Scripture Focus: Numbers 20.10-13
10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. 
12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
13 These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them.

Reflection: Complaints and Responses

By John Tillman

Complaint is not always sinful but leaders too often treat it that way. 

The Israelites often complain. Sometimes their complaints are unjustified or overdramatic, but other times they concern legitimate needs. Sometimes God calls their complaining or grumbling sinful, but other times no condemnation is specified. 

In today’s passage, we see unhealthy complaining and unhealthy responses by leaders. Only Moses’ response, however, is condemned by God. Also, despite Moses disobeying his instructions, God still miraculously answered the people’s complaint. No one is a hero in this passage except God.

Healthy complaints come from reality falling short of what was promised. Israel’s promise from God, through Moses, was a land flowing with “milk and honey.” Not even having water was a natural point of complaint. 

Both times Israel complained about lack of water the confrontation got heated and personal. Both times they went beyond complaining to accuse Moses of plotting to kill them. Moses complained to the Lord in Exodus 17 that the people were ready to stone him. (Exodus 17.1-7) In today’s passage, he called them “rebels.” (Numbers 20.8-12) Moses took these personal attacks to heart, growing angry rather than compassionate toward the people’s legitimate needs.

God didn’t condemn the people or Moses for their complaining. He simply supplied their lack. At Rephidim, The Lord stood beside Moses as he struck a rock to bring forth water. At Meribah, God instructed Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water. It is a tender and god-like act to speak things into being, but Moses rejects this plan, opting for a show of force. 

Moses speaks to the people instead of to the rock. Instead of speaking words of life, bringing life-giving water, he speaks harsh, brash, and prideful words. He defends his honor instead of honoring God. He proclaims his power, his ability, and his “righteousness” instead of demonstrating trust in God.

God says to Moses, “You didn’t trust me. You didn’t honor me. But I will still be faithful to the people and supply what they complain for. I will still be faithful to my promise and bring them into the land.” (Numbers 20.12)

For followers and leaders, complaining legitimately and responding honorably are difficult. When the reality of our world does not match the promises of God, complaint can be a spiritual practice rather than a sin. When we complain, instead of calling into question God’s holiness, we can point to God’s holiness as a reason for him to act.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting

To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy. — Psalm 123.1-3

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Numbers 20 (Listen – 4:15)
Psalm 58-59 (Listen – 3:32)

Read more about Complaining in Prayer
Have you ever wondered if it was appropriate to express your thoughts, feelings, and darkest emotions to God?

Read more about Complaint to Commission
Complaining can turn into unspiritual grumbling but it can also initiate lament in our lives and communities.