Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.
In the passage above we find God’s people well on their way to the Promised Land. Between their experience of God’s presence at Sinai, and on the cusp of entering into Canaan, we have a few stories, which are a portal into the kind of people God calls His own. Led by their taste buds and stomachs, the Israelites are aching for something else other than manna. Manna was the daily reminder for God’s people that He would provide as He promised. But for the Israelite diet, it had become boring to taste, obnoxious at sight, and repulsive knowing that the next meal would be the same. Perhaps visions of succulent lamb, fresh fish, sweet melons, and robust herbs flooded their minds while they munched away on manna every day, three times a day, with no break to the culinary monotony. God’s people had had enough, and the dreams of food that “cost nothing” actually broke out into conversations and audible complaints towards Moses and then, God.
“What I wouldn’t give to have that kind of life?” Have you ever heard such a phrase? Spoken it yourself or hidden such a thought in the depths of your soul? I believe we find ourselves thinking or saying such things in the midst of hurt, whether mild or great. Once the thoughts begin, it can be hard to shut down. The wheels in our minds turn and we envision a better life. We explore those thoughts–“This is not how life should be,” become, “I hate my life right now,” soon followed by, “God screwed this up when He took me down this road.” Between the place of pain and healing, a few pitfalls are ever present along the journey. And the pitfalls, make no mistake, are deadly. Pitfalls such as self-pity, bitterness, resentment, envy, and rage are likely, however envy is the most dangerous. Envy seems harmless, but left unchecked, gives way to isolation and darkness.
Envy wants to kill your soul. Envy has us look around and see what everyone else possesses or is in the process of attaining. Paychecks, cars, notoriety, significant others, homes, jobs, friends and social esteem. Envy is a balance ledger that always has us looking at the assets in someone else’s column and always seeing the shortcomings in our own. Envy has us thinking what it would be like to be someone else, and when that happens the consequences almost at once are severe. The mere taste for some fish, a few vegetables and a couple of roots have the Israelites wishing they were still slaves beaten under the Egyptian sun while they created centers of power and control, for a wicked ruler. The Israelites in this story wish to rewind the clock, and to be their former selves. The envy of their previous life has driven them to madness. Who would dare enter into a life of slavery for a few moments of pleasure?
Christian philosopher Jeff Cook notes that exile is always a result of envy. This cause and effect has been at the center of human history and began with our first parents. Adam and Eve envied that which alone was God’s. They pursued what they thought was a better life by another route, and in doing so Adam and Eve were exiled along with every person born away from God and the life He desired for His creatures. In our story, the Israelites envied part of their former life; interestingly enough their sin has given them a selective memory. Ironically, the Israelites wish to enter back into exile, to leave God in the desert and return to Egypt. Instead of letting His people head back to their own destruction, God in some ways gives them exactly what they want and it kills them (Numbers 11:33). Envy operates under the notion that we know better than God, and that is misery.
What delivers us from envy? Gratitude is the place to start, but is not the end. Gratitude is and can be a discipline, as Henri Nouwen says, “It [gratitude] is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.” Gratitude is not always spontaneous, but can be a measured response to all of life simply because everything we receive in life–great and small–is a gift (1 Corinthians 4:7). Nouwen goes on to say that gratitude can be a conscious choice even when we are hurting, when we do not feel like being grateful and our hearts are full of resentment. To practice gratitude is a choice. But gratitude is a response, or posture, to something even greater: trust. Trust, the confidence that God will keep His promises, is a hard thing. In their travels to the Promised Land it was probably a hard reality to look around and see barrenness, but only to hear that a land of milk and honey would soon be found. In the middle of a desert, little to sustain life and little sign of it, God was calling His people to trust Him because over the horizon was a life far greater and better for them. But instead of trusting the promises of God, the Israelites, and we too, believe the lie. The lie that God has withheld something better from us, the lie that God did not get our lives right, the lie that God truly does not love us. To believe the lie keeps us in the darkness, to believe the lie keeps us in exile, to believe the lie keeps us away from God.
This is certainly never the end! In our own exile, just as in the Israelite exile, God brings His people back to Himself. God actively searches, rescues and restores His people to the joy of life He knows we need. God sends His Son to tell us that the life we truly want, we truly need, the abundant life is not one in which God withholds, but freely gives us through Jesus Christ.
Cook, Jeff. Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2008.
Nouwen, Henri. The Return of the Prodigal Son. Image Books: New York, 1994.