In daily Mass (Wednesday of the 18th week of the year) we hear of the grumbling that sentenced the ancient Jews to wander in the wilderness for forty years. They forfeited the very blessing they left Egypt to obtain.
God had promised them a land of their own, a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. At the critical moment, when God was ready to give it to them, they balked; they doubted. In their fear, they grumbled that taking the land might be risky or require effort. You would never know that God had just delivered them, parting the Red Sea, feeding them with miraculous food, and supplying them with water. All of this was forgotten, and they doubted that He could deliver on His promise. Let’s recall the incident:
God brought them near the borders of Canaan and through Moses instructed them to survey the land in preparation for taking it.
Moses gathered twelve men, one from each tribe, and said to them,
Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land (Numbers 13:17-20).
They returned with magnificent fruits but gave this discouraging report:
“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan” (Numbers 13:27-29).
Only Joshua and Caleb displayed trusting faith.
“Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).
“The land which we passed through to spy it out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them (Numbers 14: 8-10).
Sadly, the reaction of the group was fearful:
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt”(Numbers 14:1-4).
They want to go back to Egypt? Really? The God who parted the Red Sea can’t deliver the Promised Land? Apparently, they don’t think so. We may be shocked at their unbelief, but we should recognize that we, too, are of little faith despite innumerable blessings and signs of God’s love and will to save us. We worry when challenges beset us, wondering, can God come through? We sing hymns of faith at Mass and recall His deliverances, past and present, but in the face of bad news, we quake with fear and then grumble that God permits any test of us at all.
At this point, God has had enough. He says to Moses,
“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they”(Numbers 14:11-12).
Moses intercedes and God “relents” in the most severe of His plans. However, God tells him, in essence, that the people are not ready to enjoy His promises.
“I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live … none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea” (Numbers 14:20-25).
In effect, God is saying that if you don’t want what He offers, you don’t have to have it. If you consider the cost too high or the effort too great, then don’t bother. Go on living in the desert and fleeing your enemies. If you don’t want my help or what I offer, then enjoy the wilderness; it’s all yours. By the way, I see that the Amalekites and the Canaanites are nearby. You’d better start running. Retreat to the Red Sea!
If we refuse to trust in God, our fears will rule us. The only remedy to the enslaving effects of fear is trust and abandonment to God’s will. Our sinful flesh wants control, not trust. It wants to be confident on its own terms, not God’s.
For many people today, the spiritual warfare necessary to obtain Heaven is altogether too much effort. Perhaps we instinctively know that it will involve giving up some of our favorite sins or confronting our fears and sinful drives. Instead of zeal for the sake of the joy of Heaven before us, we yield to sloth (sorrow at or aversion to the good things that God offers us). The battle seems too difficult, the price too high. We begin to prefer the desert of this world to what God offers. We do this even knowing that this world is a sorrowful exile, a valley of tears. Heaven seems to be just too much trouble and our passions too strong to conquer. Never mind that God promises sufficient grace to win the spiritual battle. In fear, we doubt His power, despite the evidence of countless saints who have overcome.
We often grumble, saying that God is not fair or that He should not demand any effort of us. We claim that our fears are His fault due to the challenges involved rather than our fault because of our lack of trust.
Our grumbling leads to fumbling and to forfeiting our blessings—all because we will not trust God. Scripture warns,
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test though they had seen my works. Forty years I endured that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not know my ways.” Therefore, I swore in my anger, “They shall not enter my rest”(Psalm 95:7-11).
We who would put God to the test are ourselves being tested. Are we cowardly or courageous? Will we engage the battle or make peace with the world? Only the courageous will inherit the Promised Land; the cowards are condemned to die in and with the world they love more than Heaven.
St. Paul warns,
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10:1-13).
Do not grumble. Do not fear. Engage the battle! God’s arm is not shortened; His grace is sufficient. Trust Him who is able to save. The choice is yours. If you do not trust Him, your lot will be to live in the desert, always running from your enemies. It is clear: to grumble is to fumble. To be negative is to negate our faith; it is to block our blessings.
*Image: King Nebuchadnezzar as a Wild Animal by an unknown artist, c. 1400-1410 [J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA]. The image refers to Daniel 4: 25-35: the prophet tells the king that he will lose his mind and live like a beast for seven years. The illustration is from Rudolf von Ems’ Weltchronik or “world chronicle” written in the mid-1200s.