In Defense of Complaining

I’ve heard countless sermons and Bible studies about how the Hebrew people in the wilderness complained too much. But as I’m reading through Exodus for my rather un-ambitious 2023 Bible Reading Plan that I should label “Plodding, Quitting, and Returning, Eventually Again Through the Bible”, I’m just not seeing an indictment against their complaining.

At the end of Exodus 15, the people complained to Moses that the water was too bitter. What was the result of their complaining? Moses told God, who instructed Moses on how to make the water sweet.

In chapter 16, their complaints about not having enough food to eat resulted in bread and manna falling from heaven.

When they complained that they had no water to drink in Chapter 17, Moses said, “Why do you quarrel with me” and asked the Lord “What do you want me to do with these people who are ready to stone me?” God instructed Moses to strike a rock, and fresh water flowed out.

I’m sure the scriptures on complaining are forthcoming because there are, of course, limits. But if I’m reading this passage with fresh eyes for the first time, I’m not seeing a God who gets frustrated with complaining. I’m seeing one who responds. (To be fair, I’m also not seeing a people who are complaining about silly, illegitimate concerns. Food and water are necessary for life.)

So why do my more biblically seasoned ears hear these verses and think, “Those ungrateful sons-of-bitches! Damn Hebrews just can’t stop complaining!”? Maybe it’s because the countless times I’ve heard these verses have been from pastors and teachers who don’t like it when the people under their care complain. Perhaps it is because they don’t want to be told, “Hey, there’s something you could be doing here that you’re not doing.”

I’ve been in rooms where Christian leaders talk to each other. A lot of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of, “The people in my church complain too much.” I can’t remember a time when I heard one say, “Our people bitched and moaned about this, and I eventually realized they were right. And so, I prayed about and found a way to respond.”

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