Selfishness, needless to say, has become an integral part of our culture. It is the American way, but it is not a good thing and I want to ask the question: why is our constant battle against selfishness so important?

Now the people began complaining openly before the Lord about hardship. When the Lord heard, His anger burned, and fire from the Lord blazed among them and consumed the outskirts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and he prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. So that place was named Taberah, because the Lord’s fire had blazed among them.

Contemptible people among them had a strong craving for other food. The Israelites cried again and said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the free fish we ate in Egypt, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now our appetite is gone; there’s nothing to look at but this manna!”

The manna resembled coriander seed, and its appearance was like that of bdellium. The people walked around and gathered it. They ground it on a pair of grinding stones or crushed it in a mortar, then boiled it in a cooking pot and shaped it into cakes. It tasted like a pastry cooked with the finest oil. When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it.

Moses heard the people, family after family, crying at the entrance of their tents. The Lord was very angry; Moses was also provoked. So Moses asked the Lord, “Why have You brought such trouble on Your servant? Why are You angry with me, and why do You burden me with all these people? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth so You should tell me, ‘Carry them at your breast, as a nursing woman carries a baby,’ to the land that You swore to give their fathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying to me:‘Give us meat to eat! ’ I can’t carry all these people by myself. They are too much for me. If You are going to treat me like this, please kill me right now. If You are pleased with me, don’t let me see my misery anymore[1]

Previously I wrote concerning the necessary separation between God and people because of people’s sinfulness. Because God is good, He separated Himself relationally from people who had darkness in their hearts. Jesus, God in the flesh, died even though he had no darkness within Him as a substitute for us so that we can once again have a relationship with God. For the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus had not yet died for the sin of humanity, so God placed His presence in the tent of meeting (more specifically in the Ark of the Covenant). He also placed the Levites between the tent of meeting and the rest of the Israelites so that the Israelites would not wander too close and receive God’s wrath. We must remember that light always overcomes the darkness. After this, the Israelites were given some commands, and in chapter 9 we learn that God was willing to lead His people. A cloud led them by day and fire by night. The people obeyed God.

Here in chapter 11, despite all that God had done, the people complained about the hardships they had in the wilderness. They complained about not having the right kind of food. Even Moses complained about all the stupid people he had to deal with.

When we complain

The very first thing I notice is that complaints are a sign of selfishness, and we live in a complaining culture! We complain because we have homework, when our parents want us to do something we don’t want to do, when our schools require too much of us, when church isn’t the way we want it to be, when we don’t like our jobs, and when we don’t like food or music. We complain because we are selfish. Sadly, I also think most people make decisions based in selfishness: trying to make things to be the way they desire them to be. Because of this, we must battle selfishness every day.

If we remember, God had called the nation of Israel to shake the world. He promised that all nations would be blessed through them (Gen. 12:3). This generation of people, though, were selfish and complained against God. This generation, it seems, forsook their part in God’s promise. As we will learn later in Numbers, not even Moses entered the promised land. This generation did not get to make a difference beyond themselves because they were concerned only with themselves. Here I learn that if I am to make a difference beyond myself, I simply cannot be selfish. I don’t have to have my way. When I do have to have my way, I only cripple myself: keeping myself from taking hold of God’s promise and plan for my life (and this is a plan greater than my own).

In my life, I know that I crave meaning. I also imagine that other people, perhaps even all people, crave meaning that reaches beyond themselves. This generation of Israelites only wanted to fulfill their own appetites. I might ask this question: If we only care to fill our own appetites; and that is where we find our meaning; what happens when this earthly body dies or when I am incapable of meeting my own appetite? The meaning I find for my life then becomes meaningless and I am empty. If I live for money, what happens when I am broke? If I live for a cause, what happens when that cause is either accomplished or stopped? If I live for pleasure, what meaning is there when I am no longer pleased? We lose whatever meaning we found in those things. Selfishness is meaningless. If I want to have worthwhile meaning in my life, I must strive to be selfless.

The consequence

I am not a consequentialist. I believe that we ought to do what is right no matter the cost. What is right is right because it is in line with God’s character. So when we see consequences come from God, we ought to pay close attention. When the people of Israel were selfish, God’s anger actually burned against them. Let us not forget that it was God who first showed selflessness toward us. He covered the shame of Adam and Eve instead of killing them. He blessed Abraham’s illegitimate son even when Abraham sinned in his lust. He rescued Israel from Egypt. He provided them food in the wilderness.

When we complain about trivial things and only pay attention to the way we want things to be, God is actually angry with us. Yet, He is still selfless and shows great mercy.

If we want to make a difference beyond ourselves, we must not be selfish. If we want to have worthwhile meaning in our lives, we must be selfless. If we want to please God, we cannot be all about ourselves.

Our story begins with Christ; it is through Him that we are returned to a right relationship with God. The next step is actually living to please God and benefit others; and to deny self. That’s really what being a child of God is all about. Loving God, and loving people.

[1] Numbers 11:1-15 (HCSB)

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