There once lived a little girl who really liked Beanie Babies. In fact, one day when she and her parents were at the store, she saw the newest Beanie Baby and thought, If only I could have that particular Beanie Baby, my life would be fulfilled forever. So she made her desires known to her parents.
They said, "No, Dear, that particular Beanie Baby is outside the boundaries of our budget, and we cannot afford to buy it for you now."
But you don't understand, she thought. It's not just the Beanie Baby you're buying me. You're buying me happiness.You see, there's this little, BB vacuum in my soul, and it will only be filled when you buy me this particular Beanie Baby. And so her life motto became: My heart is restless, and it will only find its rest in this particular Beanie Baby.
So she waited a while; then she explained to her parents, "I really need this Beanie Baby. My whole life's existence is dependent on it. And once I get it, there will be no more whining, no more complaining, no more crying, because I will have finally found fulfillment. I will be content for the rest of my life."
So her parents bought her the Beanie Baby. And guess what? She found contentment. She grew up to be a fulfilled, grateful, and joyful woman. But the rest of her life didn't go well. She married a lousy guy with whom she had three kids. Then he left her, and her kids didn't stick around much to help her out. And when she got old, she went on Social Security and hardly had any money. But she never whined or cried or complained. Instead, she would think, I remember that Beanie Baby. What great contentment and joy I found in it. And just as she predicted, it brought her lasting satisfaction. She was content and grateful for the rest of her life.
Does life ever work out that way? You'd think that kid would hear that story and say, "Wait a minute! Real contentment and lifelong fulfillment doesn't come from buying the latest Beanie Baby! I'm not going to get suckered into that same old routine again." But it doesn't happen, does it? She just moves on from new Beanie Babies to new clothes to new cars to new houses to new furniture in a search for fulfillment and contentment.
It's not just Beanie Babies for the girls. It's tools or sports equipment or computer stuff for the guys. As a friend of mine told me about her husband, "Boys don't change. Their toys just keep getting bigger and more expensive." So it's not a gender thing, is it?
It's a human thing of discontentment. Our culture is absolutely brilliant about exploiting that tendency toward dissatisfaction in us and promising us fulfillment. We get these messages all day: Use me. Buy me. Eat me. Wear me. Try me. Drive me. Put me in your hair. Did you know there are 430 types of shampoos on the market that promise hair contentment? They all say, Buy me to wash it, condition it, mousse it, dry it, curl it, straighten it, wax it, Rogaine it.
We're richer, healthier, better fed, housed, and educated than any generation in human history. But are we any wiser? Are we any more content? How many of us can honestly say, "I'm content with my body, my car, my spouse, my kids, my house, my job, my friends, my walk with God"? Or how many of us visibly and sometimes verbally are discontented with ourselves, our families, our income, our lives?
Discontentment and her children—ingratitude, complaining, and grumbling—are serious temptations for God's people. You'd think in light of God's incredible grace and his ongoing provision that discontentment and her children would not be serious temptations. But they are. They are today at the beginning of the century, and they were three thousand years ago when God miraculously led Israel out of Egypt.
In Exodus 14 we saw the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt by God's incredible power. Then in Exodus 15:1–21, Moses sang a great song about God's glory and grace. It's awesome. But then look what happened in Exodus 15:22–27. God led the people out of Egypt into the wilderness to this place called Marah, where they needed water. They found pools, but the pools were bitter. So they grumbled against Moses. Moses went to God, and God said to take a piece of wood and throw it in the water. Moses did, and the water became sweet. It met their need. Then God led them to Elim where there were trees and pools of water.
God met their needs. But did that help? In the rest of the narrative, which goes through chapter 16 to 17:7, the word grumble, referring to the attitudes and the actions of Israel against God and Moses, is used nine more times. Whenever the writers of Scripture repeat something, especially in narrative literature, they are trying to communicate something crucial. Notice what the writer of Scripture is trying to communicate about the people of Israel, beginning in Exodus 16: "The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt." They'd been out there about 45 days. "In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, '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.'"
First they couldn't get water, so God gave them water. Then they whined and moaned and grumbled and complained because there was no food. So you know what God did? God provided them with a daily Happy Meal of quail and manna. God met their needs. He met the need for water. He met their need for food. Did that help?
Look at chapter 17: "The whole Israelite community set out from the desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.' Moses replied, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?' But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?'"
You know what God did? He sent Moses to this rock called Horeb, and had him strike it with his staff. And in another miracle, water poured out of that rock to quench the thirst of all of the people of Israel.
What's the author trying to show us? Here are the children of Israel out in the desert, and even though God continued to meet all their needs, all they did was grumble and complain and quarrel and test him. They were never content regardless of what he did or how he provided for them.
I know a beautiful, bright, talented young woman who's lived with disappointment and discontent her entire life. First she was disappointed in and discontented with her dad. Then it was her teachers, then her pastors, then all the men she'd dated throughout the years. Finally a few years back, she found who she thought was the perfect man. At their wedding she thought she'd finally found fulfillment and satisfaction and contentment. But then the reality of marriage set in. She discovered he wasn't perfect. She became disappointed and discontented once again, and now they're separated. But it's not just her. This is a growing problem in our society.
In 1991, Robert Hughes, an art critic, wrote a book called The Culture of Complaint. His thesis is that we live in a culture in which we perceive ourselves as being entitled to having all our wants and desires fulfilled as part of our American birthright. When that doesn't happen, we become "victims," we whine and complain and grumble. If we see it as somebody else's "issue" that's caused our inconvenience, then we sue that person or institution.
Is that attitude ever true of us as Christians? Do we as God's people ever struggle with discontent, or grumbling, complaining, or griping? Let's do an emotional and spiritual inventory. Do any of these statements reflect you?
I regularly wish I had a different job, and I possess a bad attitude when I'm at work. I am consistently disappointed in my relationships, whether they're with my parents, my spouse, my friends, or my kids. People don't meet my emotional needs. I'm pretty resentful about that. I deal with disappointments and discontent in my life by watching a lot of TV, going shopping more than is healthy, viewing pornography on the Internet, or drinking alcohol and doing drugs. I am losing a sense of hope about life and am becoming more cynical as I grow older. I get really ticked off at the good things and circumstances people around me seem to have and enjoy.
Any of those statements fit?
Author John Cheever writes that the main emotion the average American feels is disappointment. I want to piggyback on that. I think the main emotion the average American Christian feels, to borrow the title of Philip Yancey's great book, is disappointment with God. Let's be honest. At times, we are all discontent with life and disappointed with God, and we show it through our grumbling, our whining, and our complaining. We're just like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones—we can't get no satisfaction.
So what do we do? What are our choices? There are three doors we can go through.
Door number one: We can follow the example of the children of Israel and live in regular discontent with life and disappointment with God. We can choose to do that. But that's not a good option. In 1 Corinthians 10:10 the apostle Paul, looking back on this experience in the history of Israel, says that God finally got tired of their grumbling, and he killed almost all of them out there in the wilderness. They never got to see the Promised Land. I think Paul is telling us that this attitude of discontent and grumbling leads to death. It doesn't give life.
Door number two: We can follow the cultural lie of thinking contentment comes from new things, new experiences, new jobs, and new people. This option says to deal with our discontentment by giving ourselves over to an unending quest for little moments of happiness by buying things, going on another vacation, getting a new job, getting a new spouse, starting new hobbies, or going wherever our latest trivial pursuit takes us. A lot of people choose to take this door. That's not a good option, though. It's a treadmill to nowhere.
Door number three: We can follow our heavenly Father and over time learn to find our contentment, our fulfillment, our satisfaction, in him. Saint Augustine was probably the greatest Christian in the history of the church, other than the apostles. He lived at the end of the late fourth, early fifth, centuries. He's had a greater impact on the development of Christianity in the world than any other individual except, perhaps, the writers of the Bible. Here's what Saint Augustine said: "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O God."
But what does that look like? What does that mean on a regular basis of going to work, rearing kids, providing a living, paying bills, being involved in ministry, trying to advance the kingdom of God? What does that look like to find contentment in the Lord? Exodus 15 to 17 has some lessons for us, and I think the lessons were what God was trying to teach Israel, but they just wouldn't hear. We have the opportunity to hear these lessons and learn to apply them in our lives.
We need to realize God's loving purpose for us.
Lesson number one: We need to realize God's loving purpose for us. God loved Israel deeply, which is why he called them out of slavery and depravation in Egypt. And because he loved them, he wanted to make them obedient and holy unto himself. That was his loving purpose for them.
In Exodus 15:25–26, after Moses threw the tree in the water, the text says: "There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, 'If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.'" And God says essentially the same thing again in Exodus 16:4.
Here's the theological point we need to reflect on. Because God loves us, he tests us. Sometimes he allows trying events and circumstances to enter our lives to test us, so he can accomplish his loving purpose in us, which is to mature us spiritually, to make us more like Jesus Christ.
Several years ago I found myself in a hard and dark place, and part of that was my fault. I'd made some poor decisions, and part of that was some other people's responsibility with whom I was deeply connected who also made some poor choices. As a result, I was out of ministry, out of a job, and afraid I was going to lose my house. In order to pay bills, I started a night job delivering pizzas. Not exactly a career track when you're in your thirties. But worse than that was my day job, which was substitute teaching junior high school students. If junior high school is not hell, it's purgatory. That was the worst time of my life.
But I think God allowed that to happen to me to refine and develop and mature me. There were a lot of things he wanted to teach me about himself and about my relationship to him—the first of which was that regardless of my circumstances I needed to learn to obey. Another thing I eventually learned out of that experience was the wonderful, miraculous grace of God.
Maybe you can identify with where I was at that point. Maybe you're in a hard place in your marriage. Maybe the Lord's trying to mature you into being more of a servant, one who is willing to wash the other person's feet.
Maybe you're single and are sick of being alone. Maybe God is trying to teach you that you need to depend on him and be alone with him for a time or a season.
Maybe you're in an incredibly difficult situation at work or maybe even in one at church. What might the Lord be trying to do in you?
Maybe you're struggling with bad health. I can empathize. I grew up in a family where my dad was very ill from the time I was young. My sister has always had bad health. My mom got cancer and died way too young. I know God can work in those situations to mature you.
Maybe you've got kids going through adolescence. I will pray for you. Adolescence is a hard time. It creates a lot of stress. You know what, though? God can mature you through that process of dealing with those kids, because you're trying to mature them.
Friend, you are not in that difficult circumstance by accident. In his love God has either allowed you to be there or he has placed you there to accomplish his loving purpose in you, that of maturing you into a greater likeness of Jesus. That's the first lesson we need to learn.
We need to remember God's loving provision.
Lesson number two: We need to remember God's loving provision. The Israelites were out in the wilderness. They were whining and complaining. They didn't have any food. So what did God do? He gave them quail and manna. Manna was this substance that tasted like wafers with honey on it. God gave that to them every day. They always had what they needed. It was abundant.
Here's the theological truth: Because God loves us, he does not always give us what we want; he always gives us what we need. Like any smart parent, God knows giving children what they want isn't necessarily good for them. In fact, one of the best ways to create a grumbling, complaining, discontented adult is for a parent to give that individual whatever he wants when he's a child.
J. M. Barrie was an English playwright who, on one occasion, was visiting the home of a family he knew. The wife said to her young son, who was sitting nearby, "Stop eating that candy or you'll be sick tomorrow." "No," said the boy as he calmly went on eating, "I shall be sick tonight." Barry was so struck by that exchange, he took that episode and put it in his play Peter Pan. God will not necessarily give us what we want. He will always provide for our needs. And what he wants us to do is to remember that and develop a sense of gratitude in response to that.
Look at Exodus 16:32–36. After having provided the children of Israel with all this manna, notice what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to do. "Moses said, 'This is what the Lord has commanded: Take an omer of manna and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the desert when I brought you out of Egypt.' So Moses said to Aaron, 'Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.' As the Lord commanded Moses, Aaron put the manna in front of the Testimony, that it might be kept. The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled; they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan."
God wanted them to take the manna, put it in a jar, and place it in the Testimony—which is by the Ark of the Covenant, which they always carried with them—so they would remember God's loving provision. As a result, they would develop a sense of gratitude for God's loving provision.
I have a young friend named Matt who's 11 years old. When he was five, his dad died. And over the last couple years, I've been a mentor, maybe even a little bit of a father figure to him. He's a great kid, has lots of great qualities, one of which is that he is thankful to do stuff with other people.
He's a good little golfer for his ago, so recently, when I was going to play golf on a par three, I called him and said, "Do you want to go?" He said, "Sure." So I picked him up, and we went out. We hit some golf balls and played around. Afterwards on the way home, he must have told me five or six times, "Scott, thanks a lot for taking me. This was really fun. Thanks a lot, Scott. I really appreciate this. This was really fun. Thanks so much for taking me. This was really fun. I really enjoyed it." You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to turn the car around and go back and play round two. And I would have except that on round one he beat the tar out of me.
Here's a question I have for all of us. How has the Lord in his love graciously provided for your needs in the past? And have you thanked him for that? Are you developing a sense of gratitude for God's loving provision?
We need to learn about God's loving purpose, which is maturity. We need to learn about God's loving provision to meet our needs.
We need to recognize God's loving presence.
The third lesson we need to learn, regardless of our circumstances, is to recognize God's loving presence. In Exodus 17, in the first couple verses, Israel went to Rephidim. And as we already read, they arrived, and, once again, there was no water. And they whined and grumbled and complained against Moses. "Why have you brought us out here? We're all going to die, our kids and our livestock, because there's no water." So God told Moses to go to Horeb and strike the rock with his staff, and the water poured out on Israel.
But look at verse 7, which is the end of the narrative. "And [Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah," which means testing and quarreling, "because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, 'Is the Lord among us, or not?'"
Their sin was that they got so caught up in their circumstances—their thirst and their search for water, their ongoing discontent—that they forgot the presence of God with them. But he hadn't abandoned them. He had not forgotten them. He was always with them, leading them, guiding them, protecting them, providing for them.
From the perspective of the New Testament, Jesus said the same thing to us. I'm with you till the end of the age. I'll never leave you nor forsake you. I have the very hairs of your head numbered. I know what kind of shampoo is best for you.
Here's the theological truth. When we're out in the wilderness of life—and there are going to come times when we are, when we're out in the wilderness and we're really thirsty—let's try to recognize God's loving presence, because we belong to him. We're his children. He'll never leave us or forsake us. He's always there with us. He's always there for us.
If you and I want to be saved from a life of disillusionment and disappointment and discontent, all we need to do is run to the loving arms of Jesus. What we need to do is learn about his loving purpose. Remember his loving provision. Recognize his loving presence. We find our rest in him.
How is your contentment gauge? Is it full? Is it half full? Are you running on empty?
Run to Jesus and let him fill you up.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado.