Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aggravations of the Sin of Murmuring

The following is the next installment in Tim Challies' series Reading the Classics Together - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. I'll try to make each post readable on its own, however I highly encourage your own study of this Puritan classic by Jeremiah Burroughs.
(Chapter 10)

By "aggravations," Burroughs means "things that add weight". In other words, he'll be describing "things that make the sin of murmuring even worse than it is in and of itself". As if murmuring itself isn't evil enough for us, we sinful humans manage to aggravate it in several ways:

I. Murmuring "when we enjoy an abundance of mercy".
"...the greater and the more abundant the mercy that we enjoy the greater and the viler is the sin of murmuring....To be discontented in any afflicted condition is sinful and evil, but to be discontented when we are in the midst of God's mercies, when we are not able to count the mercies of God, still to be discontented because we have not all we would have, this is a greater evil."
In this regard Burroughs makes reference to events in his time and place in history to which we are not privy. What we can gather, however, is that the believers have enjoyed a period of rest from their troubles during that summer. He takes a rather unusual tack in encouraging his readers to not just consider their private conditions, but the condition of the church as a whole and the condition of their nation. His point is that we not become so small minded and self-focused that we lose sight of God's "public mercies," that common grace which He shows to larger society. Rather than allowing them to escape our notice we should be allowing them to "quiet our hearts and keep us from discontent. The sin of discontent for private afflictions is exceedingly aggravated by the consideration of public mercies to the land..."

Reflect for a moment, if you will, upon the great mercies God has shown to us in America. We do not have anarchy. We have a functioning governmental infrastructure. We have law enforcement, and national security forces. We have roads, means of transportation and communication. We have a government that comes to our aid in emergencies - national, local, and even personal. We have "safety nets" for those who find themselves unexpectedly unemployed, and a health care and financial assistance system for the elderly. We have education available for free to all children regardless of income level. We have freedom to worship as we see fit, freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, and freedom to come and go as we please. We are free at the moment, and for the most part, from the deadly threat of many of the diseases that were once endemic to North America: malaria, typhoid fever, polio, German measles, diptheria, tetanus, and smallpox, to name a few. We are not subject to genocide, or warfare on our soil. We have sanitation systems, ample availability of food in great variety, clean water, electricity, and indoor plumbing. I could go on, but won't. These are all general mercies, rain that falls on the just and the unjust alike. Contemplating them reminds me of God's great goodness, even toward those who hate Him or pretend He doesn't exist. As Burroughs says, "...all our private afflictions should be swallowed up in the public mercies."

And if we are Christians, our murmuring is greatly "aggravated" by the great mercies shown to us in particular. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will..." Eph. 1:3-11

"...but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, not that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." Rom. 5:8-11

We are told by Paul, in Romans 5 that reconciliation with God should be the cause of great rejoicing. And truly, what greater thing could anyone hope for? To have peace and fellowship with the Most High God is the greatest gift possible, a gift paid for by the death of His beloved and only begotten Son. To us who were His enemies, deserving of nothing but wrath, He gave His Son in order to give us Himself. He's given His Spirit to indwell us. We have the Holy Trinity. Is that not enough?
"And now has God given to you the contentment of your hearts? Take heed of being the cause of any grief to your brethren....God is very jealous of the glory of his mercy, and if any ill use should be made of the mercy of God after we enjoy it, Oh, it would go to the heart of God. Nothing is more grievous to the heart of God than the abuse of mercy..."
Consider Matthew 18:21-35, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, as an example of this "abuse of mercy" and God's response to it: "Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."

At this point Burroughs anticipates an objection to his statements thus far. In so many words the objection is, "Nobody knows my pain! You just don't know how bad I've got it!" I would summarize his response this way, "I may not know your pain, but I see the many mercies you do have. Even just the fact that you are not in hell at this very moment, like you deserve to be, is mercy that outweighs any suffering you are experiencing at the moment. That you have the gospel and salvation is an even greater mercy than that!" He compares our complaints as Christians to those of Korah and his company in Numbers 16 to whom Moses said, "Seemeth it a small thing unto you that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel to bring you near to himself to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord?" And I would refer as well to 1 Peter 2:9-10: "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light, who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy."
"Seemeth it a small thing" to us to have been separated unto God to be a royal priesthood? We have received an honor second only to that of Christ's, of which we are by no means worthy, and yet we complain.

Burroughs then looks to Job 2:10: "It is a speech of Job to his wife: What? said Job, when his wife would have him curse God and die, which was a degree beyond murmuring, Why, he said, 'thou speakest as one of the foolish women. Shall we receive good at the hand of God and not evil?' You see, Job helped himself against all murmuring thoughts against the ways of God, with this consideration, that he had received so much good from the Lord....you had better make God's mercies a means to lessen your sins, than to be the aggravations of the sin of murmuring." This is what he refers to as setting "one against the other," a phrase borrowed from Ecclesiastes 7:14. For every hardship you find yourself in, consider the many blessings you've known.

II. "When we murmur for small things".
"Suppose God gives a woman a child who has all his limbs and parts complete, a child who is very comely, with excellent gifts, wit and memory, but maybe there is a wart growing on the finger of the child, and she murmurs at it, and, Oh, what an affliction this is to her! She is so taken up with it, that she forgets to give any thanks to God for her child, and all the goodness of God to her in the child is swallowed up in that. Would you not say that this was folly and a very great evil in a woman to do so? Truly, our afflictions, if we weighed them aright, are but such things in comparison of our mercies....To be discontented when the affliction is small and little that increases very much the sin of murmuring."
For a biblical example of this aggravated form of murmuring, and God's response, consider the account of Ahab and Naboth's vineyard in 1 Kings 21:1-24.

III. Murmuring when you are gifted with wisdom and abilities.
"Murmuring...is too much in the weakest, yet we can bear with it sometimes in children and women who are weak, but for those who are men, men of understanding, who have wisdom, whom God employs in pubic service, that they should be discontented with everything is an exceedingly great evil."
Though he speaks in this section specifically to men, I would caution female readers not to take his words either as demeaning on the one hand, or, on the other hand, as an excuse to murmur because you're "the weaker vessel" (1 Peter 3:7).

IV. Murmuring though all God's mercies are given to us free of cost.
"...we are at God's table every day, and it is free, whatever we have. It is accounted very unmannerly for a man at his friend's table to find fault with things, though at home he may be outspoken."
According to Scripture, the only thing we have actually earned by anything we have done is death.
"For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:23) Yet instead of what we've earned, God has given us His friendship, the greatest friendship that can be given: "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). Imagine sitting at the table of the One who died to save your life and complaining about the fare!

V. Murmuring if you have received the thing you were previously discontented not to have.
"So it is sometimes with children, they will cry for a thing, and when you give it them, they throw it away: they are as much discontented as they were before."
VI. Murmuring if you have been raised up from and ordinary and low estate.
"It is an evil thing for people who had mean breeding, and poor beginnings to be so fastidious that nothing can please them....But it is very common for those who are raised from a low and mean condition to be more nice and dainty and more proud when they are raised than others who are of better breeding."
Once again consider the children of Israel, slaves whose baby boys are ordered to be slaughtered, who are forced to hard labor, now free and walking about with God in their midst and with all their needs met. Yet that was not enough to satisfy them. They wanted more. Manna was dull. They wanted meat. When God gave them the promised land, that was not enough. They wanted more, a king. And on the story goes. And we are the same. "If only I had a better job. If only I were thinner. If only I did not have this pain, or that wrinkle, or more children, or less children. If only that relationship were better. If only they were nicer to me. If only I had more friends. If only I'd had a different upbringing....And the list goes on. The truth is, if we won't be content in our present circumstances, with all the blessings and mercies we enjoy on any given day, we have no reason to believe we'll be content when we acquire the next thing on our list.

VII. Murmuring though you were a very great sinner in your former life.
"Certainly you never knew what it was to be humbled for your manifold sins, who are discontented at any administration of God towards you!"
This point certainly hits home for one like me, saved after 40 years of sin. The point is, the greater the mercy we've received, the greater the evil it is when we complain against God. It truly is important to keep in mind that we were once His enemies, and that it was only by His gracious choice that we are saved. Remember the seasons of your life when you walked in rebellion against God. Consider what you earned by your sin. Consider the One who took what you were owed upon Himself. We deserve nothing but death, but have been given life. He deserves nothing but glory and honor, but instead took our shame and death. He deserves everything - every bit of joy and thankfulness we can muster.

VIII. Murmuring though you are of little use in the world.
"We are being fed according to our work."
Consider Matthew 25: 14-30. God gives to each of us what we need to glorify Him, some more than others. When we complain because we've not been given much to work with, we make ourselves worthless by our discontent; we are behaving like the wicked, lazy servant in the parable. Our complaining reveals how we really feel about the master. We don't feel that we owe him anything from what's been entrusted to us, and expect to be rewarded though we've had a wicked and distrustful attitude toward Him. God gives more to those He intends to receive more from; but just because you've not received as much as someone else does not mean you have the right to be discontent and unthankful and thus to do nothing to glorify God at all.

IX. Murmuring during an affliction in which God's purpose is to humble you.
"Let me join with God in this work of his: this is how a Christian should walk with God....To observe what work God is now about and to join with God in that work of his; so that, according as God turns this way or that way, the heart should turn with God, and have workings suitable to the workings of God towards him."
Certainly this is a large part of what it means to be "led by the Spirit". Take a moment to read Romans 8:12-17. Notice that following after the flesh, which is the root of discontent, is the opposite of what it is to be led by the Spirit of God. Note also, at the end of the passage, that the Spirit leads us to suffer with Him. This is not generally what folks have in mind when they think of being "led by the Spirit." (It does not necessarily follow, however, that whatever path will lead to the most suffering is necessarily the right path either. Do not use the suffering, or lack thereof, as your criterion for choosing a path. Use the Word of God.)
"The great design God has in afflicting you is to break and humble your heart; and will you maintain a spirit quite opposite to the work of God? For you to murmur and be discontented is to resist the work of God."
I can be certain that God has a purpose in any affliction He brings my way. I can also be certain that purpose does not involve me complaining against Him. To fight against it is to fight against God and refuse to learn what He intends to teach me.
The harder I struggle against the purposes of God, the harder it will be for me to learn from Him. (I'm also sure that if God has truly purposed to teach me something, and I complain and resist, He will get through to me one way or another. His plan will not be thwarted by my resistance, but I tremble to think what may be required to put an end to it.)

X. Murmuring when it is unusually clear that it is the hand of God which has brought on the affliction.
"When I see the Lord working in some remarkable way about an affliction beyond what anyone could have thought of, shall I resist such a remarkable hand of God? shall I stand out against God when I see he expresses his will in such a remarkable manner that he would have me to be in such a condition? Indeed, before the will of God is apparent, we may desire to avoid an affliction, and may use means for it, but when we see God expressing his will from heaven in a manner beyond what is ordinary and more remarkable, then certainly it is right for us to fall down and submit to him and not oppose God when he comes with a mighty stream against us."
Once again we can look to Job for an example of a godly response to the overwhelming and clear evidence of an extraordinary providence of God: "Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.' In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong." Job. 1:20-22.

By way of contrast, look to the Revelation for the ultimate example of the ungodly way to respond to God's hand of affliction: "The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood,which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts." (Rev. 9:20-21) And again, "The forth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory." (Rev. 16:8-9) And again, "And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe." (Rev. 16:21)

XI. Murmuring when God has been exercising us a long time under affliction.
"So when you are first a Christian and newly come into the work of Christ, perhaps you make a noise and cannot bear affliction; but are you an old Christian and yet will you be a murmuring Christian? Oh, it is a shame for any who are old believers, who have been a long time in the school of Jesus Christ, to have murmuring and discontented spirits."
"But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliciton, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." (Heb. 10:32-36) "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1: 2-4)

Bearing up under affliction is something we should be getting better and better at as we mature in Christ. If we are not learning to be content in trials, we are missing the whole point. If we are trying to be godly, without seeking to be content, we are missing the whole point. Or, as Burroughs so bluntly puts it:
"When you have been a long time in the school of afflictions, you are a very dullard in Christ's school if you have not learned this contentment."

2 comments:

Lisa notes... said...

Nice analogy with the public mercies that God has shown to America. Even though there are many things we don't like, it's still an incredible place and time to live. God has been more than merciful to us here.
We are not easily satisfied with manna. And meat. And desserts...

I would enjoy hearing your story some day of how you came to Christ after 40 years. Have you put anything about it on your blog?

Laurie M. said...

Lisa,
You can catch some of it under the label "testimony" on my sidebar. You're always welcome to contact me via e-mail as well if you have questions. My road to conversion has been long and circuitous. Sometimes I think I might write it out in memoir form, like Augustine's Confessions (though it wouldn't be a classic of course), but...well I'm not sure it's worth the trouble or whether it would be edifying or of interest to others - or just narcissistic.

My own story is perhaps why the Puritans appeal to me. They had a category for hypocrites in the church. They knew they were there among them and preached to them as well, calling for self-examination. They did not automatically assume those who claim to be Christians really are, as we do in our day. I grew up never understanding that you could profess to be a Christian and not be. I never questioned it, until shortly before my conversion. I'd known a handful of "real" Christians in my life, and couldn't understand what made them like they were. I wish I'd understood sooner that mental assent is not the same as belief.