A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Every ancient prayer manual and guide to spirituality until about fifty years ago had at least one large section devoted to what was known as Pugna Spiritualis (spiritual battle or spiritual warfare). In more recent decades, many spiritual books have downplayed or completely deleted references to spiritual battle or spiritual warfare.

Sadly, many modern approaches to faith, religion, and spirituality prefer to emphasize exclusively consoling themes rooted in self-esteem, affirmation, etc. To be sure, the authentic faith can and does offer great consolation, but the truest and deepest consolation often comes after one has persevered along the sometimes-difficult path, along the “narrow way” of the cross.

But too many today, in the name of affirmation and pseudo-self-esteem are ready to excuse, and even affirm grave moral disorders, rather than fight them. Grace and mercy are preached, but without reference to the repentance that opens the door to these gifts. Both the possibility of Hell and any consequences of sin, are absent from many modern conceptions of faith and religious practice.

Some years ago, I was approached by a rather angry woman who, having heard my sermon on the seriousness of certain sins (which were in the readings of the day), expressed great indignation that I would preach on such topics. She said, “I come to church to be consoled and have my spirits lifted, not to hear old-fashioned warnings about judgment and sins.” She felt quite a “righteous indignation,” and was most certain that I had transgressed a fundamental norm, namely, that religion exists to console, and that any challenge to one’s moral stance, (except perhaps caring for the poor), is intolerant and way out of line.

Indeed, many today have this kind of attitude: that it is their birthright not to be troubled or vexed in any way by something people might say, especially a preacher who claims to represent God! The “God they worship” would never trouble them. They will have Jesus for their consoler and best friend, but not their Lord, and certainly not their judge. And never mind the literally thousands of verses from Scripture in which Jesus himself speaks sternly and warns of sin, death, judgment, and Hell. They will have none of it, and are certain that “the Jesus they know,” would never raise his voice at them or challenge them even for a moment. Never mind that the real Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him.

With spiritual battle having been removed from many people’s spiritual landscape, the idea that the Lord would summon us to battle, or ask us to choose sides, seems strangely foreign, intolerant, and uncompassionate.

Even more dangerous, these modern conceptions not only distort Jesus, but they downplay the presence and influence of Satan. This is a very, very bad idea. Even if we cease fighting against Satan, he will never ceases his sometimes very subtle attacks on us.

Jesus called consistently for prayerful, sober vigilance against the powers of evil and sin. Like it or not, we are in a battle. Either we will soberly and vigilantly undertake the battle, or we will be conquered and led off like sheep to the slaughter.

Despite what modern spiritual approaches would like to eliminate, Christianity has been a militant religion since its inception. Jesus was exposed to every kind of danger from the beginning. Herod sought his life; Satan tried to tempt him in the desert; many enemies plotted on all sides as he worked his public ministry, misrepresenting him, levying false charges, and conspiring to sentence him to death, and eventually even succeeding though only for a moment.

And as for Jesus, so also for his mystical Body the Church: Saul, Saul why do you persecute me!? (Acts 9:4) Jesus warns us that the world would hate us (Luke 21:17; John 15:20); that in this world we would have tribulation (Jn 16:33), and that we should watch and pray lest we give way to temptation (Matt 26:41). He summons us to persevere to the end if we would be saved (Mk 13:13). Jesus rather vividly described the kind of struggle with which we live when he said From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force (Matthew 11:12). Indeed, no Christian until the time that Jesus returns, can consider himself on leave or dismissed from this great spiritual battle, from this great drama that we exist in, this battle between good and evil.

Popular theme or not, we do well to remember that we are in the midst of a great cosmic and spiritual battle. And in that battle, we must be willing to choose sides and fight with the Lord for the Kingdom of God. Either we will gather with him or we will scatter. We are to fight for our own soul, and the souls of those whom we love.

In the holy week that is about to unfold, we are reminded once again of the great cosmic battle that the Lord waged, and that is still being waged in our time. Though already victorious, in his mystical Body the Church, the Lord in his faithful members still suffers violence, rejection, and ridicule. It is also for us to reclaim territory from the evil one, to take back what the devil stole from us. We are to advance the glory of God’s Kingdom through the fruits of great spiritual struggle, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, preaching, and an extensive missionary campaign to which the Lord has summoned and commissioned us.

The battle is on; the struggle is engaged! To spiritual arms one and all! Fight the good fight for the Lord.

Still not convinced we are at war? Let the Lord pull back the veil just a bit and let you look at what’s really going on. The final words of this article will not be mine; they will be the Lord’s. Here is described the cosmic battle that is responsible for most of the suffering and confusion you experience:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.

She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers who accuses them before our God day and night,has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”

When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.

Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. (Rev 12)

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Choices Have Consequences: A Lenten Meditation on a Warning From Moses

The themes of early Lent are pretty basic. The ashes of Ash Wednesday announce the simple truth that we are going to die, and thereafter we will face judgment. Hence we need to repent and come to believe the good news that only Jesus can save us.

The reading for Thursday after Ash Wednesday features Moses laying out the basic reality that all of us have a choice to make. He says to us,

Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom…

I call heaven and earth today to witness against you:
I have set before you life and death,
the blessing and the curse. (Dt 30:15, 20)

So there it is, our choice: life or death, prosperity or doom. An old Latin expression says, Tertium non datur (no third way is given). We often like to think that we can plow some middle path. But in the matter of the last things, there is no middle path, no third way. Either we choose God and his kingdom, and then reflect that choice in all of our smaller decisions, or we do not.

To those who think that a middle path is possible, I would say that it is in effect the way of compromise, ambivalence, and tepidity. Walking such a path shows a lack of real commitment and a refusal to witness to Christ. These are not virtues that belong to God’s Kingdom; they pertain more to the kingdom of darkness. Jesus says, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matt 5:37). He also says, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matt 6:24)

So we are back to a choice: for the Kingdom of Light or for the kingdom of darkness; for the world and its ways, or for God and His ways. Do we choose to gratify the flesh or nourish the spirit, to serve Satan and his agenda or to serve Christ and His will and plan?

You are free to choose, but you’re not free not to choose. That is to say, you must choose. And if you think that you can go on simply not choosing one or the other, I’ve got news for you: not choosing is choosing the kingdom of darkness.

While it is true that many do not directly choose Satan, but rather indirectly choose him by following his ways, we are asked to directly choose God by accepting the gift of faith and basing our life on what the Lord commands. Faith is not some sort of “default position” we can have by accident. Faith is the supernaturally-assisted and transformed human decision for God and all that that choice implies. Faith is a gift freely offered, and one that we must also freely accept; it is a choice that will not be forced on us. And through many daily choices, we are called to reaffirm, by grace, the choice we have made for God.

So again, life is about choices: the fundamental choice of Faith, and all the daily choices that either affirm or deny the reality of our faith.

We live in times in which people like to demand free choice, but also like to evade the responsibilities that come with making choices. Moses goes on in the reading today to describe the fact that the choice we make for or against God will have consequences:

If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish;
you will not have a long life
on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy. (Dt 30)

Yes, choices have consequences. And even little daily choices have the cumulative affect of moving us in one direction or the other, toward God and our goal or away.

Many little choices also have a way of forming our hearts. Deeds become habits; habits become character; character becomes destiny. Many little choices form our hearts, establish our character, and move us into one future or another.

And while it is true that sudden and dramatic conversions are possible as long as we are still living, it is more common that, as we make our journey, our hearts become more fixed, and our fundamental character becomes less and less likely to change. As we get older, it’s harder to change because that’s what choices do to us: they move us in a certain direction, down a certain path. And the further along that path we go, the less likely we are to turn back.

Therefore daily choices are important, and making frequent examinations of conscience and frequent confession are essential. Each day we ought to ask and consider the question, “Where am I going with my life?” If we go on too long living an unreflective life, it is easy to find ourselves deeply locked in sinful habits and patterns that are harder and harder to break. Thus frequent reflection is necessary, and we ought not make light of small daily decisions.

We live in times in which, to some degree, it is easier to insulate ourselves from the immediate consequences of many choices we make. Medicine, technology, social safety nets, etc. are all good things in and of themselves, but they do tend to shield us from immediate consequences, and they help cultivate the illusion that consequences can be forever evaded.

We also live in times in which, perhaps more than ever before, the community is often willing to bear the burden of many bad individual choices. Again, this is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it does become an enabler of bad behavior, and fosters the illusion that consequences can be avoided forever. They cannot.

Our own culture is currently under the weight of a colossal number of poor individual choices, ones that have added up to a financial, spiritual, moral, and emotional debt that we cannot pay. Sexual misconduct, divorce, cohabitation, abortion, STDs, the use of hallucinogenic and addictive drugs, the casting off of of discipline and parental responsibility, the rejection of faith and ancient and tested wisdom, rebellion, silence in the face of sin and injustice, greed, consumerism gone mad, factions, envy discord and on and on… all of this is creating a tremendous toll. The consequences are mounting and it is becoming clear that even the most basic functions of society such as raising the next generation, preserving order and stability, and ensuring the common good are gravely threatened.

And what is true collectively is also true for us as individuals. Lots of bad little choices quickly draw us into self-destructive patterns that get deeper and deeper. And without regular reflection and penitential seasons like Lent, we lose our way too easily! St. Augustine noted this in his Confession, in which he described himself as being bound, “not by another’s irons, but by my own iron will…For in truth lust is made out of a perverse will, and when lust is served, it becomes habit, and when habit is not resisted, it becomes necessity” (Conf 8.5.10)

Moses’ warnings are before us as never before.

Back in 1917, a beautiful and holy Woman (Our Lady) appeared to three little children. She explained that the horrifying war (WW I) was finally coming to an end. But, she warned, if people did not turn back to her Son Jesus and start praying, a worse war would ensue; Russia would spread her errors and great disaster would befall this world. Do I need to tell you what happened? Of course not! Any even casual assessment of the 20th Century would find it hard to conclude that the century was anything but satanic.

Life and Death, prosperity and doom. What will you choose? What will we choose?

Choices! Consequences!

From heavy to a little humor:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Choices Have Consequences: A Lenten Meditation on a Warning From Moses

The Battle Theme of Lent

A brief observation of the first two days in Lent reveals militaristic, even violent imagery in the battle against sin and the unruly passions of the flesh. The Collect (opening prayer) of Ash Wednesday provides an image of troops mustering for battle:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

“Battle,” “weapons,” and “armed” all clearly have military connotations, but so does the phrase “campaign of Christian service” if we look at the Latin text: praesidia miltiae Christianae. The service or action (praesidia) is one of Christian battle or militancy (militiae). This refers to the Church Militant—the Church here on earth—waging war against sin and the kingdom of darkness.

Thus the opening prayer on Ash Wednesday announced and summoned us to a battle that is engaged by the Church with special intensity during Lent.

The Gospel for Thursday after Ash Wednesday also has a battle theme. Jesus says,

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it
(Luke 9:23-25).

The battle theme is particularly apparent if one looks at the Greek text. The word translated as “lose” in English does not capture the vigor of the Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollumi). Apollumi comes from the root apó, meaning away from, with the intensifier ollymi, “to destroy.” Thus apollumi means to fully destroy, cutting off entirely. It implies permanent or absolute destruction.

So when Jesus says we must “lose” our life, it is really far stronger than the English translation captures. Losing our life involves a kind of violent overthrow of our worldly notions and the deep drives of sin. We must lose. That is, we must see utterly destroyed and cut off all things worldly, fleshly, and of the devil. This is war and it is going to involve more than a mumbled, half-hearted prayer on our part. Scripture says, In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).

So behold the militaristic imagery as Lent begins. To arms!

The idea of such a battle might overwhelm us if we thought it must all be done in one day. Jesus says that we should take up our cross daily. Our daily cross is vital to our success. It’s not our weekly cross, or our monthly cross, or our yearly cross. We ought to do each day what we should do. If we put off or postpone the daily cross, the problems pile up. A monthly cross can seem overwhelming, and a yearly cross might seem impossible. Everyday discipline is crucial. Soon enough, the daily discipline becomes virtue; it becomes a good habit that one accomplishes fairly easily. To take up our cross daily is to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.

The battle is engaged! Fight it daily. Fight it with the Lord. Understand that it is battle, but in Jesus (and only in Jesus) the victory is won. Stay on the winning side and fight daily to the end.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Battle Theme of Lent

See What the End Shall Be – Palm Sunday

The Passion, which we read in the Palm Sunday liturgy, is too long to comment on in detail, so we will only examine a portion of it here.

It may be of some value to examine the problems associated with the more moderate range of personalities involved. The usual villains (the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”) are unambiguously wicked and display their sinfulness openly, but there are others involved whose struggles and neglectfulness are more subtle, yet no less real. It is in examining these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, who, though we may not openly shout, “Crucify him,” are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as Jesus’ persecutors are wicked and bold.

As we read the Passion we must understand that this is not merely an account of the behavior of people long gone, this is a portrait of you and me; we do these things.

I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account, the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,

This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.” But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Note that the apostles are not being told these things for the first time; Jesus has spoken them before on numerous occasions:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 20:18-19).

Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death, but in rising to new life. Even though He has told them over and over again, they still do not understand. Therefore, He predicts that their faith in Him will be shaken.

Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative, forgetting that Jesus has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment they will retreat into fear rather than boldly and confidently accompanying Him to His passion and glorification (for His passion is a lifting up; it is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see nor accept it. They withdraw into a sinful fear, dissociating themselves from Jesus. Only a few (Mary, His Mother; John; Mary Magdalene; and a few other women) would see Him through to the end.

As for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glory and awesome. Their perception is quite partial. Paradoxically, their blindness comes from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.

We, too, can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor listening. The Lord has often told us that if we trust in Him our struggles will end in glory and new life, but, blind and forgetful, we give in to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s passion boldly. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we observe in the people of that day.

II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated by not trusting Jesus’ vision. Please understand that the word “we” used here does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies.

1. They become drowsy – A common human technique for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to become numb and drowsy; we can just drift off into a sort of moral slumber. Being vigilant against the threat posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or to others) is too stressful, so we just “tune out.” We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like alcohol, drugs, creature comforts, and meaningless distractions. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions so we just daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how the latest sporting event is going.

In the Passion accounts, the Lord asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him—but they doze off. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). Unwilling or unable to deal with the stress of the situation, they fall asleep. Grave evil is at the very door, but they slumber away. The Lord warns them to stay awake lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much for them to handle. They tune out, much as we do in the face of the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing; it’s too painful so we tune out.

The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other Scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). Yes, drowsiness is a serious spiritual problem.

Sadly, God described us well when He remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).

We do this not only out of laziness, but also out of fear. One strategy is to try to ignore it, to go numb, to tune out. Despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake; the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear. The Lord has told us that we have already won if we will just trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same.

2. They seek to destroy – When Peter finally awakens, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the high priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11) Jesus then heals Malchus, who tradition says later became a follower.

In our fear, we too can lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. If we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear? Why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently, but it is quite another to lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus, seeing in Him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be; Peter did not. In fear, he lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.

It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak with clarity to a confused world, but above all we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversations with the world. The truth will out; it will prevail. We may not win every encounter, but we do not have to. All we must do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. In Christ, we have already won. This confidence should give us serenity.

Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So Peter, and we, give in to fear and lash out, driven by a desire to win when in fact we have already won.

3. They deny – Confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, Peter denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him at all. He dissociates himself from Christ. We, confronted with the possibility of far milder things such as ridicule, often deny a connection with the Lord or the Church.

When it comes to some of the more controversial Scripture teachings (e.g., the command to tithe; the prohibition against divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity) some might ask, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s very easy to give in to fear and to respond, “No,” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or be drawn into an unpleasant debate? So we dissociate from, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). Too easily we are ashamed. Like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter is afraid because he has forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. We lack confidence and give in to fear; we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.

4. They dodge – When Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) followed the Lord at a distance (Mk 14:54). As soon as trouble arose, he “scrammed.”

We, too, can run away. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world, but other times it’s our fear that following the Lord is too hard and involves sacrifices we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money (the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor). Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle (the Lord insists on chastity and respect). Maybe we don’t want to stop doing something that we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. Rather than face our fears, whether they come from within or without, we just run away.

The disciples have forgotten that Jesus has shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he will win the victory, but this forgotten; their fears emerge and they run. We, too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to confront and resist our many fears.

5. They deflect – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate has a choice to make: accept that what Jesus is saying is true or give in to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The various accounts in Scripture all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, but because he feared the crowds he handed Jesus over.

Note that Pilate did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but he did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 27:24). Well actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. Although you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic to Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.

So, too, for us. We often favor our career or our own skin over doing what is right. In so doing, we blame others for what we have freely chosen.

We are often willing to say, in effect,

“Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe, and I obey you (generally, anyway). But you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company I work for is doing some things that are unjust. I know the world needs a clearer witness from me. I’ll do all that—after I retire. But for now, well, you know. Besides, it’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!”

We try to wash our hands of responsibility. We excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

All this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision that Jesus is trying to give us: that we will rise with Him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of the here and now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be. In three days we rise; why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the cross, but never forget what the end shall be. Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning; I’ll rise!

We end where we began with this Gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Yes, after He has been raised He goes before us into Galilee. For us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with Him and be reunited with Him in the Galilee of Heaven.

So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, or deflect; we’ve already won. All we need to do is to hold out.

I have it on the best of authority that Mother Mary was singing the following gospel song with St. John for a brief time while at the foot of the cross, as they looked past that Friday to the Sunday that was coming:

It’s all right, it’s all right.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down.
But Jesus he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m almost on the ground.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right
.

 

The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson Four)

We continue today in our discussion of the ancient Jewish people’s grumbling against Moses and God.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson Three)

We have been surveying several incidents in which the ancient Jewish people grumbled against Moses and God. We have done so not merely to survey their sins but to learn of our own tendencies to do the same. What makes grumbling so obnoxious is that it comes so soon after astonishing blessings and demonstrations of God’s love for us and His will and power to save us. Trust, it would seem, is something very difficult for us to learn.

Lesson 3: They Grumbled against the Very Rewards of God in the Promised Land.

Today we look at the grumbling that sentenced the ancient Jews to wander in the wilderness for forty years. They forfeited the very blessing they left Egypt to obtain. God had promised them a land of their own, a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. At the critical moment when God was prepared to deliver it into their hands, they balked; they doubted. In their fear, they grumbled that taking the land might require effort or involve risk. You would never know that God had just delivered them, parting the Red Sea, feeding them with miraculous food, and supplying them with water and even quail. All of this was forgotten in a moment and they doubted God could deliver on His promise.

Let’s recall the incident:

God brought them near the borders of Canaan and through Moses instructed them to survey the land in preparation for taking it. Moses gathered twelve men, one from each tribe, and said to them,

Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land. (Numbers 13:17-20).

They returned with magnificent fruits, but gave this discouraging report:

“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan” (Numbers 13:27-29).

Only Joshua and Caleb displayed trusting faith.

Caleb said,

“Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).

And Joshua said,

The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them (Numbers 14: 8-10).

Sadly, the reaction of the group was predictable:

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).

They want to go back to Egypt? Really? Cannot the God who parted the Red Sea deliver the Promised Land? Apparently they don’t think so. We may be shocked at their unbelief but we should recognize that we too are of little faith despite innumerable blessings and signs of God’s love and will to save us. We fret and fear at a moment’s notice when challenges beset us. We wonder, can God come through? We sing hymns of faith at Mass and we recall His deliverances past and present, but any bad news can send us to dark places where we fear and then grumble that God permits any test of us at all.

At this point God has had enough. He says to Moses,

How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:11-12).

Moses intercedes and God “relents” in the most severe of his plans, but God tells him, in essence, that the people are not ready to enjoy His promises.

I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live … none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.

But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.

Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea (Numbers 14:20-25).

In effect God says, “If you don’t want what I offer, you don’t have to have it. If you consider the cost too high or the effort too great, then don’t bother. Go on living in the desert and fleeing your enemies. If you don’t want my help or what I offer, then enjoy the wilderness; it’s all yours. By the way, I see that the Amalekites and the Canaanites are nearby, You’d better start running. Retreat to the Red Sea!”

If we refuse to trust in God, our fears will rule us. The only remedy to the enslaving effects of fear is trust and abandonment to God’s will. Our sinful flesh wants control, not trust. It wants to be confident on its own terms, not God’s.

For many today, the spiritual warfare necessary to obtain Heaven is altogether too much effort. Perhaps we instinctively know that it will involve giving up some of our favorite sins or confronting our fears and sinful drives. Instead of zeal for the sake of the joy of Heaven before us, we yield to sloth (sorrow or aversion to the good things God is offering us). The battle seems too costly, the price too high. We begin to prefer the desert of this world to what God offers. We do this even knowing that this world is a sorrowful exile, a valley of tears. Heaven seems to be just too much trouble and our passions too strong to conquer. Never mind that God promises sufficient grace to win the spiritual battle. In fear, we doubt His power despite the evidence of countless saints who have overcome.

Here, too, God is in essence saying, “If you don’t want what I’m offering, you don’t have to have it. You want the desert? It’s all yours.” Our response is often to grumble saying that God is not fair or that He should not challenge us or demand any effort of us. We claim that our fears are His fault due to the challenges involved, rather than our fault due to our lack of trust.

Thus our grumbling leads to fumbling and to forfeiting our blessings—all because we will not trust God. Scripture warns,

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test though they had seen my works. Forty years I endured that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways.” Therefore, I swore in my anger, “They shall not enter my rest” (Psalm 95:7-11).

Truth be told, we who would put God to the test are ourselves being tested: are we cowardly or courageous? Will we engage the battle or just sue for peace with the world? Only the courageous will inherit the Promised Land; the cowards are condemned to die in and with the world they love more than Heaven.

St. Paul also warns,

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. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13No 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 Cor 10: 1-13).

So do not grumble. Do not fear. Engage the battle! God’s arm is not shortened; His grace is sufficient. Trust Him who is able to save. The choice is yours, but if you do not, your lot will be to live in the desert constantly fleeing from your enemies. It is clear: to grumble is to fumble. To be negative is to negate our faith; it is to block our blessings.

Count your blessings and count on God!

The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson Two)

In yesterday’s post we pondered how the Jewish people, despite having witnessed signs and wonders during the plagues in Egypt, failed to trust in God and to call upon Him confidently when they saw the Egyptian army in pursuit. Today we consider how they grumbled about the food that God provided for their sustenance.

Lesson 2: They Grumbled against the Very Food of Salvation

The Hebrew word often translated as grumbling or murmuring is lō·nū or liyn. Its root meaning is simply “to stop by” (usually overnight). More fully, it means to overstay or wear out one’s welcome by complaining (all night). It means to be obstinate and demanding, like a thankless guest who feels entitled and complains about the accommodations he has been freely offered. Whatever the host has generously provided is never enough; it is the wrong sort of food or the wrong kind of room. The basic picture is that of an annoying guest who wears out his host with complaint after complaint.

We see a lot of this in the grumbling we will focus on today. The ancient Jews had just been delivered by God in the most astonishing way. He had parted the Red Sea and led them through while the waters stood like a wall to their right and left. In the morning watch, the Lord, from the pillar of fire, cast a glance on the stubbornly pursuing Egyptian army and threw them into confusion as the waters came back upon them (see Exodus 14). Complete victory and deliverance was theirs! A hymn of praise broke out among them. One would think they would never have doubted God again.

Within three days, though, they seem to have completely forgotten. They wear Moses out with their complaints: Where is our water? Where is our food? Can God feed us in this desert? Did you lead us out here to die? We don’t like this food.

God, too, is “worn out” by their complaints, and “grieved” by their lack of faith.

This is not merely an attack on the ancient Jewish people. We do this today frequently, especially those of us who live in the affluent West. It is hard to argue that God has not blessed us with amazing abundance and comfort. Instead of being profoundly grateful and trusting, though, we can turn on a dime and yield to fear and grumbling, often about the littlest of things. Our problems are often “First World” ones: my cellphone is on the blink, my taxes are too high, I’m having a hard time paying off my credit card bill. We do suffer, and some of our sorrows can be crushing, but hasn’t God consistently and abundantly blessed us? Yet we who have the most are so often the least grateful, the quickest to complain; we are frequently fearful and anxious.

Let’s look at the details of some of the grumbling of the ancient Jews so as to learn more about our own. We begin a mere three days after the miracle at the Red Sea:

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet (Exodus 15:22-25).

Just three days after the miracle of miracles they doubt. In their fear they grumble. Why do they fear? They have seen how God can deliver, but still they doubt.

Instead of crying out in trust, they grumbled against Him. It is one thing to say, “Lord, we trust you. You have blessed us in the past and so in confidence we cry out to you, knowing that you will hear us.” But the text says that they grumbled. In other words, they were petulant, doubtful, and demanding.

The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). It does not say, “You have not, so go ahead and grumble, doubt, and complain like an obnoxious, presumptuous, demanding guest.” No, call out to God, who loves you and has shown his solicitude a thousand times over. Ask him for what you need, confidently and humbly.

Next, regarding the food, they sink even lower. Remember that they were given a miraculous food to sustain them. In their continuing lack of faith, they grumbled against Moses and the Lord. The Scriptures report,

Then they set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the sons of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The sons of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the LORD’S hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:1-3).

What more can we say about their lack of trust? They steadfastly refuse to trust that God, who saved them, will sustain them. But God, who is ever merciful, does not forsake or reject them. He says to Moses,

And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted …. The people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan (Num 11:1 ff).

Here is a miraculous food from Heaven. They called it “manna,” which does not mean “bread” but rather “what is it?” This name attests to it mysterious character. It was also called the “bread of Heaven” and the “bread of angels.” The point is, it is miraculous. It is like bread. It can be kneaded and baked like bread, but it is not mere bread—it is something more. It points to the Eucharist. Without this bread they will perish. With it, they will be sustained unto the Promised Land. So too for us and the Eucharist!

Yet despite this miracle they grumble. They consider ordinary what God has chosen to save them. They prefer the worldly food of slaves to the miraculous food of God’s own children! The text says,

The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this wretched manna” (Numbers 11:4-6).

This is a horrible insult and a rejection of God’s great gift, the heavenly bread. It alone can sustain them for their journey through the desert to the Promised Land. They prefer satisfying their palates to what their soul requires. They want what is tasty not what is necessary. They prefer melons, leeks, cucumbers, and stews to what is necessary and is most able to sustain them. They will even long for slavery so as to be able to please their palates. They will forsake the freedom of the Children of God, sell their very birthright, for a mess of pottage.

I have written more on this topic here: Melons and Leeks or the Bread From Heaven? To summarize, does this not sadly resemble the many Catholics who will forsake the Bread of Life in the Eucharist to run to some denomination with a plexiglass pulpit, a potted plant in front of it, a charismatic preacher, and a contemporary Christian rock band? Granted, we should work hard to ensure our preaching is more anointed and our liturgy more understood, but nothing—nothing—is more valuable than the Bread come down from Heaven, who presents Himself to us in the humblest and most imperfect of settings.

Too many today say, “I am not being fed in the way I like. I am not being entertained. I do not find nourishing or relevant the liturgy that sustained the ancients.” In other words, “I want the melons and leeks of popular culture. Take that wretched manna out of here.”

God was so displeased with this rejection and with the grumbling against His manna that He sent punishments to them:

And the people became impatient and grumbled on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this wretched manna Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people (Num 21:4-6).

Pay attention, fellow Catholics. God is not pleased with our demands to make His manna more pleasing to our palates. He does not accept our demands that liturgy should conform to modern standards of entertainment. Our most necessary food is not that which merely pleases our palates; it is that which our souls most need. The best medicines are, at times, hard to swallow, but they are the best, for they are God’s medicine.

Are we listening? These ancient grumblings are too easily ours! Let God feed you in the way He sees fit. It is not for you, the patient, to say to the doctor, “Here is the medicine that pleases me.” Take the medicine offered. Acknowledge that the Doctor knows more than you do.

Grumbling leads to stumbling and to foolish falls. Take the manna; take your medicine. If it seems ordinary, fine; God works in humble ways to save us.

Stop grumbling. Stop insisting. Submit to God and He will save you, but it will be on His terms not yours.

More tomorrow on the grumbling that may cost us the promised land of Heaven itself!

The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson One)

Here in the last full week of Lent prior to Holy Week we do well to ponder the grumblings of the ancient Hebrew people in the desert, for their grumblings are often ours as well. We are reading these passages in the Office of Readings just now, so it is the mind of the Church that we should meditate on them. The ancient Hebrews grumbled in many ways, and it will take us several days to consider them. We should note that fear and a lack of trust are at the heart of most of their grumbling.

Lesson 1: They Grumbled in the Very Midst of a Miracle Yes, they grumbled even while leaving Egypt. As they fearfully beheld the Egyptian army in pursuit of them they complained to Moses:

Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, “Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14:11-12).

Recall that God had worked signs and wonders for them in Egypt through the plagues He inflicted on their captors. Remember also the miracle of Passover. Finally, recall the astonishing truth that Pharaoh not only let them go but the Egyptians paid them to leave, giving them a great deal gold and silver prior to their departure (see Ex 3:21).

So here they are in the midst of a miraculous deliverance and yet they grumble. Things have not changed, my friends. We, too, are blessed over and over again but will grumble at the slightest thing.

Their fear and ours is not without sin, a sin rooted in a lack of trusting faith. God has shown over and over a will to save them and a capacity to deliver them. In their fear, though, they grumble and vent their anger at Moses. Despite countless blessings, we, too, often grumble at the slightest inconvenience or setback. Fear is at the root of most of this unjust anger, and at the root of most of this fear is a failure to trust God.

Surely God has not brought them this far just to leave them, but they are not convinced. So easily do we fear despite how good God has been to us. We who are Christians are clearly told that even our suffering is a gift, albeit in a strange package: All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

In their grumbling they declare that they would rather live as slaves than die as free children of God. This is a slap in face of God, who has offered them the astonishing gift of deliverance. It would seem that they seek relief, not true healing. Healing takes guts and requires courageous change.

We also often seek cheap grace—relief rather than courageous healing and the responsibilities that come with being free children of God. In the face of persecution or loss, we too easily prefer to be a slave to worldly notions and demands rather than freely and manfully resisting, trusting that God will deliver us even at the cost of our livelihood or our very life.

The martyrs and confessors of the faith rose to testify against such grumbling, fear, and despair. They courageously, even joyfully, died for Christ knowing that a greater blessing would be theirs. They endured unspeakable tortures and yet we can barely endure being laughed at, disapproved of, or scorned.

Finally, to all of us whose trust in God flags even after centuries under His care, to all of us who cry out to God even after a lifetime of blessings, He asks this piercing question: “Why do you cry out to me?” (Ex 14:15) Through Moses, God says to us, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).

After calming a storm at sea, Jesus posed a similar question: Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? (Mark 4:40)

When God asks a question, we ought to answer it, carefully and prayerfully. St. Paul warned: Do not grumble, as some of them did (1 Cor 10:10). No, prayerfully ponder this question: “Why are you so afraid?” God has something to teach us.

I do believe Lord, help my unbelief (Mk 9:24).

Tomorrow we will ponder more of the grumblings in the wilderness.