Strength for the Journey: “A Season of Discontent” (Part Two) – Numbers 11

franklinBenjamin Franklin once wrote: “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.” It is possible that you have complained once or twice in your life… or this week… or before you arrived this morning? We seem to live in a world designed for our convenience, and filled with our complaints. What is happening to us? For many of us, the problem is simple – it is a MARGIN problem. Dr. Richard Swenson wrote a book in 2004 that sold hundreds of thousands of copies called simply: Margin. The byline on the front of the book read: “Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Resources to Overloaded Lives.” I bought the book a few years ago, as I was studying stress and its effects on marriage and family. It opens this way:

The conditions of modern-day living devour margin. If you are homeless, we send you to a shelter. If you are penniless, we offer you food stamps. If you are breathless, we connect you to oxygen. But if you are margin-less, we give you one more thing to do…Margin-less is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the bank, because you were ten minutes late dropping the kids off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station – and you forgot your wallet. Margin, on the other hand, is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence.

Margin-less is the baby crying and the phone ringing at the same time; margin is Grandma taking the baby for the afternoon. Margin-less is being asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift; margin is a friend to carry half the burden. Margin-less is not have time to finish the book you are reading on stress; margin is having the time to read it twice.

Margin-less is fatigue; margin is energy. Margin-less is red ink; margin is black ink. Margin-less is hurry; margin is calm. Margin-less is anxiety; margin is security. Margin-less is culture; margin is counter-culture. Margin-less is the disease of the new millennium; margin is its cure.

Most of us understand exactly what Dr. Swenson was writing about. We live in a time when bleeding ulcers and irritable colons are becoming commonplace – and we cannot seem to slow life down and set up the systems necessary to deal with the constant onslaught of hassles. When we are stressed to the limit, we find ourselves complaining. Sometimes we even turn to Heaven with a bitter heart. Yet, not all complaints are a reflection of a bad heart, or a struggle with evil. Sometimes even the best of us become overworked, and overburdened – and the cloth of life wears thin.

I deliberately broke the teaching of Numbers 11 into two lessons, because the passage contains two distinct kinds of complaints. In our last lesson, we highlighted the complaints that came from a heart that didn’t trust God – a believer that failed to understand the goodness of God in their daily life. In this lesson, I want to highlight a believer that was beat down – overburdened and in serious need of a time of “honest praise”. Honest praise is the ability to empty ourselves before God and let Him build up what has broken inside us. Here is the key…

Key Principle: Not all complaints are the same. The heart they come from changes the response we get. Those out of a cold heart toward God, block God’s work in and through us because of our self-centered spirit. He withdraws His blessing and stops teaching us. Yet, when we crumble under the load of real ministry– it is a different story. God offers new resources and new instruction.

On the surface, all complaints may look the same – but they really aren’t. There may be similarities, but that doesn’t mean they are truly the same. Look at yourself in the mirror. Now look at a chimpanzee picture from a local zoo. You get the idea…

How complaints are similar

In our last study, we noted the first mentioned complaints that got an answer from the heavens were about the discomfort of the journey (11:1-3). The people were about eight miles into the journey, and they began to harangue God about discomfort. Because the sound of complaining is about something that hurts us or makes us uncomfortable – it may seem like all complaints are alike. On closer inspection, we noted in our last study the people were leaving the “domain of the gods of Egypt” and were now forced to show trust to the God of Abraham for the trip. These were complaints that assumed God could not do something, that doubted His character – and Heaven viewed those harshly. Next, when the people complained about the conditions –they again were complaining about the character of God. At first glance it appears the people complained about the MENU, but on closer inspection, they asked WHO will feed us – for they were complaining about the CHEF above. Their complaints were doubts of God’s goodness and God’s ability.

Yet, there were other complaints in the text that we did NOT address – those from Moses himself…

A different kind of complaint

Moses offered complaints about the workload to God, and God did not rain down fire from heaven. My question is “Why?” What was different about the complaining voice of Moses?

Look at the text again in Numbers 11:10 “Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased.

The complaint of Moses to God came from the painful sound of whining and complaining in others. He wasn’t telling God about the conditions, but about the people. The SINS OF OTHERS became the weight on his heart. He was “made MISERABLE” (the word “displeases is Ra’, or evil) by the sounds of the camp. His complaint wasn’t the food or the chef- it was a complaint that the work was TOO HARD for him – he lacked the resources to deal with the problems.

Every believer will face what Moses faced – a sense of overwhelming need and limited self. People can sin faster than we can sort it all out. One lie becomes six while we are dealing with the effects of the first. Gossip can light up phone lines, even when the substance is flatly false or the details mangle the original intent of the story. I don’t have a way to illustrate this more vividly than this: Recently I spent significant resources of time explaining that I wasn’t leaving Grace Church or the ministry – simply because of a story of another Pastor at another church. Gossip flew about, and my name got attached to situations I had no knowledge of, let alone participation in. The bottom line was this: a fire was set by tongues, and resources were needed to put that fire out. I began answering inquiries and making it clear that lines were crossed in communication. I tried to do it with humor, and even that backfired a few times.

Note that Numbers 11:10 made clear that God wasn’t happy with what He heard either. He understood the burden of Moses, and let Moses learn to take his hurt to God…

Numbers 11:11 So Moses said to the LORD, “Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? 12 “Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’? 13 “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ 14 “I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. 15 “So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.

On first glance, Moses words sound pretty bad– don’t they? He sounds like he is accusing God of dumping people on his lap, and then sticking him with the role of provider. Yet, there is a difference. If we don’t rush past this passage, we will see it, and in the process pick up some vital lessons about an overburdened life. Let me suggest FOUR LESSONS:

Lessons for the Overburdened Life

Lesson One: There is a place we can take the pain of life.

Verse 11 simply says “So Moses said to the LORD”. Note the word at the beginning SO. Because problems overtake us, there is a God-given response. Moses knew it – it was to fall before God. Our Maker is NOT worried that He won’t have all the answers we need. Remember this: “God believes in me; therefore, my situation is never hopeless.” ’We are allowed and heartily encouraged to bring our complaints to God, if we recognize Who God is. Moses didn’t LIKE the position he was in – it was painful and disappointing. At the same time, SHARING SORROW makes half a sorrow. We are designed to feel weight lift when we verbalize it – even if the conditions don’t change in that instant. Sometimes talking a problem through helps us to work through the issue. Often, when we verbalize a complaint to God, we – maybe for the very first time – can hear how dumb we sound! Don’t lose track, though, of the point. There is a place to take our pain – and God will hear us. Complaining voices are often people in desperate need of an extended prayer time. Because of that, I want to deliberately encourage you to get on your knees and watch the burdens get lighter.

Lesson Two: Straight talk to God about our feelings is what God wants to hear.

Verse 11 continues with questions of Moses: ” “Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me?” Look at the two questions. The first one is not quantitative – it is emotional. Why have you placed me in a position that seems beyond my ability to deal with? This is an important question because many believers have been improperly taught God’s Word.

People misquote God on the issue of TROUBLE all the time. They claim that God promised never to put them in a situation they cannot handle. That is flatly untrue. What the Bible consistently says is this: 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” This gets pushed into statements like ‘God will never give you more than you can handle’. The basis for such interpretation is this: the term peirázō originally meant either test or tempt. One Greek lexicon used for study (found in of the New Testament notes: “Context alone determines which sense is intended, or if both apply simultaneously.”

What is the context of the statement of 1 Corinthians 10:13? Look at the verses just before it: “6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.

Let me say it clearly: God didn’t promise to keep you from any circumstance you cannot handle.

In fact, the truth is the opposite – “Without Me, you can do nothing!” the Savior said in John 15. If we could pull off life without God’s power, without His presence and without His purposes – we wouldn’t need Him. We can’t do it, and God didn’t promise it. Let us pause for a moment and remember: Life is too big for us. It is too hard for us. We cannot do it alone, but as Paul reminded the Philippians “we can do all things through Christ who empowers us.” IF YOU FEEL OVER YOUR HEAD, YOU ARE IN A PERFECT POSITION TO TAKE GOD SERIOUSLY.

Stop thinking that you should be able to “do life” as an adult on your own. You don’t have the power, and you don’t have the ability. Get over yourself and get into Him! He will provide an escape from temptation, but will NOT make it possible for you to accomplish your life mission apart from constant, desperate, and thorough leaning on HIM.

Lesson Three: We learn that PRAISE is a word about intimacy – not just a “feel good time”.

Listen to the words of Moses. Can you hear exhaustion and desperation bordering on collapse? How can we speak of “praise” in such a context? He said: Numbers 11:12 “Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’?

Moses appears to be laying down some heavy complaints – but he is actually praising God. The ancient Hebrew vocabulary included seven different words that are all translated in our Bible as “praise”. One of the most common ones, “tehillah” is a word that implies to “pour myself out” before God – often in a quiet and reflective way, or perhaps even through tears and pain. “Yadah” implies that I will use my hands in clapping, “barach” is pronounced praise with a strong or loud noise. “Halal” and Shebach are “boisterous boasts” in the Lord, showy praise for God’s goodness and character. The point: Not all praise is happy. Some of it is an honest leveling with God as to where we are in life’s journey. God doesn’t get angry at us – even when we are a bit dramatic and over the top. Remember, from where He sits, none of our problems are particularly hard to solve – no matter what they appear to be to us. The reason the Psalmist could “continually praise” the Lord is that he didn’t define all praise as happy.

Moses pointed out that the people WERE NOT HIS. In this he is exactly correct – they are God’s people. Moses pointed out that God made the promises to the fathers – not him. Again, he was correct. When our hearts are broken and our lives are stressed out, we must remember that the burden of life is not ours to carry, but rather ours to marvel as God carries it all. We must be faithful to serve our one and only Master, but we must not fall victim to OWNING the work. My children are not my own – they are His. I am a steward – nothing more. I must remember that my wife, my cars, my home, all that I have –also belongs exclusively to Him. I am the manager, but He is the owner. When something happens that I cannot and do not control – the owner knows. When I do not follow through on responsibility – the owner also knows. No matter what it looks like, no matter who blames me – God knows what IS my fault, and what is not, what IS my responsibility – and what is someone else’s improper boundary.

Let us rehearse this aloud: If I am a steward, I must live this life seeking God’s approval, and doing God’s bidding. I should not own responsibilities HE does not give me, but I must also not shirk the responsibilities He HAS assigned to me. Life is simpler when I recognize WHOSE approval I ultimately seek.

Lesson Four: We grow to recognize that as we lay things out before God, we reveal the real problems at the heart of our complaints.

Moses needed resources, and Moses desired assistance. He was a man in desperate need of a good team of ministry around him. He said: Numbers 11:13 “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ 14 “I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. 15 “So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.”

As he verbalized his feeling before God, it became perfectly clear – he wasn’t trying to take on more than his job – he was unfairly matched to the size of God’s appointed responsibility and was throwing himself on the mercy of God to get him through the day. If you have every found yourself in this position, you know there are some good things that can come from it. It is a humbling experience, and God gives grace to the humble. It is a clarifying experience, and good leaders need to learn to be clear about the problems in order to affect solutions. Many will find symptoms of the problem, but the leader needs to carefully follow the symptom trails all the way back to the actual problem. Time pouring out before God helps to set it all in front of both God and I, so He can do His work in and through me.

These four lessons are helpful, but the passage offers more. It pulls back the curtain on God’s response, and that is encouraging!

How did God respond to a believer who was honestly broken by the load?

Response #1: God assigned the part that Moses should complete.

16 The LORD therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you.

God didn’t simply wave His hand and make the problem go away – that isn’t His way. God instructed Moses how to respond, and gave him an opportunity to participate in the answer to the problem. God let Moses help build a system that would alleviate the struggle in the future. He added to Moses ability by TAKING AWAY some of his control and participation. Moses gave up control in exchange for peace. Micromanagers cannot build teams – because they need full control. Disciple makers and mentors need to be able to surrender parts of the work to others – or they will burn out.

That isn’t as intuitive as it seems. The spontaneous response of our modern culture is to add detail to our lives – more choices, more options, more commitments, more purchases, more jobs. God did the opposite for Moses – and TOOK HIM OUT of the path. True, Moses had to gather the men together. Yet, after that, God took work OFF of him through this process. The key was that God gave Moses the choice to obey and simplify or fully control and keep all the stress.

Let me ask you a question: Are you overburdened because you won’t give up control of everything?

There are two truths that must be carefully pondered about modern life. First, Humans have a limited capacity for meaningful productivity, and second, few modern men and women seem to know when they are reaching their capacity. We commit to too much, want too many options and live in too much complexity. We sleep too little and waste too much time in meaningless entertainments that we cannot even remember. Tell me how many TV shows you can even recall the next day? For most modern people, there is a nostalgic longing for simpler times…One of the great secrets of days long past was that in fewer choices is less anxiety. I am not arguing that we don’t like having greater selection – but the higher level of choice brings with it greater stress.

Think of driving down a street in a nearby small town. The houses are set back from the street with green lawns. The sidewalks run beside both sides of the lane. You can drive thirty-five miles an hour and still see the picture of the lost dog stuck to the side of the telephone pole… Now put yourself in southern California on an eight lane highway with two overpasses – one above the other. Signage on the lower overpass indicates the various destinations of each lane – and the choices are many – but so is the stress level. Cars are whizzing by and you are trying to figure out what lane you need to make your way into. You have more choices, and they all sound exciting. At the same time, you are more likely to arrive at your destination frazzled and undone.

One of the biggest reasons we have too little margin in life is our own inability to choose what we SHOULD be a part of, and to say “NO!” to things that we should pass by on the highway of life. For some of us, we need to be warned: Busyness can become its own addiction – but addicts aren’t peaceful people by nature. Perhaps we need to look at the part God assigned to US, and let others do the other part.

Response #2: God promised a real and tangible answer to the backbreaking load – it was found in other people.

17 “Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone….24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent.

God loves TEAM WORK. He multiplies the strength of a work by dividing the work among many. He didn’t chide Moses for saying the work was too great – He spread the work out. He took the load and re-distributed the weight with a system that would be more enduring. As we think about Moses with all his history with God and his great strength of character, forged in experiences with God’s power and enlightened with God’s Spirit within, we need to be warned – No person can tolerate ever-escalating overload without eventually feeling the pain of the weight. Dr. Swenson enumerated the levels of modern American stress:

• We live in a time with change overload – for millennia change was painfully slow – but now whole nations are felled in a single day. That makes the moves of any government administration more stressful, because we don’t know how far we can fall how fast.

• We live in a time of choice overload – in 1980 the average supermarket has 12,000 items; in 2010 that number averaged in excess of 30,000. There are now 186 different breakfast cereal choices alone. Satellite TV offered you 1,100 movie choices last month.

• We live in a time of commitment overload – most of us have too many relationships and too many responsibilities to do any well. We take too many courses, make too many appointments and try to be the solution to too many problems.

• We live in a time of debt overload – our whole country is awash in red ink.

• We live in a time of decision overload – each year we have more decisions to make, with less time to make them. This isn’t only about purchases, it is about health care plans, retirement options, real estate purchases, tax implications.. and that is just getting started.

• We won’t even detail fatigue overload, hurry overload, information overload, media overload, noise overload, personal interaction overload, possession overload, technology overload, traffic overload and work overload.

Even though stress and overload are everywhere in our modern world – it shows in different ways in different people. Moses internalized the weight and cried out to God to kill him – a sure sign of depression brought on by inner stress. Others show it in anxiety, outbursts of hostility and blame, or more subtle resentments. Overload turns work and fellow workers into the enemy – even if we love what we do! Part of God’s solution was the TEAM that Moses formed. Build one in your life. Cut out what you are doing that God hasn’t called you to do, and let others take a whack at it. Don’t be lazy – be intentional. Try doing less, but doing it better. Could it be that you aren’t HANDING OFF some work that should be someone else’s to complete?

Response #3: God offered Divine assistance to the men who were following Him.

God wasn’t done with the formation of the team – He did something that made the whole work hum… He empowered all of them with His Spirit.

25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again. 26 But two men had remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them (now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent), and they prophesied in the camp.

For me there would be no greater joy than to see others learning to do the work, and empowered by God to do it well! I LIVE for such a day! The most exciting part of ministry is that God has a gifting in each of you, and He can energize you to do what no one else can do! Moses shared that sense of ministry, I know he did! How do I know? Keep reading!

27 So a young man ran and told Moses and said, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, said, “Moses, my lord, restrain them.” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!” 30 Then Moses returned to the camp, both he and the elders of Israel.

Moses was excited (not jealous) that others had God’s Spirit. God took Moses into the work that was too big for him, so that God could work on Moses’ heart and show him His faithfulness and inexhaustible power. God held him tightly, and let him cry out when he couldn’t handle the pressure. He granted Moses more margin in his life, because he brought his problem to the Lord honestly, and poured himself out before God.

Not all complaints are the same. The heart they come from changes the response we get.

Those out of a cold heart toward God, block God’s work in and through us because of our self-centeredness spirit. He withdraws His blessing and stops teaching us. Yet, when we crumble under the load of real ministry– it is a different story. God offers new resources and new instruction.