Grumbling and complaining should not be the theme of our conversations at this time of year with Thanksgiving just behind us and Christmas before us. But we are living in difficult times. Most of us know friends who have been sick with COVID-19 and many know friends who have died from the virus.
Frustrated with leadership decisions
But the grumbling we hear is probably not primarily about the virus. The preventive measures others are imposing upon us have caused much frustration. All around the world, governments are making decisions to restrict the further spread of the coronavirus. Despite their good intentions, these decisions are nevertheless causing additional hardships. We are limited in how much we can interact with friends and family. Most of our churches both back in our home countries and in our places of ministry are facing restrictions in how they hold worship services.
Many people, particularly in the West, resent the intrusion of the government into our social, family, work and religious lives. We see anti-mask demonstrations on the news, although those of us who live in Asia probably do not see any such protests. Nevertheless, if we follow posts of our friends and family in the West, we know that many are very upset with the government’s restrictions on their personal freedom. You may have found yourself wondering how followers of Jesus should respond if we feel that the measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 are actually more harmful than the virus itself.
Understandably, we are getting tired of this crisis. Longing for life to go back to normal, we find it hard to be joyful and thankful. We find it easy to complain when we are looking at spending another holiday season apart from our friends, hampered in our ministry outreaches and struggling to stay safe.
What is a good and godly response?
How should we as Christians respond to difficult times? How should we respond to difficulties imposed on us by our leaders, whether they are government leaders, managers at work, or our mission and church leaders? Is there a good and godly way of expressing our sadness and our dissatisfaction with what is happening? How should Christians act when they feel they are being treated badly by their leaders?
Recently I looked at three passages in the book of Exodus that talk about how God’s people responded to actions by their leaders which they did not like, that seemed wrong.
Grumbling against leaders
The first is found in Exodus 16. The Israelites had left slavery in Egypt exactly one month ago. But they were not happy. They were hungry. Their food was running out, and they did not know how they would be able to survive in this wilderness. And they blamed it all on their leaders, Moses and Aaron.
In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Ex 16:2-3
A few weeks ago, I read this text and thought about this grumbling. The root word for grumbling is found 8 times in this chapter, and 4 times it says that the LORD heard the grumbling1Ex 16:7, 8, 9, 11. It is clear that the Lord is not pleased with the grumbling.
God had a solution for their problem. He tells Moses that he is graciously going to send manna from heaven every day so that the people would have enough to eat. But the grumbling was still a problem.2See another post on this blog by Lynn Karidis on the subject of contentment.
Why was grumbling against Moses and Aaron wrong?
- They were blaming Moses for leading them into the desert. But Moses was not to blame for their predicament. The Exodus was not Moses’ idea. God had clearly led them here. The pillar of fire and the cloud were moving ahead of them.
- Moses had no resources to help them. There was nothing he could do to alleviate their hardships. Moses was hungry just like everyone else.
- The people were not crying out to the Lord for help, as Moses does (Ex 15:25), but blaming Moses instead.
- The problem was not with Moses but with their lack of faith. God had led them thus far. He has provided for them in miraculous ways in rescuing them from slavery. He had opened the Red Sea so they could cross. Yet they do not have the faith to believe that he will provide for them in terms of their daily food.
Nevertheless, God is gracious to them, and provides them with daily manna – and with meat in the form of quail. But a few months later, God is no longer willing to patiently endure their grumbling. After the 12 spies return and convince the people that they are incapable of conquering the Promised Land, the people again start grumbling again against Moses and Aaron. They talk about choosing another leader and returning to Egypt. Then they talk about stoning Moses and Aaron.
God’s impatience with grumbling
The Lord responds in wrath and sentences the Israelites to 40 more years in the wilderness.
Numbers 14:27–29 – “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.
This should catch our attention. Apparently, the Lord takes grumbling against leaders very seriously. So, what do we do if we don’t like the decisions made by our leaders? Just shut up and comply? Or is it ever acceptable to voice our frustration with our leaders?
Grumbling and lament
My thoughts went to what happened in Exodus 2, while the Israelites were still in Egypt, suffering under the tyranny of Pharaoh.
The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. Exodus 2:23-25.
The Israelites groaned in their slavery. Is groaning different than grumbling? What does it mean to groan? When do people groan? When they are in pain, when they have been mistreated.
Why were the Israelites groaning? Because they were suffering under Pharaoh’s cruel leadership. They had been forced to work as slaves, and their children were being slaughtered by the authorities.
Was God angry that the people were groaning? Was he displeased? Yes, but he was not angry with the Israelites. He was deeply concerned about them. He wanted to help them, to save them from their cruel masters.
Laments in Scripture
The Hebrew word for groaning appears often in the book of Lamentations. Laments are a major part of the Psalms, the hymnbook for Israel. Sixty-eight psalms are lament psalms of one kind or another.3See Dennis Bratcher’s classification. God inspired the writing of these laments. They are legitimate responses to God in times of misery and suffering. If you would like to learn more about lament, see my colleague’s blog post on grief published a few weeks ago.
On the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22 as a way of expressing his pain. Psalm 22 is a lament psalm, expressing the anguish of someone who is suffering and is not experiencing God’s relief.
Psalm 22:1–2 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
So why was grumbling against Moses wrong and lamenting or groaning against Pharaoh right?
|we talk directly to God (often publicly and out loud) about what only God can change.||we blame other people about something they may not be able to change.|
|we express our pain to God about what is wrong in the world.||we try to make other people feel bad.|
|we express our faith that God cares and pray that he will do something to help us.||we talk as if God is not in control of our situation.|
|we focus on God’s justice and mercy||we focus on how badly we have been treated.|
So, when you are in pain, do you grumble against your leadership or do you take your lament to God?
Grumbling and helpful criticism
A few days later, I was reading Exodus 18 where Jethro comes to visit Moses, his son-in-law. He watches Moses in his leadership role and makes some very pointed criticisms of the way that he is leading.
The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?” Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.” Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Exodus 18:13-18.
The Lord had just rebuked the people for grumbling against Moses and accusing him of unwisely leading them out into the desert. Jethro seems to be doing the same thing. “What you are doing is not good.” I am sure this was not easy for Moses to hear from his father-in-law.
But in this story, Jethro’s criticism of Moses is portrayed as positive and helpful. God does not rebuke Jethro. Moses listens carefully and does exactly what Jethro had suggested.
Why is this criticism from Jethro seen so positively?
- In contrast to the grumbling in Exodus 16, Moses can actually do something to change the situation here.
- Jethro criticizes with the intention of making life easier for Moses and the people. His goal is to help Moses become more effective as a leader. He does not want Moses to burn out. Moses knew that his father-in-law was not seeking to hurt him but to help him. So, he was willing to listen to what this wise man told him about how to improve his leadership style.
- Jethro tells him what the problem is and then how to fix the problem – how to restructure the courts.
- Jethro criticizes but also expresses his deep and sincere faith in and admiration for what God is doing through Moses. As evidence for this last point, look at Exodus 18:9-10. Before Jethro makes any negative comments, he praises God for what God has done through Moses.
Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. He said, “Praise be to the LORD, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Ex 18:9-10,
- Jethro recognized that maybe God might have a different plan. Look at Exodus 18:23, where Jethro concludes his criticism with, “If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.” Jethro recognized that maybe he was wrong. He wanted Moses to talk to God about this suggestion before he did anything, and he wanted Moses to follow what God had to say, not just what Jethro had to say.
Criticism is different than grumbling
Thank God for helpful criticism, like Jethro’s. It is generally quite rare. I have learned through many years of leadership that I need to listen carefully to criticism and feedback, and value it. Every leader needs feedback. It is essential for ongoing growth. But I also have recognized that as leaders, we need to take every criticism and suggestion to God. Not everything people tell us we should change is what God wants us to change.
But often leaders do not get helpful criticism. People grumble and complain, but they do not give helpful criticism. They criticize their leaders behind their backs but they won’t tell them how they could improve. Let’s recognize that it takes courage to give helpful criticism to a leader. Furthermore, some training in how to conduct a crucial conversation is going to make it more likely that this criticism will be well received. Here, I would recommend my colleague Philip’s Jackson’s YouTube training video on crucial conversations. But in the long run, helpful criticism or constructive feedback is invaluable to the health of the organization and the ongoing development of the leader.
You see, helpful criticism is very different than grumbling.
|seeks to make the leader a better leader||tries to blame the leader for something they cannot change.|
|recognizes what God has done through the leader.||sees only the problems.|
|comes from a heart of love.||comes from a resentful, unforgiving heart.|
Living it out
Guard against grumbling
Let us guard our hearts and our mouths against grumbling (1 Cor 10:10, Phil 2:14, James 5:9). Let us not repeat the mistake that the Israelites made and complain to our leaders about things that they do not control. If we grumble against our leaders, let’s be very much aware that God is listening. Is God calling us to greater faith in his resources? Are we blaming our leaders for problems that we should be bringing to God instead?
Express our frustration in lament to God
God invites us to express our hurt and frustration to him in lament. To lament is a positive and God-ordained way of dealing with negative emotions of hurt, despair and frustration. We can groan before God. He listens and he cares. He is never too tired or too stressed out or too overwhelmed to listen to our laments.
If we see something in our leaders that they could improve, we should talk to God first about the problem.
Give criticism in love
After talking to God, then we can talk to our leaders about what we have observed, as long as we do so with a heart of love. Jethro’s example gives us a model. When we give criticism, let’s make sure that we speak in love, that it is helpful and constructive. Let us make sure that our desire is to make the leader a more effective leader.
After we have given our helpful criticism, we need to step back and let our leaders decide whether what we have said is truly helpful or not. God may use your helpful criticism in a powerful way to bring about change. Or God may have another plan, an even better plan than the one we have suggested.
Whatever happens, whether the situation changes or not, whether our leaders listen to our suggestions or not, we know that God hears our groaning and laments. He cares about our hurts. God is a strong Deliverer. He will not forget the plight of his people.