But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated.
Do you ever complain? Of course you do—we all do. We complain about our life, our surroundings, or the people around us? Not all complaining is bad: in the right amount and done the right way, it can lead us to make needed changes, to view things different, to help ourselves (or others) see a problem.
Unfortunately, it is quite easy for complaining to become a hobby. How many of us know someone who complains a lot, but they seem unaware of it, or would rationalize it as the helpful kind? Because people are so unaware that they have become “whiners,” it may very well be that we are one of them, and do not know it.
This is dangerous because, not only does complaining suck the joy out of life for us and those around us, it portrays a view of the world that is contrary to God’s intention. True, we live in a fallen world where sin abounds and bad things happen. To acknowledge that on occasion is not to be a chronic complainer. But to focus frequently on the fallen aspects of the world, and not on the glorious aspects of God’s creation, is a slap to God. It is like looking at a beautiful painting that needs some cleaning and restoration, discussing the dirt and ignoring the art.
Imagine that you and a friend visit the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, Italy, where Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is located. This renowned work of art was painted on the wall of a dining hall in the church about 1498. Over the centuries it sustained much wear and tear: it faded, flaked, had a door cut through it, French soldiers scratched out the eyes of the Apostles, and the painting was was nearly destroyed by a bomb during World War II. Restorations were attempted in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—some of which made the damage worse. The 20th century saw three attempts: the last was a major restoration that caused much controversy because of the dramatic changes in colors and shapes. Despite all this, the painting is one of the most famous in all the world for its art. The style, the textures, and the symbolism has been the constant study of scholars and art aficionados through 500 years. No one doubts the skill, the beauty, and the talent of da Vinci. The unique artistic elements and its history have even made it part of many conspiracy theories and rumors in literature and film.
Imagine that you stand, with your friend, before this painting. You are in awe. You are face-to-face with one of history’s most famous works of art. Yet all your friend does is discuss the damage, the dirt, the chemical make-up, the mistakes the restorers, and the loss of the ‘original.’ Interesting, but eventually you try to turn the discussion to the art itself: to the skill of da Vinci, to the beauty of the composition. To no avail: your friend only wishes to discuss the problems with the painting. Maybe your friend says, “yes, that is an interesting depiction of John,” and then immediately begins telling you what the restorers did the change the color and shape of John’s face. Yet all of that stands outside the painting as a creation of art. It is what has been done to it—it is not what the painting is, though it may obscure its true beauty.
To view a painting this way seems silly, perhaps, and yet this is what we do with God’s Creation. We focus on what is wrong, what obscures, and what has been done to God’s creation, rather than the work of art created by the Master Creator.
The prayer in Numbers 11.2 is a model for this kind of complaining. Immediately after the previous prayer (Num 10.35–36), which describes how God will defeat his enemies and protect his people, we read that the Israelites are complaining. It must be of the kind we described above—constant and negative—because it makes God angry. So angry that he sends fire down to destroy parts of the outlying camp. Maybe this was a warning shot by God, and it does have an effect on the people. They go and complain to Moses! Moses could have, perhaps, then gone to God and complained to Him, but he did not. Instead, he offers a prayer for complainers—an intercession. God douses the fire. Sadly, this story is the first in pattern that will re-occur for the next fourteen chapters: the people complain, God sends a warning, they cry to Moses, Moses prays, God relents. (At times, even Moses turns into a whiner—none of us are above it.)
Our reaction to this story might be to criticize the Israelites. What babies! Could they not see how ungrateful they were, and how much they were displeasing God? Before we become too self-righteous, however, we should take a good look at ourselves. The biblical story, after all, is not just a story about people long, long ago. It is also a story about us. It tells us what humans are like. What we are like.
There are two kinds of people in such story: those who focus on the problem, and those who focus on the art. Which do you want to be? The person who complains, or the person who offers prayers for those who complain?
Try this today: become aware of each time you find yourself criticizing, complaining, or being negative. Stop and make a note of it in your journal (or somewhere else). Don’t be hard on yourself: just observe. If you are really brave, ask others to catch you when they hear you complaining and point it out to you.
At the end of the day, take stock of your complaining. Were you an aficionado of God’s art, or were you a mere fault-finder? Were you one of the complaining masses, or were you Moses? Take some time to think of ways you can be more appreciative of the Creation today in all its aspects: not just “nature,” but people, life, work, and play. Then offer a prayer for those who, like you, sometimes adopt complaining as a hobby. Vow to be an “appreciator” of the Art of God.