even when both parents are there and married to each other, even when plenty of extended family is around to help. When one of those supports is removed, the difficulty level ratchets up.
The same is true, and even more so, when a child faces physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges. Perhaps the child is medically fragile, so that half the calendar is filled with doctor’s appointments and hospital visits. Perhaps they have behavioral struggles, so that they require closer or even constant parental supervision (as a foster parent, I went down that road a little bit myself).
I’m sure that this list could be extended greatly, but one thing is certain. The continuing demands of caring for a special-needs child place a tremendous burden on parents. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’re rarely to never “off”.
It’s the difference between buying something outright and agreeing to a monthly fee. Compared to $500 up front, that $50 on the credit-card statement doesn’t look like much, but as the months and years flow on, it adds up to a considerable amount of money. Because of the continual drain of resources, special-needs parents are operating at half efficiency (or worse) all the time.
Sad to say, when too many brethren encounter such parents, they react by becoming judgmental. They don’t appreciate the 7/8 of the iceberg that they don’t see. Instead, they react with scorn to the 1/8 that they do see: the six-year-old who still makes a scene in church every Sunday, the mom whose name never appears on the sign-up sheets to feed the visiting preacher or take meals to shut-ins. Clearly, all those parents need is a good talking-to, and they’ll shape right up!
No, actually. What they need is our understanding, not its lack. This is not to say that all special-needs parents are perfect and that none of them have room to improve. However, before we designate ourselves the official improver, we need to understand the situation we’re trying to improve.
Acts 12 offers one of the great conundrums of the New Testament. In the first few verses of the chapter, the wicked king Herod Agrippa arrests and executes the apostle James, the brother of John. Shortly thereafter, he arrests Peter with the same intention. However, God sends his angel to rescue Peter from prison, and soon after that, Herod becomes worm food.
To most Bible students, this apparently preferential treatment is perplexing. Admittedly, Peter was important to the early church, but so was James. Along with Peter and John, he was one of the three inner-circle apostles during the ministry of Jesus. He was one of only three witnesses to the Transfiguration, and after his death, God was down to two!
Why, then, did God save Peter but allow James to be beheaded? Wasn't James worth an angel too?
At this point, Bible classes usually turn to discussion of the inscrutable will of God. We don't understand why He permits one of His faithful servants to perish while sparing another, but we trust His wisdom, judgment, love, etc.
I too have shared in these discussions, but in the midst of Bible class last night, another thought struck me. The issue here may not be our inability to understand the will of God. It may be our failure to share His priorities.
To us, the death of James may seem senseless and tragic, but it is far from the worst thing to happen to an apostle in the book of Acts. That dubious distinction belongs to Judas, who meets a gory fate in the opening chapter and is erased from the roll of the apostles because of his treachery. He is replaced by Matthias after Peter cites a curse from Psalm 109 as authority for so doing.
The true tragedy here is the story of Judas, not the story of James. It still would have been the true tragedy even if the former had outlived the latter. James fulfilled God's purpose for his life and entered into his reward. Judas betrayed his Lord and entered into a fate so awful that Jesus said it would have been better for him if he had not been born.
We can see all sorts of ways in which James would have been useful in the further spread of the gospel, but self-evidently, he was not necessary. Even Peter, rescued in Acts 12 but martyred on a later occasion, proved not to be necessary. He finished his work, part of which continues with us to this day, and the kingdom went on without him. Both men, I believe, were satisfied to have it so.
I think the same is true of me. Many people have told me how sad it is that my productive life in God's service is going to be cut short. Certainly, it is not the fate that I would have chosen for myself, but it is far from the worst thing that could have happened to me.
I can think of several worse fates off the top of my head. I could have betrayed my marriage vows and been unfaithful to my wife. I could have allowed a porn habit to take over my life and consume me. Intellectual pride could have led me to pervert the gospel I proclaimed. I could have crushed my children and driven them away from God through self-righteous harshness. I could have become a bitter, contemptuous social-media warrior, doing the devil’s work in the name of God.
I would choose death over any of these things, but they are not mere far-fetched hypotheticals. I know my own frame and my own weaknesses. Without the help of God, I would have fallen prey to any or all of them. In some cases, this still may happen. God isn't finished with me quite yet, but Satan isn't finished with me either.
When a servant of God finishes his race, those remaining may mourn his loss, but it is a triumph rather than a tragedy. All of us may serve Him for a time, but His work is greater than any of us, and His purpose will be accomplished with or without us.
We are not necessary to His service. Rather, His service is necessary to us. It outweighs all the concerns of this life. 2000 years from now, will any of us care that we died at 45 rather than 85? Do James and Peter care about the extent of their time on earth right now?
The only thing that will matter to us is that we were faithful, whether for many decades or few. Either one leads to an eternity of glory. Disaster only lies in failure to honor God, for if we do fail, we will have the same eternity to lament it.