It would almost be comical if it weren’t so sad how easily the people of Israel defaulted to murmuring against God. Our daughter, at just five years old, was quick to point out how often Israel seemed to forget their God and start complaining. After just the second time Israel began their pattern of grumbling, our daughter interrupted one evening and said, “Mom, I think you already read this one!”
It’s easy to point an accusatory finger at Israel and shake our heads at their folly. But if we’re really honest, we are no better than them. In fact, in some ways, we might even be worse. We have the whole of Scripture to instruct us. We have God’s Holy Spirit to guide and teach us. And yet, we too forget our God. We grow fearful or discontent at the slightest of inconveniences. We grumble, murmur, and complain—often over things of far less importance than what Israel did.
We are just like Israel in so many ways. And because of that, we would do well to look to their example—their choices, pitfalls, and patterns. At various points in our lives, we are all living through our own wilderness wanderings, but we do not have to respond like Israel and endure the same consequences. In fact, the Apostle Paul implores us to learn from their example:
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them, God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” 1 Corinthians 10:1-6
As I’ve pondered Israel’s wilderness journey and answered questions from our daughter, I’ve come to understand three key things that can cause us to adopt a pattern of ungratefulness, complaining, and sinfulness. And it all comes down to being forgetful.
We tend to view forgetfulness as something that is just an honest mistake or a careless act, rather than as dangerous or destructive. But, this type of forgetfulness is not harmless. In fact, it is insidious. It is a willful dismissal of what we know to be true about God. A simple glance at the history of Israel is all it takes to see the toll that this kind of forgetfulness can take. And if we are not careful to cling to what we know, we too can forget three very important truths about our God.
1. Cling to His promises.
Beginning with Abraham (then called Abram), God made a promise to make a special nation, give them a great land, and bless all the other nations of the world through His chosen people. This was not a flippant promise. This was a covenant.
During this time in history, when covenants were made between two parties, an animal would be slaughtered, and cut in half, and the parties of the covenant would walk between the two pieces as a way of saying that if they did not uphold their part of the covenant, the repercussion would be to die like the animal through which they passed.
However, in this case, that is not what happened, only God walked between the two halves of the animal. The significance of this is that God was saying to Abram that His covenant promises were not conditional on Abram’s, or future Israel’s, performance. God would be faithful to keep His promises no matter what. God swore on His own existence as God to do what He said He would do.
God continued to uphold His Word through the days of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and so on. Even when those men failed to trust and obey God, His faithfulness remained. Even in the time of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, God sustained His people. He brought them out of Egypt and protected them against their oppressors. He provided food, water, shelter, and protection with His physical presence as they sojourned to the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21-22). No matter what Israel did, or did not do, God was steadfast in keeping His covenant with His people.
Israel knew of His promises to them. They knew of God’s covenant. They knew there had never been a time when God had not been faithful to preserve His people, even in the darkest parts of their story. And yet so many times, Israel willfully chose to forget God’s promises and the evidence of His faithfulness and instead make their current circumstances the justification for distrust, disobedience, and grumbling.
I know I am often guilty of doing the same as Israel. I am blessed to live in a time where I have access to the entirety of the Scriptures as proof of God’s faithfulness. There are promises He has made to me in His Word that He has never failed to keep.
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
“And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28
“And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6
“For He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Hebrews 13:5b
These verses barely scratch the surface of what God has promised us as His children. In addition to these, there are innumerable instances in my own life where God has been faithful to His promises and true to His holy, righteous character. But no matter how many assurances I have in His Word or how many times He has sustained me, I often choose to disregard irrefutable proof that God always keeps His promises and instead embrace a complaining spirit that doubts His faithfulness. Forgetting the promises of God always leads to sin. This was true in Israel's story and it is true in my life today.
2. Cling to His power.
While God remained true and faithful, Israel vacillated in their trust in God and their obedience to Him because they also forgot His power. It is one thing to make promises. But promises without the power to deliver are meaningless and cannot be kept. Our God has full and unlimited power to make good on all that He promises.
That is why it can be so bewildering for us when we read of the numerous accounts of Israel’s disobedience and lack of faith in God, especially since most of them came right after God had given the overwhelming evidence of His omnipotence. In so many cases, God revealed His might and power to save and sustain His people, and though they rejoiced at the moment, it took very little for their praise to turn to complaint at the first sign of trouble. In this, we see how they willfully forgot God—not only His promises and His faithfulness to keep them but His ability to follow through with His immense and unmatched power. So many times God displayed His power on behalf of His people. Any one of these instances should have been enough to remind the people to rest in God’s faithfulness and to show unending gratitude to Him. Unfortunately, each time Israel allowed themselves to complain and fall into disobedience, they stubbornly chose to forget God’s power.
We have the benefit of seeing through the scope of the Bible how God acted on Israel’s behalf and also how He powerfully moved on behalf of His church in the New Testament. I can think of times when God has supplied needs for me that seemed insurmountable. He has answered prayers where I could not see a way in my finite understanding. The Apostle Paul sums it up perfectly in his letter to the church in Ephesus:
“Now to Him Who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21
3. Cling to His providence.
I love how R.C. Sproul explains God’s providence:
“One of the oldest sayings of the ancient church summarizes the essence of the relationship between God and His people: Deus pro nobis. It means 'God for us.’ That is what the doctrine of providence is all about. It is God’s being for His people. ‘What then shall we say to these things?’ Paul asks. If God is for us, who can be against us, and who can separate us from the love of Christ? Is it going to be distress, peril, the sword, persecution, suffering, sickness, or human hostility? Paul is saying that no matter what we have to endure in this world as Christians, nothing has the power to sever the relationship we have to a loving and sovereign providence.”
This truth about God’s character makes His promises and His power all the sweeter for us. An all-powerful God who lacks love for His created beings is a terrifying thing. But God loves us with everlasting love, and not because we are good, beautiful, or lovable. We are none of those things. He loves us because He chooses to love us.
When we look at the history of Israel, we can clearly see their pattern of sin and failure. Yet, running right alongside their constant sin is God’s unfailing and unconditional love. He rescues them time and time again. He gives them good things, even when they lack the eyes to see them. He repeatedly chastens them back to the perfect path He has chosen for them. He never gives up on them. He loves them, unconditionally.
Like Israel, we can take comfort in knowing that God loves us unconditionally and is for us. Romans 8 makes this abundantly clear.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one Who died—more than that, Who was raised—Who is at the right hand of God, Who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
My God defeated sin and death on the cross, and yet how often do I fail to believe He can deliver on His promises to me or meet my daily needs? How often do I fear the world around me and worry about the future? How often do I complain that God has not acted in the way I wished He would? How can I ever believe for even a moment that He doesn't love me?
In the times when Israel failed to believe, they made themselves comfortable in their murmuring against the Lord. But Moses was the one who would cry out to God for help. The people were not seeking a solution, but instead, they were drowning in their sinful spirits of complaint. Moses was the one to turn to God—the God Who faithfully keeps His promises, Who powerfully acts on behalf of His children, and Who providentially loves and cares for them.
As we sojourn in our wilderness experiences, let us seek to be like Moses rather than Israel. Remember God’s promises. Remember His power. Remember His providence. Cry out to God. He will always make a way.
What wilderness are you currently facing? Are you forgetting God’s promises, power, and providence in your life? Have you begun to grumble and complain, choosing to dwell in a land of bitterness rather than calling out to God?
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