Britain is sometimes referred to as a nation of grumblers. Complaining about things is somewhat of a national sport. It’s raining? We wish it were sunny. It’s sunny? We complain about the heat. If I’m driving you somewhere you’ll hear exasperated comments like “indicate, why don’t you?” or “do you want to cause an accident?”. I’m not yet thirty and already I’m complaining about “kids these days”.
The British pale into insignificance, however, when compared with the people of Israel on their way to the promised land. In Numbers we hear:
The Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4b-6)
The Lord has rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and is taking them to a land full of blessing. Each day he gives them all the nourishment they need by providing manna – bread from heaven. Yet the people long for the days of slavery in Egypt. “We were better off there”, they say. “In Egypt we had cucumbers!”
It’s not just a few grumbles about physical comforts. The Lord tells us the spiritual reality behind what they’re doing:
“You have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”” (Numbers 11:20)
The Israelites are still in the wilderness. They’ve not yet made it to the promised land. But in the wilderness the Lord is with them. 1 Corinthians 10:4 tells us that they “drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ”. By saying they’d rather be back in Egypt, they are “rejecting the Lord, who is among [them]”. They’d rather have cucumbers in chains, than know freedom with Christ.
As we travel through the wilderness of this world, we too are prone to grumble. The Christian life is hard; we face trials and temptations; we can very easily take our eyes off the Lord. Rather than turn to him in our anguish, we turn away from him and grumble.
What is it that you grumble about? I complain about my job, ill health, wet weather and missed buses. I grumble about how much better other people’s lives seem than mine. In doing so, I forget all the ways the Lord has blessed me and continues to bless me.
How do we address grumbling? Not by excusing it (“everyone does it”), nor by blithely ignoring it (“cheer up, it’s not that bad!”). No – we take our grumbles to our loving Father, who never ceases to do good to his children. He knows that we live in the wilderness, but gives us the true Bread of Heaven to eat (John 6:26-35). We look to Jesus – and as we see him, we find that his goodness outshines all the darkness around us. Who needs cucumbers when you can have Christ?
(Reflections on “Cucumbers rather than Christ”, the talk given at Emmanuel Bristol yesterday. Further reading: Glen Scrivener on the Bread of Heaven and Dan Hames on what the wilderness years point to.)
That glorious city of light and love is, as it were, on the top of a high hill or mountain, and there is no way to it but by upward and arduous steps. But though the ascent be difficult, and the way full of trials, still it is worth your while to meet them all for the sake of coming and dwelling in such a glorious city at last.
Be willing, then, to undergo the labour, and meet the toil, and overcome the difficulty. What is it all in comparison with the sweet rest that is at your journey’s end? Be willing to cross the natural inclination of flesh and blood, which is downward, and press onward and upward to the prize. At every step it will be easier and easier to ascend; and the higher your ascent, the more will you be cheered by the glorious prospect before you, and by a nearer view of that heavenly city where in a little while you shall for ever be at rest.
God never ceases to do good to his children.
We had a weekend away as a church recently, and spent some time looking at the first chapter of the letter of James. We are to “consider it pure joy” whenever we face trials, because through perseverance we become “mature and complete” (James 1:2-4).
Christians will face trials. James says “whenever” you face trials. Trials will come.
When they do, we can view them in different ways. One is to see them as irredeemable difficulties, out of God’s control. Another is to believe that God is at work in and through them to make us more like Jesus.
James calls us to the latter, reassuring us that God has purposes in our trials. We can consider them pure joy because we know they serve to grow us into spiritual maturity, even if we cannot see how.
And so James can write in verse 17:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
It’s not a sudden change of topic, as if he got fed up of talking about trials and suffering and wants to turn to the good things God gives us. No, even the trials themselves can be seen as good gifts from God. God doesn’t change – one moment feeling benevolence and sending blessings, the next feeling vindictive and sending suffering. Rather, God is continually doing good to his children through the trials.
Paul writes in Romans 8:28:
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.
All things. Not just the easy and comfortable things, but the hard and painful things. Not just times of plenty, but times of famine. Not just times of joy, but times of sorrow.
The hymn-writers of old knew it. William Cowper wrote:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
An unknown hymn writer wrote:
When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply;
The flame shall not harm you; I only design
Your dross to consume and your gold to refine.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Cowper was depressed. Matheson was blind. Spafford lost four of his daughters at sea. Yet each knew the “streams of mercy, never ceasing” that flowed from the fount of every blessing. God was at work through their trials, and was with them in their trials. The same is true for us.
God never ceases to do good to his children.
Where are the young men and women of this generation who will hold their lives cheap and be faithful even unto death? Where are those who will lose their lives for Christ’s sake – flinging them away for love of him? Where are those who will live dangerously and be reckless in his service? Where are his lovers – those who love him and the souls of men more than their own reputations or comfort or very life?
Where are the men who say ‘no’ to self, who take up Christ’s cross to bear it after him, who are willing to be nailed to it in college or office, home or mission field, who are willing, if need be, to bleed, to suffer and to die on it?
It is not that in Christ somehow suffering is negated but that it is placed into the context of a larger, grander narrative. This does not diminish suffering, it is all too real. Yet in the walk toward the glory and the hope of knowing God in Christ without hindrance at the New Creation, pain is not the final word or reality.
Andy Shudall reflects on suffering and perseverance.
[I]f we are His, He will likely take us into Egypt and the desert….and He may well give us a much more difficult portion in this life than it seems many around us have been given, but we must listen to the Spirit’s wisdom from Hebrews 12:5-6: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son He receives.” Egypt today means Jerusalem tomorrow.
I’ve just discovered Full of Eyes, one of the best blogs I’ve found recently, belonging to the creator of this video. It’s worth having a read through the archives – heart-warming stuff. The entry I’ve linked to has further reflections on a recent theme.
Now Lord, I would be yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow your commands
Could never come from me.
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ.
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life.
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Corinthians 4:10-12)
The apostle Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to a church under the sway of a group of influential leaders, the so-called “super-apostles”. These men were highly impressive: skilled orators who preached a message of success, not suffering. In contrast, Paul looked weak and pathetic, and the Corinthian Christians were drifting away from the gospel as a result.
What to do? Paul could have pointed to his religious pedigree, his theological training, all the churches that he’d planted. Instead, Paul tells the Corinthians that they’ve got him exactly right. Paul writes later that he will “boast of the things that show [his] weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). Here he says that he is being “given over to death”, carrying around “the death of Jesus” in his body. He is weak – no, in fact he is dead; completely powerless.
How is that meant to convince the Corinthians to trust him? What is Paul doing here?
Let’s go back to the beginning. When the human race rebelled, death entered the world. In this world, everything dies – and when Jesus took on our nature, he wasn’t an exception to this rule. As Jesus died, he bore the full wrath of the Father against our sin. He died, as everything in this creation must.
Then he rose again into resurrection life, bringing us through with him. In Jesus’ death, the old creation died. As he rose, he ushered in a new creation which we belong to by faith.
Christians are those who are united to Christ. As such, we follow in his footsteps. In this world, there is a pattern that everyone follows – even Jesus. The pattern is death – and through death, to resurrection life.
Paul “[carries] around in [his] body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed”. Paul enters into death, following in his Saviour’s footsteps, because it is through death that new life comes. By giving ourselves over even to death, we model the pattern of our suffering saviour – and in doing so, our perseverance points to the resurrection life of the one sustaining us. Our suffering, and our endurance through it, points others to Jesus, so that they might be born again into resurrection life.
How do we endure, though? I’m a weak jar of clay (2 Cor 4:7). By myself I’ve no hope.
So isn’t it great news that the one who calls us to endure suffering, even death, has himself endured through suffering and death? Our Lord and Brother Jesus goes before us, and now by his Spirit he goes with us. He knows our struggles and sufferings intimately, sympathising with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15), and has promised to never let anyone snatch us out of his hand (John 10:27-28). Those the Father calls will be brought through to glory (Romans 8:30). We endure by his power, not our own (2 Cor 4:7).
When our endurance is down to him, it’s no longer impossible: it’s inevitable.
Brokenness is not the end of the story. Our pain is deep, but it is not all-encompassing; our loss is enormous, but it is not eternal; death is our enemy, but it does not have the final word. The wounded Lamb is also the Lion of Judah and one day he will reign in his perfect rule of love, peace and justice. Such is the hope of the gospel.