Life is hard—but it’s even hard when we complain! How can we turn off complaining and tune up perseverance and faith?
Throughout history, several pivotal events took place on and around the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. While the most famous are the Exodus from Egypt and the death of Jesus Christ, one of my favorite examples comes from the fifth chapter of Joshua, which records the Israelites keeping the Passover for the first time in the Promised Land. While not explicitly stated, it appears that the marches around Jericho occurred during the Days of Unleavened Bread.
An event recounted in Joshua 5 shows how far the Israelites had come in redirecting their mindset toward God and His Work. We read that when the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River, God commanded Joshua to circumcise the Israelites—and this command was obeyed (Joshua 5:2–8). This is stated in such a matter-of-fact manner that it can be easy to read over these verses.
Does it amaze you to consider how promptly and apparently willingly the Israelites carried out this command? Of course, it is entirely possible that there may have been some grumbling that isn’t noted for us. At the same time, up to this point in the inspired record, God has not been shy about recording the vast number of times the Israelites complained about one problem, duty, and situation after another—and holding them accountable. But in the book of Joshua, the record of complaining stops abruptly, despite various circumstances that might have produced complaining. It is reasonable to believe that this new generation of Israelites had learned the lesson God taught about the complaints of their parents, whose buried bodies they were about to leave behind in the wilderness.
And a record that reveals no complaining is even more astonishing when you consider just what God commanded in Joshua 5. Can you picture an entire population of males—many of them already adults—not making some complaints at the prospect of being circumcised? Furthermore, God gave His command just after the Israelites had crossed into enemy territory—before they had conquered a single city west of the Jordan. This pause to carry out a massive surgical project could easily have led to military disaster, especially when we consider what happened to Shechem in Genesis 34.
Would We Have Complained?
Maybe we think we wouldn’t have complained—but would we have disguised some complaints in the garb of helpful suggestions? You know, Joshua, maybe we should cross back over the Jordan before we do this circumcision. Or, Why not wait and do this after we’ve conquered the land?
Picture this occurring in modern times. How would people react if a nation’s leader ordered all military men to undergo—at the same time—a surgery that would keep them from active duty for about a week? Better yet, what if that leader did this immediately after landing his armies in hostile territory? A leader who tried this would be ridiculed—or worse—for such action. And perhaps rightly so, for without God’s blessing, this could easily bring about military defeat!
Despite all this, the Israelites were silent and obedient in this situation. They accepted circumcision, they kept the Passover, and they then returned their focus to God’s mission of conquering the Promised Land. We see in them a remarkable departure from their previous habit of complaining.
God was working with the Israelites, and not simply to get them physically out of Egypt. He sought to change their culture, their laws—indeed, their entire mindset. And doing so took far longer than the time it took to physically walk from Egypt to Israel. In fact, it took the passing of a generation! Nevertheless, God accomplished His purpose patiently with this stiff-necked people, bringing them to the point at which they would not even complain about being circumcised while in enemy territory.
Their lack of a complaining attitude was one major sign of the completeness of their exit from Egypt. And it is no coincidence that these events took place immediately before and during the spring Holy Days. As we now approach the spring Holy Days, Joshua 5 can help us, too. Becoming aware of our own complaining often provides a clear sign of how well we are removing the leaven of carnal behavior from our lives.
Strive to Become Complete
Before the spring Holy Days each year, we hear sermons that cite this concise instruction from the Apostle Paul: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Why did this matter to Paul? He prayed for the Corinthians “that you may be made complete” (v. 9) and in fact exhorts them plainly, “Become complete” (v. 11).
One way we can bring a complaining attitude under control is through daily Bible study, which Scripture itself describes as a tool to help us become complete. We read, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Even an apparent setback can give us the opportunity to become complete. Scripture reminds us, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2–4). Trials give us the opportunity to grow in faith and patience—they help us become complete, if we let them. No doubt this can be difficult when we don’t fully understand the trial we’re facing. But even if we haven’t yet figured out the lesson God is trying to get across to us, we can grow in patience and develop God’s holy and righteous character more completely. And these growth opportunities, like the Israelites’, may test our resolve not to complain.
Complaining or Explaining?
From time to time, I have counseled people who regrettably refrained from telling others about a bad situation because they were trying not to complain. If they had told someone about the problem, it could have alleviated their trial! The New Testament Church experienced this in Acts 6, when the Apostles were informed of a problem developing between the Hebrew and Hellenist Christians. Church leaders were able to examine the problem and provide a solution; without explaining the problem to the Church leadership, the problem would not have been resolved. This was not a case of complaining for the sake of complaining or trying to undermine the God-ordained leadership. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we usually know the difference between a sincere attempt to resolve a troublesome issue and griping just because griping makes us feel better for the moment.
With that in mind, how often do we find ourselves complaining and disputing about our civil leaders? They may very well do things we disagree with or that are downright sinful. But we know that Philippians 2:14 does not say, “Do all things without complaining and disputing unless your political leader is a real doofus.” Politics often stands out as a topic where the discussion is more about complaining and disputing than about problem-solving. In fact, as Christians, we know very well that only the return of Jesus Christ will put an end to certain problems. We are not exempted from Paul’s simple and direct instruction: “Do all things without complaining and disputing” (Philippians 2:14). Problem-solving is a positive step to help a situation become better. But complaining and disputing should simply not be part of our lives.
Paul emphasizes the significance of this mindset in Philippians 2:15, continuing the sentence by saying “that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” One vital aspect of our being lights to the world—doing the Work of God in our own personal lives—is to refrain from complaining or disputing! When people see that we are content despite disagreements, we shine as lights to the world. Moreover, when we avoid complaining, we show that we are learning one of the lessons of the Exodus. Paul explained that we should not complain “as some of them also complained” (1 Corinthians 10:10). We can often learn what not to do from the Israelites that left Egypt!
A Growth Opportunity
When we catch ourselves complaining, we have a great opportunity to examine ourselves and see how we can repent and become more complete. Frequently, the answer is to focus on the big picture and be thankful for what God is doing. This appears to be what worked for the Israelites in Joshua 5–6. Unlike their fathers, they looked beyond their hardships and focused on what God was doing. God promised to fulfill His promises to their generation, and they knew the land was theirs for the taking if they would simply be obedient and follow God’s instructions.
Towards the end of his life, Joshua reflected on the lesson the Israelites had learned: “And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the Lord your God spoke concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one word of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14). Joshua had witnessed the Israelites’ transformation from a generation of complainers to a new generation of people who were too focused on God’s Work to let themselves get caught up in complaints.
As spiritual Israelites today, we have the same opportunity and the same promise of God’s assistance. He is willing and able to help us conquer our sins. Among those sins, one of the most troublesome is holding on to an attitude of complaining. But we can and must overcome the carnal human tendency to complain. And we can have confidence that we can overcome, remembering the inspiring words of Paul, who was “confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3–6).
God desires to complete His work in us. Let’s be sure to do our part by overcoming our tendencies to complain, so that our conduct can become completely unleavened!