God’s people whine. They whine all the way through scripture- Moses sniveling, “Why did you pick me?” The Israelites muttering, “Why didn’t you just let us die in Egypt?” The prophet Jeremiah complaining, “You never even asked me if I wanted the job!”
Whining has a long and noble pedigree in scripture. But what is whining? Is it just not getting our own way? The best description I’ve heard is that whining is just anger forced through a small hole. I like that description: Anger forced through a small hole, like steam forcing its way through a teakettle’s spout. Comes out all high and whiny.
And scripture says the Hebrew people were muttering, murmuring, complaining… whining. Why? Because they were angry. Why were they angry? Because they were afraid. They had not been asked if they wanted to be freed from their slavery in Egypt. They had been crying out in the misery, yes; and God heard them, yes.
But then they were hauled out of their homes, and thrown into a wilderness where they had no idea how to survive, how to care for themselves and their families.
When they were coerced by God and Moses to run away from Egypt, they took bread and meat; but 2 ½ months later, all the bread and meat is gone, and things are looking bleak. And so they’re afraid, they’re angry… and they’re whining.
Why did you bring us here to die? Why couldn’t you have just left us in Egypt? In Egypt, we had food. Not a lot of food, but enough to keep from starving. In Egypt, we had homes. Not the best of homes, but enough to keep the weather out. In Egypt, we knew where we were, and what was expected of us. We knew how to stay alive.
But here… no food, no shelter, and we don’t know what is expected of us or how to stay alive. The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know. Fear takes so many different forms: anger, hatred, frustration, complaint: The fear that our needs are not going to be met. The fear that we won’t be heard. The fear that we won’t survive.
You know what God does in the face of all this fear? God says, “Starting tonight, you’re going to get fried chicken every night and bagels every morning.” Well, technically, it was quail and a sweet flaky kind of delicacy called manna- but the idea is the same. I’m not going to let you starve. But the thing is, you have to trust me for it. You can’t store it up because it will just go bad. You have to trust me for it.
When I got to reading this story, it got me to wondering: what is the relationship between fear and trust. And I got to thinking that maybe the opposite of trust isn’t doubt, but fear.
Fear says, “I’m all on my own. I’m going to die.” Trust says, “I’m letting you into my life, and believe that tomorrow will come.”
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say that “Freedom from fear is more important than freedom from want.” They say that “Fear usually stems from our inability to trust that our basic needs will be met.” They say that, “Fear arises when we feel that everything depends on us.”
And God says, “It doesn’t all depend on you. I’m willing to feed you, but your ability to be fed depends on your willingness to trust that I’ll do it.”
And when we’re living in dread, that’s a really, really hard thing to do. When we have lost our home, when we have lost our job, when we have lost of life’s companion, trusting is so hard, nigh on impossible. But trust is the only way out of the valley of the shadow of death.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had been preaching in his home synagogue in Nazareth. After he finished preaching, his old friends and neighbors- the people who had known him all his life, said, “Who does he think he is? He’s just a carpenter, Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, Simon, and all his sisters. Who does he think he is?”
Jesus wasn’t able to do much of anything there- he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, but that was it. And so He left, frustrated at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6)
Until we step out in trust, nothing much is going to happen in our lives. I was reading an article in the Saturday Evening Post awhile back about the Placebo Effect. It was really interesting.
Dentists use ultrasound after oral surgery to reduce the swelling and pain. In London, some dental surgeons did an experiment with 75 patients. 25 patients got ultrasound after surgery… 25 got nothing… 25 were told they got ultrasound but really didn’t. What happened? People given nothing got no relief, but the people who got the pretend ultrasound had the same relief from pain and inflammation relief as the ones who got the real ultrasound.
Then there’s the Parkinson’s experiment. In the scientific journal Nature, neurologist Jon Stoessl of the University of British Columbia reported that he had given a group of Parkinson’s patients injections of saline solution and told them it was medication. What happened? The patients’ brains began producing more dopamine, and they got less shaky. Their improvement was the same as those who got the real Parkinson’s drug. Stoessel wrote, “the placebo effect is real, it’s huge, and it’s got a physiological basis.”
That step into trust, that expectation of good and blessing, is absolutely core to healing. It’s not all just make-believe: trust, faith, expectation actually changes what happens in our bodies, in our lives. When Jesus said He couldn’t heal people because they didn’t believe, it was actually true.
When I was a Sweet Young Thing, before I stepped out in trust, I was reading everything I could about Christianity. There was an evangelist who kept trying to share the faith with me, and I really wanted to trust it… but I kept tearing down every explanation of the faith she tried to give me. Finally she said, “Nansi, you’re smarter than I am, and you’ll be able to destroy every explanation of the faith I can give you. But is a good argument really what you want? Who is it you’re really fighting?”
She threw my spiritual quest back onto me. She was right: Did I really want to live like that, trying to tear down whatever word might be given to me? Because the quest isn’t so much about fighting back as stepping forward. Was I willing to step out in trust?
About that time, I came across something called the Agnostic’s Prayer. “God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” As honestly as I could, I prayed that prayer. I could have prayed it sarcastically: “God, if there IS a God, save my soul… as if I even have a soul.” I really DO have a snarky streak! But no; this time, I prayed as if I really wanted it.
That prayer was pitiful, but it was enough. It was enough to allow God to wiggle into my heart to start some transformation.
But we have to be willing to step out in trust. Like in Mark 24 when a father asks Jesus to heal his sick son, and Jesus replies, If you can believe, all things become possible. And the father cried out, Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief! (Mark 24:23-25)
Have there been times in your life when you really wanted something- something true, something deep, something life-giving? Did you step out, or did you draw back? If you took the risk, stepped out in trust, what did that feel like? If you stepped back- retreated into life as usual, what did that feel like?
The implications of this should give us pause: THAT God… can’t… doesn’t… will not… act without us willing to step away from our whining, step out of our fear, step into the trust that God is there for us.
My old philosopher professor, Diogenes Allen, used to say that God limits Godself so that we have to grow into what we’re supposed to be. That’s part of what love is: not doing for the other person what they should be doing themselves. God is not a co-dependent lover!
And what is it we have to do for ourselves… that no one else can do for us? Step out in trust. Put fear to one side, the anger, the frustration… the whining, and step out in trust.
Robert Raines was a Christian writer back in the 60’s. He wrote a poem based on Matthew 18:1-4, where Jesus takes a little child to Himself. He writes: “My three-year-old son feels like that about me. When I take him in my arms he holds my face between his hands and we look at each other. Kisses are enough to blow away his tears. How amazing that he trusts me who am not trustworthy. How awesome that he thinks I am stronger than the monster- that mysterious power which would hurt or scare him. But even the Monster’s power fades when he is with me, for I am his father. Can I be like my son and trust You and not be afraid?”
And God told God’s people whining and trembling in fear and anger in the wilderness: I will feed you. I will not let you perish. I am with you, and I will always be with you. Can you trust me for that?
In the name of the One who has always held us, and will never let us go: even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: Saturday Evening Post, Jan/Feb. 2013, Sharon Begley, “Placebo Power”; Robert Raines, Soundings, Collier Books, 1977
Scripture for September 17, 2017 EXODUS 16:2-20
Two and a half months after the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they found themselves in the middle of the wilderness with nothing to eat or drink. Everyone was complaining: “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? Moses, you’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death!” God heard all this whining and said to Moses, “I’m going to rain bread down from the skies. The people will go out and gather each day’s ration. I’m going to test them to see if they’ll live according to My teaching or not… Moses and Aaron told all the people of Israel, “This evening you’re going to know that it is God who brought you out of Egypt; and in the morning you will see the glory of God. God has been listening to your complaints- you haven’t been complaining about us, you know, but about God. But God will give you meat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning. The whole company of Israel turned to face the wilderness, and there is was: The Glory of God visible in the Cloud. And God said, “I’ve listened to your complaints. At dusk you will eat your fill of meat and at dawn you’ll eat your fill of bread, and then you’ll realize that I am God- YOUR God.”
That evening a huge flock of quail flew in and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew all over the camp. When the layer of dew had lifted, there on the wilderness ground was a fine flaky… something?… like frost on the ground. The Israelites took one look and said to each other, “MANNA???”, which means, “What is it???” They had no idea what it was. Moses told them, “It’s the bread God has given you to eat. And these are God’s instructions: Gather enough for each person in your tent- about 2 quarts per person.” The people of Israel went to work and started gathering, some more, some less; but when they measured out what they had gathered, those who gathered more had no extra and those who gathered less weren’t short. Every person had gathered as much as they needed. Moses said to them, “Don’t leave any of it until morning.” But they didn’t listen to Moses. A few of them saved some until the next morning, in case more didn’t show up. It got wormy and smelled bad, and Moses got angry with them for not trusting God’s instructions. And so they gathered the bread of heaven every morning, each person according to their need.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.