Lesson 4: Grumbling Can Greatly Harm Others
Grumbling affects more than the one who grumbles. Through it, infectious negativity is set loose. Even if only a small number grumble, it can still incite fear, negativity, and anger in others.
One of the sadder effects the grumblings in the desert was the heavy toll it took on Moses. The people nearly wore him out. At a particularly low moment, when the people were complaining about the quality of the food, Moses lamented to God,
Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? … I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (Numbers 11:11-15).
Yes, Moses was so dispirited that he preferred to die rather than to carry on. In his weariness he spoke rashly and sinned. As a result, God would exclude him from entering the Promised Land:
Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?…
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”
And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.
And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:2-14).
Many have pondered the exact nature of Moses’ sin and why the punishment for it was so severe. There are a few explanations posited for the nature of Moses’ sin:
- Moses sinned by not following the Lord’s instruction: The Lord instructed Moses to take his staff in hand and bid the rock to bring forth water. He was told to speak to the rock, but instead he struck it—twice. The striking of the rock, while not directed according to the passage in Numbers, does not seem particularly egregious because in another description of this event (see Exodus 17:6) God instructs Moses to strike it. Hence, this explanation may not get to the heart of the matter. The Fathers of the Church (e.g., Jerome) did not see sin in this, even mystically interpreting the double striking of the rock as a sign of the two bars of the cross.
- Moses exhibited sinful pride: Moses, having assembled the people, reviles them saying, “Hear now, you rebels.” In a possible flash of pride, he then continues, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Of course, it is not Moses or Aaron who bring forth the water; it is God. Some of the Fathers of the Church interpreted this not as pride on Moses’ part, but rather an indication of Moses’ wavering faith.
- Moses sinned by speaking harshly and rashly: Psalm 106 seems to favor this interpretation. They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips (Psalm 106:32-33).
This third explanation leads us back to the heart of our meditation: that grumbling causes great harm, not only to those who grumble but also to others, because it sows seeds of negativity and can incite bitterness and anger. Moses was worn out; as Psalm 106 says, his heart grew bitter. He spoke rashly and reviled the people and he may have yielded to a flash of angry pride.
That God punished him so severely is mysterious to us. Basil the Great used it as an object lesson to us all: “If the just man is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?” (Preface on the Judgment of God)
Whatever the case, behold what grumbling does. It is a bitter thing and makes others bitter. Be very careful, fellow Christians; we can all exhibit the ugly tendency to draw others into our anger, doubts, dissatisfaction, and fears. Misery loves company. Sharing concerns with a friend is good and necessary, but spreading complaints, grumbling, and murmuring can lead others to fear, doubt, despair, anger, and bitterness. A steady diet of grumbling is deflating for everyone and usually brings more heat than light.
Grumbling seems to be everywhere today. In our Western affluence, we often expect and even demand comfort and perfection. This quickly leads to grumbling and complaining. We are very particular and want things solved quickly and without any real demands being placed on us.
Moses was worn down by the consistent grumbling all around him. Be cognizant of the toll that grumbling takes on others. Practice gratitude, an important antidote to the poison spread by grumbling.