by the Rev. Richard C. Eyer
“And the people complained . . .” (Num. 11:1) As we read the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament, it is striking to notice how often the people of God complained about congregational life as God had given it. They complained about not having the foods they preferred over what God had given. They complained about all they had left behind in Egypt when Moses led them out into the wilderness. Even Moses’ brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, complained about Moses, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Num. 12:2). It seems that complaint is simply the way of congregational life even between brothers and sisters who share the same faith. But the congregation of Israel paid a price for it. Most of them never got to the Promised Land and God struck them down for their unfaithfulness. As punishment, Miriam acquired leprosy from God as Aaron begged, “Oh, my Lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned” (12:11).
The Book of Numbers is surely the story of congregational life at its best and worst. It’s best was the mercy extended to sinners by God and the worst was that the people repaid God’s mercy with more complaints. I have to look at myself as I read Numbers and ask, “Am I also a complainer?” The answer is an unqualified yes. Ever since I first entered the pastoral ministry, there have been times when I complained about my disappointments with congregational life. Parishioners may not realize that pastors have their own complaints as well as the complaints of the congregation they have to deal with. So we all know what it is like to be frustrated, disappointed and angry that things don’t go the way we would like them to go in a congregation.
It is second nature to complain, to grumble as did the people of Israel in the wilderness. But as C. S. Lewis warned tongue-in-cheek, “It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it. You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left . . . just the grumble itself going on forever.”
That’s the danger of complaint. We make ourselves God, and it feels so good and righteous at the time, but it never ends well. Some people, even in this life turn into a Grumble! Others limp off into the bushes, whimpering about all they have been made to endure in the congregation. The danger of complaining about a few things is that it is hard to stop once you’ve started. It can easily become a way of life so that we complain about everything and our unhappiness feeds on finding more to complain about. Like Miriam and Aaron, we eventually turn against those closest to us. Complaint spreads with the hope that the more complainers we can get to join us, the better the chances of things going our way. But they never do. The one who grumbles most loses and leaves nothing but unhappiness in his path (2 Tim. 2:14).
One of the characteristics of a grumbler is that s/he collects injustices suffered in the course of congregational life. This collection of injustices is made up of the few or many times we didn’t get our way, or someone else got theirs, or someone did or said something that angered us. It becomes more and more difficult to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And because we do not let go of perceived past injustices, we load up the next complaint with all the past anger we have carried around for years. I’m not sure congregational life today is any different than it was in Moses’ day. We are a people in much need of God’s grace, forgiveness and transformation of life under the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But if we must grumble and complain let us be like Job. Job grumbled as he wrested with God, but was then transformed by God and found peace. Because we are forgiven sinners we too need to make our concerns, even complaints, known in a civil manner directly to those with whom we disagree. Let us not attack the person, but debate the issue. Let us not be dishonest and manipulative in getting others to speak for us so we can hide behind them. Let us not add to the anger inside us by storing it away for another day. Let us not try to rid ourselves of the person with whom we have disagreement, but learn to love them as Christ loves us even though we are often in disagreement with him. Paul speaks of “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other”(Col. 3:13).
Congregations are contentious by nature, sinful human nature. The accumulated effect over the years is to injure the very congregation we sometimes think we speak for. Efforts to force our way on the rest of the congregation only increase divisions and discourage those who come for better things in Christ’s name. There will never be a time when we can all agree, but we can learn to forgive and let go of things we can’t change. And letting go does not have to mean leaving the congregation. Where will we ever find a congregation where there isn’t something to find fault with? Rather, let us find what God has brought us together to receive: God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ as found in the communion of saints who confess their sins, find forgiveness in the body and blood of Christ given us in the Lord’s Supper and live in peace as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us love one another and pray that God will lead us into the Promised Land He has prepared for us.
The Rev. Richard C. Eyer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director emeritus, Concordia Bioethics Institute, Concordia University Wisconsin.
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 C. S. Lewis. The Great Divorce. Macmillan 1977, Ch. IX p.72