Learning to Stop Complaining - Exodus 15:22-17:7

Lessons in the Wilderness  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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You know who they are. When you see them coming you sigh and wish you could head in the opposite direction. You know they are going to sap you of strength and bring clouds into the sunshine of your day. They are complainers. Their philosophy is simple, "It pays to complain. After all, it’s the surly bird that gets the worm." 

Some people are habitual complainers. But we must be honest, it is a pursuit we all dabble in on occasion.  In Exodus 15-17 there is a recurring theme: "Israel complains". In chapter fifteen we have the account of the Israelites moving into the dessert of Shur. For three days they are unable to find water. Finally, they come to Marah where there is water, but the water is bitter.  The people are discouraged and frustrated and they strike out at Moses.

Moses turned to the Lord and we read that the Lord "showed him a piece of wood." This tree or piece of wood was taken by Moses and thrown into the bitter water and then the water became sweet.  We don't know what this tree had to do with the water losing it's bitterness. There is a good chance that the tree had little or nothing to do with the change in the water.  It may have been simply an object lesson.

After "fixing" the water God told the people that if they obey His commands they will be spared the wrath of God that the Egyptians faced. To drive home his point God leads the people to a place where there were 12 springs and 70 palm trees.  It was a place of rest and refreshment.  The message seems clear: Trust God and he will take care of you.

We are told that Exodus 16 comes 45 days into the Exodus journey. By this time the provisions were getting kind of scarce. The people were hungry and becoming a little concerned.  They came to Moses and said,

"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." (Exodus 16:3)

In response to the complaints of the people God appears to the people in a cloud.  The people are told that God will provide yet again for the people. Moses tells them,: "you are not grumbling against us, but the Lord." The Lord sent quail their way in the evening so they can have meat to eat and then He begins the regular provision of Manna in the morning.   

In the morning, the people awakened to a dew like substance on the ground.  When the heat of the day came, the dew dried into white flakes, we told it "was like frost on the ground." When the people saw it they called it "manna" which means literally, "what is this?" The people were told to gather enough of these flakes for one day's food supply.  It was bread from heaven and verse 31 tells us, "It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey."

The next morning, those who in their greed gathered more than a day's worth of manna (and you know there are those kinds of people), found that the manna had maggots in it. When the Lord gives us a command, He expects it to be obeyed precisely. On Friday, the people were supposed to gather two days worth of manna because the next day was the Sabbath.  But, as you might guess, some of these only gather enough for one day and assume that there will be manna on the Sabbath . . . . and then, of course, they are upset when there is no manna!  (One wonders if these were the same people who took too much the first day.  You can almost hear them thinking, "I gathered more than a day's worth before and the next morning that stuff was gross. I'm not going to do that again!)

In chapter 17 we read the third account of the grumbling of Israel. This time they have been traveling for awhile and come to a place where they think they are going to find water and there is none. So, what do they do? They turn on Moses once again. You get the feeling that even Moses is getting a little frustrated here. He turns to the Lord and asks what he should do. 

The LORD answered Moses, "Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink." So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?" [Exodus 17:5-7]

God performs a miracle but forever identifies this as a place where the Israelites tested, or quarreled with the Lord.  The names Massah and Meribah are found several more times in the Bible and always it denotes a place of grumbling and hardening of heart. The name Massah means "testing" and the name Meribah means "grumbling". Later on in the wilderness wanderings Israel returns to this place and it costs Moses entry into the Promised land.  But, that's another story.

It is easy for us to shake our heads at the Israelites. We wonder why they didn't seem to learn that God was faithful. But a better question is, "Why do we still struggle with grumbling and complaining?"  This morning I have two simple sections to the message.  They first looks at some of the reasons we grumble and complain.  The second section will give us some practical guidance on getting control of this sin in our life.


In order to answer this question we have to question why we grumble in the first place. Let me give you some possible reasons.

We are short-sighted.  We view circumstances with a temporal view only.  Isn't that what the Israelites did? They didn't consider all their options. They never even consider prayer. They don't even entertain the possibility that God is trying to teach them something through their circumstances.  Let's face it, don't you and I often react before we have looked at all the options?

We feel cheated (we feel we are not getting what we deserved). For some reason the Israelites seemed to feel that God (and Moses) owed them. They seemed to feel that they deserved better than what they had received. And that is as American as Apple Pie.  We feel that the government should give us money so we can live the way we want to live. We feel that people should drop everything so they can attend to our needs. We feel that we deserve more respect, more support, more consideration than we are getting. But we must ask, why do we feel this way?  Who says that we "deserve" these things.

We are faithless or spiritually lost. No one is more unhappy than the person who views life as hopeless. No one is more frustrated than the person who is trying to earn their way to Heaven. Some people grumble because their heart is aching for Jesus and they don't even realize it. Life seems horrible because a vital piece to their life is missing. They are missing that relationship with God that can only come through Christ.

We are lazy. Some things in life take hard work. People who are lazy would rather complain than dig in. We don't want to work hard at relationships . . . it's easier to complain.  We don't want to be accountable to authority . . . so we complain. We don't want to adjust our desires . . . so we complain.

We have an insufficient view of God. We think God needs to be convinced to meet our needs, we think he is naturally stingy or reluctant to bless. Some think that God is not all-powerful.  They believe He can't do anything to help us. They feel alone and helpless and therefore complain.

What causes you to complain and argue?


Once we understand why we grumble, the next job is to address how to overcome this kind of behavior. What do we need to do to stop grumbling and complaining.

Be Realistic  Did you notice that as soon as the Israelites faced difficulty they started to idealize their past? In Exodus 16:3 we read, "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."

The Israelites looked back on the past as if it were the "glory days" of Israel.  But in truth, things were not good in Israel, they were slaves to the Egyptians. And even if they were provided for with good food (and they may have been), the situation was not as good as they are claiming.

Notice that they also were somewhat melodramatic about their present crisis. They were hungry but they weren't starving. In chapters 15 and 17 they were thirsty but they weren't dying of thirst (at least not yet). Have you ever been a tad melodramatic about your situation? Do you realize how much less we would complain if we spoke realistically,

we're hungry, but not starving

we're going through a difficult time, but life is not really horrible

we're having a bad day but it really isn't a crisis

the good old days we long for really weren't all that different from the present

bad things don't always happen to you . . .they happen to others too

bad things don't always happen to you . . .a number of good and pleasant things come too

you may feel like you never win anything, but in truth you have been given lots of great things you really don't deserve.

you aren't the only one to struggle.  Even people who have a life that seems easier or better than yours have their struggles too. In fact, they may not be much different that yours.  You aren't as "unique" as you think.

Do you get the idea?  If we tell ourselves the truth, if we look at our situation realistically, our perspective will change and our complaining will lessen.

Realize that complaining is against the Lord, not men. In Exodus 17:2 Moses says to the people, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?"  Moses points out to the people that their complaint is really not with him . .. it is with the Lord.  They were moving as the Lord commanded. They were saying they were unhappy with the way the Lord was doing His job.

When we grumble we need to remind ourselves that our complaint is more often really against the Lord.  We are unhappy about our circumstances (God should have treated us better), we are unhappy with what we have (God hasn't provided well enough), We are unhappy with certain people or situations (God should have made them differently).

How dare we complain against the one who gave us life.  How ungrateful to complain to the one who saved us by His grace. Rather than complaining in the hard times (and let's not pretend that hard times don't exist) we should be turning to the Lord for the strength to face what He has seen fit to bring into our lives. We would be better served to learn the lesson rather than spurn the teacher.

Monitor your conversation. We need to monitor our conversation.  We complain often without even realizing it. Several months ago we looked at this same issue when it was addressed in Philippians.  We were told to "do everything without complaining or arguing." Phil. 2:14. I told you at that time that the word for grumbling or complaining was the word "gongusmous" a word that sounds like grumbling.  Right after that sermon we were having some fun making each other aware of our grumbling by saying "gongusmous" every time we heard someone grumble. It worked . . . for awhile. We need to help each other once again to be aware of the problem.

Sometimes we get caught in a pattern of negative thinking and complaining and don't even realize it.  We need to listen to ourselves talk periodically to see if we have fallen into a pattern of complaint rather than gratitude; defeat rather than faith.

Develop a godly perspective (Bible reading, prayer, sing, worship). What I mean here is that you and I need to fill our minds and hearts with that which is pure, good, holy rather than dwelling on how difficult life is and what a burden we are bearing. Do you realize how much of our attitude is derived from what we choose to feed our mind.

we can replay hurts or remember promises

we can focus on the struggles or focus on our privilege to be called sons of God

we can see the faults of others or seek to see the person who needs God's grace

we could dwell on the bad that could happen or the blessing that might be produced

This sounds so simple but please understand that when we are in one of those negative frames of mind the thing we least desire to do is read the Bible, pray, sing and worship.  In fact, when we are in a "funk" we don't even like being around happy people! In these times we have to drag ourselves to the Word where we will find the perspective we need.

Hang around positive people and consciously pay attention. We know how uplifting positive people are.  We need to consciously pay more attention to them. The late Pastor, Ray Stedman once said in a sermon,

do you fathers ever teach your children how to get up in the morning? Not only to get up, but how to get up? There is a threefold technique in getting up: First, we stretch. That gets the body going. Then, smile. That puts the soul in the right attitude, so that we don’t start the day grumbling. And then say, "God loves me." Because that sets the spirit right. You are reminding yourself of your identity in that way. And body, soul, and spirit, you are starting the day right. Stretch, smile, and say, "God loves me."  [quoted in Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart and 1,501 Other Stories, (Nashville: Word Publishing) 2000, c1998, [Online] Available: Logos Library System.]

It's great to be around positive people.  They make you smile, they make the day seem better, they can turn a bad day into a good one.  Find those people, study those people, and try to be one of those people.

Remind yourself that you will have a greater influence for Christ as a cheerleader than as a complainer. All around us there are people who are discouraged and beaten down by life. They have plenty of people around them who are reminding them of the negative things all the time. What people need is someone with a godly, holy, positive perspective. I know I have to remind myself that grumbling isn't very attractive (and that's being kind.)  No one likes to be around someone who complains. We cannot impact the world for Christ if we repel people with our personality.

Hayden planetarium in New York City ran an advertisement in New York newspapers inviting those who would like to make the first journey to another planet to submit an application. Within a matter of days, over 18,000 people applied. These applications were then given to a panel of psychologists, who upon reviewing them concluded that the vast majority of those who had applied wanted to start a new life on another planet because they were so discouraged by life on this one. [Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart and 1,501 Other Stories, (Nashville: Word Publishing) 2000, c1998, [Online] Available: Logos Library System.]

We live in a world of hurting people. All around you there are people who are simply living from day to day. They see little purpose in life and their goal is get as much as they can before they die. These folks don't need us to feed their despair. And they don't need us to turn away from them because of their attitude.  They need us to infect them with the good news of Jesus Christ. They need God's servants to live with joy and not just talk about it.  They need God's servants to point to the future day of glory that makes the struggles of the present less burdensome.


There are several things I hope you will keep in mind.  First, the "Highs" of life are often followed by struggles ...Be Prepared.  You and I need to be realistic. There will be tough times. When that happens God isn't picking on you. It's just the way life is.

I remember a great cartoon.  In the first frame a man is looking up to Heaven and says, "Lord, why are all these bad things happening to me." In the second frame this big finger comes out of the sky and points at the chest of the man and a voice booms from Heaven, "Because there is just something about you, I don't like."

Some people feel that God views like that anytime they face a difficulty. But it's not true. The Lord allows difficult times to come into our lives to train us, deepen us, and correct us. And don't forget that the Devil is also throwing obstacles in the way with the intent of turning us away from our loving Father. Prepare yourselves with a realistic view of life.

The Second thing to remember is, You can always find something to complain about . . .resist it.  When you feel a case of the "negatives" washing over you remind yourself that just as there is always something to complain about . . . . there is also always something to celebrate or thank God for. Look for the celebration rather than the complaint.

Finally, a constant awareness of the blessing of grace is the best corrective to a complaining heart . . . remember it! The advice of getting up in the morning saying, "Good Morning, Lord!" is good and practical advice. We need often to turn our hearts toward the magnificent nature of God's love and grace toward us. Maybe you need to

get back to that habit of reading the Bible daily

read a devotional book that brings you to an understand of God's Word

plan some quiet time when you will get alone to be with God

become involved in some ministry where you are "giving" rather than "taking"

stop making excuses for being haphazard in your worship

In short, maybe you need to turn your heart toward Heaven.

In fact, maybe you need to take that initial step of faith. Maybe you are weighted down because you are still trying to "earn" Heaven. Maybe you have been trying to convince God (and yourself) that you are at heart "pretty good". It's time to stop the games. It's time to see the deep need that you and I have to be forgiven, and then to turn to Jesus and receive the gift of God's forgiveness and transformation that is offered.

Have you ever done this?  I'm not asking if you "like Jesus" or if you even "believe in Jesus." What I'm asking is: "Do you trust Christ enough to pin your hopes of Heaven on His work on your behalf and do you trust Him enough to trust His leadership in your daily life?"  That's what it means to be a Christian.  Maybe you need to take that step of faith today. In the quiet of this place, why not tell Him that will receive His gift of grace and follow His strong and sure leadership through the minefield we call life.

We need to remember who we belong to. We need to remember what He has done for us.  We need to remember who we were and where we were headed before He set our hearts free. We need to remember Heaven that is set before us. You see, if we remember these things and remember them well . . . we will realize that we shouldn't complain . . . . we should rejoice.

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